Helman: Outlining The Cowboys’ 53-Man Options

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FRISCO, Texas – We’re officially in no man’s land.

It’s strange. For three weeks, it feels like training camp and the preseason is never going to end. Then, we play a few exhibition games, and all of a sudden the regular season is right up on top of us.

I know, I know. The Cowboys still have two preseason games to play, but the bottom line is that a week from today it will be time to cut the roster down from 90 to 53. Time flew by.

So with all due respect to Sunday’s game against Arizona and next week’s game against Houston, I wanted to take a look ahead. I want to know what the 53-man roster is going to look like.

To be clear, this isn’t a 53-man roster projection. There’s too much stuff that can change in the next seven days, and there’s too many names to keep track of.

What I want to do instead is look at each position and assess the decisions facing the Cowboys in each spot. That will give us an idea of what to look for as we watch these next two games unfold.

Without further ado:

Quarterback

What We Know: The Cowboys are going to keep two quarterbacks on their roster at the bare minimum. It would be silly for an NFL team to attempt to go through a season with less than that. As recently as Wednesday, Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones gave Cooper Rush a vote of confidence as the team’s backup quarterback. It’s a good bet he will back up Dak Prescott for a second consecutive season.

What We’ll Learn: Can Mike White do enough to justify a third roster spot? Heading into the preseason, it felt safe to say that the Cowboys intended to hold on to a guy they just drafted in the fifth round during the spring. However, this team has piled up the injuries in recent weeks, and White hasn’t exactly set the world on fire. It’s plausible that the front office decides a third quarterback is a luxury that can’t currently be afforded.

Bottom Line: Two quarterbacks is a given. The next week will determine whether the Cowboys carry a third.

Running Back

What We Know: This thing feels pretty much decided. Ezekiel Elliott is one of the best backs in the game, and Rod Smith has looked fantastic as his primary backup. We also know the Cowboys love to carry a fullback, and Jamize Olawale has been productive and versatile this summer.

What We’ll Learn: Who’s the third running back? NFL teams ideally want three, and the Cowboys have their choice between Bo Scarbrough and Darius Jackson. Scarbrough has to be considered the favorite to win the job, but Jackson shined when given an opportunity against Cincinnati last week.

Bottom Line: The Cowboys have carried as many as five backs in the recent past, but it would be a surprise to see them keep both Scarbrough and Jackson. It’ll be interesting to see if the 2018 draft pick can hold off the 2016 draft pick.

Wide Receiver

What We Know: For all the speculation about the receivers, the bulk of this group feels decided, as well. The Cowboys’ two incumbents, Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams, have had solid preseasons and work well with Prescott. Then there’s three newcomers in Allen Hurns, Michael Gallup and Tavon Austin who have all looked great during this month of training camp. That’s five guys who look like locks to make the team.

What We’ll Learn: How many more receivers are the Cowboys going to keep – and which ones? If an NFL team goes “heavy” at receiver, that typically means it’s going to keep six on the roster. Seven receivers isn’t an unprecedented move, but it’s not common. Lance Lenoir Jr. has been fantastic this entire preseason, and you’d have to imagine he’s in the process of locking up a roster spot. However, there are other factors to consider. Before he hurt his Achilles, Deonte Thompson was having a productive camp and brought a speed element to the offense. Noah Brown essentially hasn’t had a training camp, but his 6-2, 225-pound frame gives him a leg up as both a blocker and a mismatch against defensive backs. You also can’t completely discount guys like K.D. Cannon and Mekale McKay, who have flashed at times.

Bottom Line: The coaching staff has one, possibly two, roster spots available and three or four options to choose from.

Tight End

What We Know: For a team that loves to use two tight ends, Geoff Swaim and Blake Jarwin are the Cowboys’ top options. Swaim is the prohibitive starter, but you can tell from watching preseason games and training camp practices how much Prescott likes Jarwin. Swaim is more well-rounded, while Jarwin is arguably the better receiver. Both guys have a role to play.

What We’ll Learn: What will they do with the back half of the depth chart? Dalton Schultz has experienced rookie growing pains, but he has potential. Plus, it’s hard to imagine the front office parting ways with a fourth-round draft pick so quickly. Then there’s Rico Gathers. With any luck, the third-year veteran is going to play a ton in these last two preseason games, giving us a hard look at everything he brings to the table. You can easily argue that Gathers doesn’t know enough about the position to justify a roster spot. You can also easily argue that he’s such an explosive playmaker that it shouldn’t matter. The Cowboys are going to have to figure out which issue matters more.

Bottom Line: Three tight ends is a must, but can the Cowboys afford a fourth? That could come down to Gathers’ performance – or whether they see an appealing option during roster cuts.

Offensive Line

What We Know: Up until a week ago, it felt like we knew everything. Oh, how things change. It started with Marcus Martin going to injured reserve with a toe injury. Then, Zack Martin hyperextended his knee. The big news is obviously Travis Frederick, who disclosed this week that he has been diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome. That leaves Joe Looney and Connor Williams as the only healthy players on the interior of the offensive line. The trio of Tyron Smith, La’el Collins and Cameron Fleming looks solid at tackle, but the Cowboys have some issues to sort through on the inside.

What We’ll Learn: At this point, it’s too soon to say what the diagnosis means for Frederick. He said this week that his doctors can’t yet give him a time table for his return to the field. Can the Cowboys carry him on the active roster while he recovers? Will he need to be moved to injured reserve? And furthermore, how will they address their depth on the interior? Looney can start at center, and the hope is that Zack Martin will be ready for Week 1. There’s still a need for depth. Can Kadeem Edwards handle that role? Will the front office need to go looking for a trade? That’s all stuff to watch.

Bottom Line: A week ago, I would’ve bet big money that the Cowboys would carry eight offensive linemen on their roster. Now, it might need to be nine. And with Travis Frederick’s health a big unknown, they might have to do some deals to address the issue.

Defensive Line

What We Know: This is the most talent the Cowboys have had on their defensive front in six or seven years, easily. There was already talent on hand – and that was before Dorance Armstrong caught everyone’s attention, and before Randy Gregory re-entered the lineup. The Cowboys have four really intriguing ends in DeMarcus Lawrence, Taco Charlton, Armstrong and Gregory – and they have a team captain who can do a little bit of everything in Tyrone Crawford. Combine that with Maliek Collins, who hopes to be healthy for the season opener, and this is quite a promising looking group.

What We’ll Learn: There’s some work to do in figuring out the defensive tackles – and that may be impacted by players’ versatility. The Cowboys went into camp with Jihad Ward and Datone Jones as their starting tackles, but they lined up last Saturday with Antwaun Woods and Daniel Ross in the starting roles. With Collins injured and David Irving absent, Rod Marinelli doesn’t appear to have settled on anyone. And that was before Jones got injured in the loss to the Bengals. Woods has come on strong after starting camp as an afterthought, and Brian Price has had his moments. Like Crawford, Kony Ealy is a guy who can flip between tackle and end. Will that help him claim a roster spot, or is there enough talent among the defensive tackles?

Bottom Line: There’s not as much room here as you might think. Rod Marinelli has only kept eight pass rushers on the 53-man roster these past two seasons. Whether he keeps more this year will probably depend on how the coaching staff views the back of the depth chart. Antwaun Woods, Brian Price, Daniel Ross and Charles Tapper are all guys to watch in this final week.

Linebacker

What We Know: It sounds odd to say, but here’s another spot that’s more or less locked up. Go down the list: Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch and Joe Thomas are all locks to make this team. Damien Wilson also feels like a lock after a strong training camp. That only leaves one, maybe two spots for the rest of the group.

What We’ll Learn: Conventional wisdom says that 4-3 defenses like to keep six linebackers, but the Cowboys have actually kept seven each of the last two years. Part of that is because reserve linebackers make great special teams players, but will that be necessary in 2018? The construction of the rest of the roster will probably determine whether they opt for six or seven.

Bottom Line: There’s one, perhaps two spots available. Smart money says that Justin March-Lillard and Chris Covington are guys to keep an eye on.

Defensive Back

What We Know: We know the front end of the depth chart. Byron Jones and Chidobe Awuzie have been rock solid starting corners throughout training camp. Jeff Heath is a lock at one safety spot. And while Xavier Woods is currently nursing a hamstring strain, it’s not going to land him on injured reserve. Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis have struggled this preseason, but they provide valuable depth and they can both start in the slot. If there was any doubt whatsoever that Kavon Frazier was making this team, it’s gone after this rash of injuries at the safety position.

What We’ll Learn: Can this team get away with going light in the secondary, or will the Cowboys go with their standard 10? There’s a variety of options to fill out the cornerback depth chart, as Duke Thomas, Marquez White and Charvarius Ward have all shown flashes of potential during training camp. Safety is one, giant unknown, considering that injuries forced the front office to sign two newcomers this week to go along with rookies Kam Kelly and Tyree Robinson. Technically, Byron Jones and Chidobe Awuzie have the ability to shift to safety in a pinch, but it wouldn’t be surprising if safety is a spot where the Cowboys try to add a new name during roster cuts.

Bottom Line: It’s a good bet that the Cowboys carry either nine or 10 defensive backs, and seven of those spots are taken. This is a particularly big week for the undrafted rookies –Charvarius Ward, Tyree Robinson, Kam Kelly and Donovan Olumba – to make a favorable impression for the future.

Specialists

What We Know: Dan Bailey, Chris Jones and L.P. Ladouceur will be the Cowboys’ specialists once again in 2018.

What We’ll Learn: Reserve kicker/punter Brett Maher has had a nice preseason working behind Bailey and Jones. He has been reliable in practice, and he hit a 45-yard field goal on Saturday night against Cincinnati. It’ll be interesting to see if any other teams have interest in acquiring his services.

Bottom Line: Bailey, Jones and Ladouceur are going to serve as the Cowboys’ specialists for an eighth-straight year, which is a crazy amount of continuity for an NFL team.

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