(Football season is finally approaching. After a long offseason, the Cowboys are set to depart for training camp on July 25. During this final month before they begin practice in Oxnard, Calif., the staff of DallasCowboys.com is going to preview the 20 biggest questions facing the Cowboys heading into 2019.)
FRISCO, Texas – Given the money at stake in this league, patience wears thin quickly.
You see it all the time, at the top of the depth chart and the bottom. Players don't get many chances to make a strong impression. In a world where the roster turns over every two or three years, that provides plenty of pressure, for a variety reasons.
Whether it's a contract year or the last chance to make a contribution, this training camp and this upcoming season could be big for a lot of different guys. These next few months will determine the career course for dozens of players on this roster – not to mention the Cowboys' fortunes as a team.
That leaves us with today's question: Who on this roster is facing a "make or break" season?
Bryan Broaddus: The obvious answer is Taco Charlton and I am sure my buddies on the site will go in that direction. But I am going to take a different path and say Tavon Austin. For Austin it's been an up/down time with the club. His trade brought optimism that Scott Linehan could find ways to use him in the scheme that the Rams couldn't. There were flashes of brilliance and then others of disappointment due to injury. Austin is at the crossroads with the club. There is clearly more talent on the roster with the addition of Amari Cooper and Randall Cobb. Young guys like Michael Gallup and Noah Brown are poised to have breakout seasons. That's not to mention Cedrick Wilson, Jon'Vea Johnson and Jalen Guyton. Austin is going to need to have a spectacular training camp before he can even think about having that "make" season. Austin has been working with Britt Brown all offseason in order to get his body right, so the commitment is there. He has the overall talent to separate from the others, but the question still is if that will be enough? We'll soon find out.
Nick Eatman: I stayed away from Taco Charlton, but this one might be just as obvious. Give meRico Gathers. After three seasons of working his way from the practice squad to the active roster last year, Gathers now enters his fourth season and not without a setback. If Gathers even makes the team, he will serve a one-game suspension from the NFL in Week 1. But that's not a huge problem, considering the Cowboys have dealt with several suspensions to start the season. But it comes down to Rico's progress, which likely took a hit when Jason Witten returned for another season. We know what the Cowboys think about Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz. So with those top three figuring to get most of the reps, Gathers once again has to outplay one, if not both of them. Maybe it makes sense to keep four tight ends on the roster, but that's only if Gathers has proven that he can contribute this year. I seriously doubt that the Cowboys will hang onto him for his potential. After four training camps, it's likely that would be enough time to see if he can play in this league or not. My gut tells me he will be on this roster in Week 2 after the suspension.
David Helman: At the behest of my esteemed colleagues, I'll tackle the obvious predicament facing Taco Charlton. The Cowboys' success in the first round of the draft makes Charlton stand out like a sore thumb. Injuries have been a part of it, but the bottom line is that we just haven't seen Charlton excel like other first-round picks in recent memory – Zack Martin, Zeke Elliott and Leighton Vander Esch, to name a few. Heading into his third NFL season, he has just 46 tackles and four sacks to his name. He also doesn't figure to be a starter in 2019, which isn't ideal for a first-round pick. Suffice to say that if the light is going to come on, it needs to happen soon. Being a first-round draft pick buys you a certain amount of job security – but only to a point. On a line with this much talent, it becomes difficult to hold on to a guy simply because you made a big investment in him. It doesn't feel like a stretch to say this season, and maybe even this training camp, could determine his future with the Cowboys.
Mickey Spagnola: Two guys quickly come to mind. First, right tackle La'el Collins, and mainly because he's in the final year of his contract. Collins is on the books for a $9.925 million cap hit in 2019, thanks to earning a $2.5 million escalator since he played more than 85 percent of the offensive snaps these past two years (100 percent in 2017 and 99.9 percent in 2018). If he has a huge season, two things could happen: One, that might encourage the Cowboys to pay top dollar to re-sign him, or, two, that might encourage another team to pay him more than the Cowboys can provide under the cap. One way or another, it's a contract drive season for Collins. The other guy is Taco Charlton, their 2017 first-round pick. He's going into the third year of his four-year deal. His 2019 base is guaranteed ($1.376 million) and would count $4.1 million in dead money on cap if released this year. But next year, only guarantees left are his $1.358 million proration of his signing bonus. So, stands to reason Charlton needs to have a breakout season this year to qualify his salary next year and/or encourage the Cowboys to pick up his fifth-year option for 2021. Otherwise . . . .