The Dallas Cowboys returned a multitude of starters from a 12-win team in both 2021 and 2022. Even so, there were still some spots up for grabs for the team Dallas will take into New Jersey to face the Giants next week, with the final roster cuts showing who earned an extended look on both sides of the ball.
Here is a look at four players the Cowboys could be counting on now that each kickoff counts for 2023.
RB Rico Dowdle
Rico Dowdle firmly won the RB2 job this preseason over Malik Davis. He was limited to some trivial special teams duty in the final tune up versus the Raiders. Prior to that, Dowdle had six carries for 21 yards against the Jaguars and eight for 38 yards at the Seahawks.
The Cowboys have always valued having exceptional running back depth, keeping Davis on the practice squad while Deuce Vaughn also steps into the RB3 role. Fullback Hunter Luepke made the team as a UDFA to give them a different look in the backfield as well. While the theme of this running back stable may be their versatility and pass catching ability, the Cowboys saw the impact a thunder and lightning tandem of Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott had last season and didn’t stray far without Elliott now.
Dowdle gives Dallas a physical back that surprises defenses with his speed on the outside, while also excelling as a blocker that isn’t afraid to drop his shoulder and do dirty work between the tackles. This RB2 role has been in the making for Dowdle who has been with the team since 2020 as a UDFA. He is another example of the amazing work the Dallas scouting staff does in finding impact players after the draft.
OL T.J. Bass
Another UDFA success story, Oregon lineman T.J. Bass had a clear path to make the roster as soon as he was signed given the team’s need at offensive line depth. Bass was a converted left guard in college, finishing his career as an all-conference tackle.
Bass’ best play this preseason came at guard, but his flexibility to be a backup at multiple positions made him a clear choice to fill out offensive line depth. If the Cowboys have to move second year player Tyler Smith to left tackle at any point, Bass could be next in line to fill in at left guard.
The Cowboys track record of finding offensive line prospects that can play more than one spot is among the best in the league, including drafting Asim Richards in the fourth round this year. Richards had a strong preseason at tackle and some guard, making the roster alongside Bass to give Dallas a contingency plan even with the loss of Josh Ball.
It may be more of a youth movement in the reserve OL spots then Dallas would prefer to protect Dak Prescott, but Bass hardly played like a first year UDFA this preseason, passing off stunts and being patient in his pass sets to control blockers with a wide frame and strong hands.
LB Damone Clark
Among the surprise Cowboys roster cuts was Jabril Cox, a linebacker that started the offseason with plenty of buzz for a year-three breakout. The 2021 fourth round pick had the advantage of Dallas being thin at the traditional stand-up linebacker spot, paired with the coverage ability to matchup in the middle of the field that Dan Quinn looks for in second level defenders.
In the end, the Cowboys decided to embrace their depth at safety to get them through, moving Cox to the practice squad to give snaps to Leighton Vander Esch and Damone Clark.
Clark is one of the least talked about pieces in Quinn’s defense, arriving ahead of schedule his rookie season the second he stepped on the field. Clark was recovering from spinal fusion surgery a month before he was drafted by the Cowboys in the fifth round, but still played more than half the team’s defensive snaps in eight of the ten games he appeared in starting with week eight.
Clark and Vander Esch give the Cowboys the range and size they need to show an improved run defense this season, with the team also counting on first-round pick Mazi Smith to anchor the interior defensive line. This base defense is just the start of how Clark can help the Cowboys defense though, as his speed and athleticism can keep him on the field in nickel and dime sets along with hybrid players Donovan Wilson and Jayron Kearse.
Clark is a great example of the depth opposing teams will have to scout when preparing for the Dallas defense, all part of Quinn’s plan to keep star player Micah Parsons versatile and in favorable pass rush situations without worrying about having a weak spot at linebacker - thanks in large part to Damone Clark.
CB DaRon Bland
Daron Bland was such a standout rookie in 2022, the Cowboys only needed to see 29 snaps from the Fresno State product this preseason. Those other reps were more valuable to see players like Israel Mukuamu, Juanyeh Thomas, and Kelvin Joseph in the slot, with Joseph since being traded to the Dolphins for outside cornerback Noah Igbinoghene. The Cowboys cornerback group will look more different than any other position from the preseason to week one at the Giants next week, as Trevon Diggs and Stephon Gilmore make their debut together as a top duo on the outside.
Bland isn’t the only player the Cowboys are counting on to handle the higher volume of targets that could be coming on the inside thanks to Diggs and Gilmore, also seeing veteran Jourdan Lewis ahead of schedule from injury to make the final active roster. Bland got his hands on five interceptions as a rookie, the kind of ball production that kept Dallas atop the league in takeaways for two consecutive seasons.
Generating turnovers is typically one of the most volatile stats from year to year for any defense, but with Quinn finding the players that prioritize finishing plays with a strip or interception, Bland is a clear choice to see an even larger role in year two.