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Spagnola: Roster Decisions Just Don't Come Easy


ARLINGTON, Texas – If the Cowboys came here looking for answers in this final preseason game at AT&T Stadium Sunday afternoon, they didn't get many, if any.

Not when you don't play 35 of your frontline players likely assured of making the team. A few of those for injury considerations, then there's the two more still on PUP and four more, all considered starters, still on Reserve/COVID.

In fact, they just might have left after this 34-14 loss to Jacksonville, with the Jaguars first-teamers defeating the Cowboys backups 14-0 during the first 17:33 of the game, with more still unanswered questions than they'd like.

Oh, as a public service announcement, don't start pulling your hair out over the Cowboys going 0-4 in this preseason. The last two times that has happened, in 2018 and 2014, the Cowboys won the NFC East to qualify for the playoffs.

Now, in two days, by 3 p.m. Tuesday, the Cowboys will have to make those decisions to reduce a 77-man roster down to 53 initially, with some massaging needing to take place. Like cutting for a day some vested veterans they intend to keep – because they aren't exposed to waivers – so they can retain some guys nursing injuries the required 24 hours and then place them on recallable injured reserve for a minimum of just three games.

So remember, not all that takes place by 3 p.m. Tuesday will be chiseled in stone.

"The next 48 hours is clearly the worst part of the job," Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said, knowing the season opener against Tampa Bay is but 11 days away, though required by CBA rules to give his players the next three days off.

Let's start here.

Nothing taking place Sunday definitively answered the most pressing question: Who is the backup quarterback? Neither Cooper Rush, who got the start with the rest of the offensive backups against Jacksonville's first-team defense, nor Garrett Gilbert, previously the presumptive starter playing against the Jaguars' seconds, provided a slam-dunk case to be the guy.

Their performances were, well, meh, though Gilbert did recover to provide his first touchdown drive of the preseason and a one-minute drive at the end of the half to give kicker Greg Zuerlein a 56-yard field-goal attempt that went wide left.

There will be arguments made for each, which might force the Cowboys to keep both on the 53-man roster and/or peruse the waiver wire if a more experienced and capable quarterback should get released.

Then the backup swing tackle job. This is a two-man race between veteran Ty Nsekhe and second-year tackle Terence Steele, since fourth-round draft choice Josh Ball, still recovering from a high ankle sprain, would seem to be a likely candidate for recallable injured reserve. Nsekhe was one of the 35 guys rested in this game, which bodes well for his 53-man status. Steele played and did a nice job at left tackle, but frankly neither has played well enough to create a unanimous decision.

With starting guard Connor Williams still on Reserve/COVID and seventh-round draft choice Matt Farniok the only other legit alternative for the backup center position, Williams is likely the guy but not by an overwhelming enough decision to prevent the Cowboys from keeping Farniok on the 53.

Now, Malik Hooker. He was one of the few veterans to play in this game, his second since suffering the ruptured Achilles in Game 2 of last season with the Colts. He finished with one assisted tackle in no more than a half of play. Again, another hard decision, though his $490,000 guarantee might play a factor in his favor. And if it happens to come down to Hooker or sixth-round pick Israel Mukuamu, well, the rookie finished with six tackles, an interception, a pass defensed and a QB hit. Since Hooker is a vested veteran who would not be exposed to waivers, he could be a candidate to be released with an agreement to be re-signed 24 hours later.

But the safety room is crowded if you consider presumed starter Demontae Kazee is still on Reserve/COVID, presumed starter Donovan Wilson is out with a groin, Jayron Kearse is the next man up, last year's part-time starter Darian Thompson is a special teams specialist and then Hooker and Mukuamu. Also, know Keanu Neal, considered a linebacker, can play safety if needed.

As for kicker, after his first week of work in team drills, veteran Greg Zuerlein has shown he has sufficiently recovered from his early-May back surgery. In this game his kickoffs were strong, two landing in the end zone for touchbacks and a third returned from 5 yards deep in the end zone. And his half-ending 56-yard field-goal attempt was long enough, just hooking too far left.

Zuerlein's 8-for-9 effort in practice on Friday also likely put to rest the question of if he's ready after his initial practice effort going 5-of-8.

Now the most convoluted question becomes the intersection of a third running back, potentially a fullback and then keeping at least three tight ends. The loss of Rico Dowdle (IR, hip) clouds this issue. Are either JaQuan Hardy or Brenden Knox, two rookie free agents, worthy of a 53-man spot? Might instead would McCarthy prefer a fullback on the roster, and with Sewo Olonilua now on IR, might the Cowboys keep rookie free agent Nick Ralston?

That could come down to which of the three can most help on special teams. Or with what happens at tight end.

The Cowboys want three, but the incumbent third, Sean McKeon, is still out with a high ankle sprain, making him a candidate for recallable IR, which could open a spot for tight end Jeremy Sprinkle, a five-year vet, making him eligible for a potential release/re-sign.

Decisions. Decisions. Decisions. Not easy.

And now you know why McCarthy labeled this time of year, "these are the worst days," not only for having to make those tough decisions but also having to tell guys who you've been coaching for the better part of four months that there's no room at the inn for you.

And to tell the truth, very little transpiring here Sunday afternoon made many of these decisions any easier.