FRISCO, Texas – I’m out of excuses now.
It’s a theme for every spring. The easiest way to avoid being wrong is to say “wait and see,” when it comes to Cowboys prognostications. There’s no way of knowing who a team is going to add in free agency, and it’s impossible to predict the NFL draft.
All of that stuff is over, though. The Cowboys have finished the vast majority of their roster churning, and the rookie class arrives in town on Thursday. There might be a change or two in the next few months, but for the most part we’re looking at the roster that’s going to comprise the 2018 Dallas Cowboys.
It’s pointless for me to throw “wait and see” out there now.
At the same time, it feels equally pointless to put out a 53-man roster projection – taking zero account of injuries, suspensions and the litany of other variables that will inevitably affect the final outcome.
Instead, I’m going to compromise. I’m intrigued by the roster the Cowboys are working with, and I want to try to project what it’s going to look like. Instead of trying to nail down 53 names, though, I’m just going to look at the positions on the roster and try to outline the thought process that might go into each one – with a guess at how this team might construct its roster.
1. Quarterback – The Cowboys’ preference for developing a young quarterback almost necessitates that they keep three on their roster in 2018. Mike White is a fifth-round pick, so strictly speaking there’s nothing marrying the Cowboys to him for the long-term. But still, they drafted him to see how they could develop him – and it seems unlikely they’d give up on that goal by September. Due to the nature of the position, it sounds unwise to release either White or Cooper Rush, unless you’re comfortable with the thought of them being snatched up by another club. Dak Prescott is the obvious starter. (3)
2. Running Back – There’s a fun wrinkle here in the form of Tavon Austin, who the front office traded for during the draft. Cowboys officials have stated repeatedly that they view Austin as more of a running back, filling the role that Lance Dunbar held here for several years. Still, for the purposes of this, I can’t help but view Austin as a receiver. He’s wearing No. 10, and I imagine he’s going to spend plenty of time lined up wide in addition to his backfield duties. Even if Austin is a receiver, though, this team likes to go heavy at running back. Ezekiel Elliott is your obvious starter, and the team traded for Jamize Olawale to be their new fullback. Rod Smith was impressive while Zeke was gone last fall. I’m curious about Bo Scarborough. He makes a ton of sense to be the third running back, but he probably needs to find a role on special teams to justify a roster spot. Trey Williams is still hanging around from last year, and the Cowboys signed Jordan Chunn undrafted out of Troy. I wonder if their versatility might help them in trying to earn a roster spot. (4)
3. Wide Receiver – Five receivers was this coaching staff’s custom for what seemed like forever, but the amount of talent on hand in 2017 necessitated a change. Having established that I view Austin as a receiver, I’m expecting this group to look heavy for a second-straight year. Looking over this group, there’s really only two guys who look to have absolute job security. Allen Hurns is playing on a $12 million deal, and Michael Gallup is a third-round draft pick. Behind them, I think anything is possible. I give the edge toward Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley in this competition, but I don’t think that’s a guarantee. All of the guys making up the rest of the depth chart have some unique intangibles. Noah Brown has size that no one else on this roster can match. Deonte Thompson has deep threat speed. Lance Lenoir has ability as a returner, not to mention chemistry with these incumbent quarterbacks. And the front office liked Cedrick Wilson enough to draft him two weeks ago. You don’t need me to tell you this, but come training camp this should be the Cowboys’ most hotly-contested roster battle. (6)
4. Tight End – Another wide open group – but with far fewer variables. I really think there’s only one question with this tight end group, post-Jason Witten: what exactly are we going to get from Rico Gathers in 2018? The former power forward is one of the freakiest athletes on this roster. He’s also the least-polished tight end on the team. There’s a reason why Stephen Jones and Jason Garrett gush about the abilities of Blake Jarwin and Geoff Swaim – and then mention Gathers as an afterthought. As a run-first team, the Cowboys like to go heavy at tight end. I think they keep four. I also think that Swaim, Jarwin and newcomer Dalton Schultz are virtual locks. If Gathers can progress in his development as an all-around player, he’s got a spot on the team, too. If he can’t, I wouldn’t be surprised if the front office goes looking for a veteran. (4)
5. Offensive Line – Jason Garrett’s favorite phrase – position flex! And the Cowboys have a lot of it along this line. You’ve got four incumbent starters, and it doesn’t look like any of them will be moving positions for the time being. Behind them, flexibility could be the key to success. Team officials see newly-drafted Connor Williams as a guard, but he was an all-star tackle in college. He could probably even play center if he wanted to. Newly-signed Cam Fleming can play both tackle spots. Joe Looney, re-signed in free agency, can play guard and center. And as much as you might want to joke about his rough day in Atlanta, Chaz Green has experience playing guard and tackle. I don’t know what the final group is going to look like, but all that flexibility is a hell of a luxury – and it should allow the Cowboys to go light in this group. (8)
6. Defensive Line – One way or another, this is shaping up to be the Cowboys’ most talented D-Line in years. I just have no idea who’s going to be part of it. Of course, there are some givens. Pencil DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Taco Charlton and Maliek Collins into the group. Given that he was just drafted, Dorance Armstrong seems like a safe bet, too. Behind them, though, talk about uncertainty. David Irving might be the most talented of the whole group, but I’d love to get some assurance that he’s going to be around for 16 games. Charles Tapper has obvious talent, but he has only been healthy enough to play one game in two years. Kony Ealy, Datone Jones and Jihad Ward are intriguing names from previous drafts, but do they have it in them to beat out some of these incumbents? What about these one-techniques – namely, Brian Price and Richard Ash – who fill a role that some of these other players can’t? What if the Cowboys bring back Terrell McClain, who was recently released by Washington? None of this even accounts for Randy Gregory, who is expected to apply for reinstatement to the league in the near future. Will he be at training camp? If he is, can he keep himself in line long enough to earn a roster spot? Your guess is as good as mine. But one way or another, there’s going to be some talent assembled in this group. (9)
7. Linebacker – Following the decision to draft Leighton Vander Esch, I think this becomes one of the easiest positions to project on the entire roster. You’ve got a surefire trio of starters in Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith and Vander Esch. You’ve got a pair of experienced veterans who can play special teams and make spot starts in Joe Thomas and Damien Wilson. That likely leaves one spot left over for a handful of guys to go after. The Cowboys drafted Chris Covington in the sixth-round of the draft, and they signed two undrafted free agent linebackers. They also have Justin March-Lillard and Tre’von Johnson, who made favorable impressions during their first seasons with the team last fall. More so than several other positions, this looks fairly cut-and-dry. (6)
8. Cornerback – Is this the deepest position on the Cowboys’ roster? It sure feels that way – and the front office didn’t even add to the position in the offseason. It remains to be seen how well Byron Jones is going to adapt to the position change, but there’s plenty of reason for optimism – namely, his impressive blend of size and athleticism. Behind him, the young trio of Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown is awfully encouraging. My guess is that six cornerbacks make the final roster, so that leaves two spots to hash out. There are several options. Marquez White spent last year on the practice squad after getting drafted in the sixth round in 2017. Duke Thomas showed a ton of promise before injuries cut his training camp short. Charvarius Ward and Donovan Olumba also signed on after the draft. (6)
9. Safety – For my money, the biggest unanswered question on the roster. As it stands right now, the Cowboys have one experienced starter on the team in Jeff Heath. Kavon Frazier is a special teams monster and flashed some impressive ability in the final month of 2017, while club officials have repeatedly expressed a ton of confidence in Xavier Woods to be their free safety. All that said, this doesn’t feel like the way Jason Garrett likes to do things. He talks again and again about how he wants to foster competition. Look at the situation with the receiver corps. This is not intended as a shot at either Frazier or Woods, but this hardly feels like a competition. Yes, Jones and Awuzie can play safety if need be, and the Cowboys added a couple of undrafted safeties after the draft – but that feels more like a contingency plan, not a genuine competition. When it’s all said and done, I think four safeties will make the Cowboys’ 53-man roster. I don’t know where he’s going to come from or when he’s going to be added, but I think that fourth safety isn’t on this team right now. (4)
10. Specialists – Alright, I lied a little bit. I feel perfectly comfortable predicting that Dan Bailey, Chris Jones and L.P. Ladouceur will have roster spots come September. (3)
There you have it. Fifty-three roster spots. It’s anybody’s guess how the process actually plays out once this team assembles in Oxnard, Calif., for training camp. But using this as a blueprint, I’m betting I’ll be able to follow the Cowboys’ logic pretty clearly when it comes time to make their cuts.