With the preseason finally in the rearview, the Dallas Cowboys had more than their fair share of things to figure out, roster-wise.
At the time this column goes to file, running back Ezekiel Elliott as he hammers out a new contract with the team's front office. Although the expectation remains the two-time rushing champ will be in tow for the season opener when they host the rival New York Giants, the fact is there's at least a small possibility he won't -- making for a shakeup on the depth chart until he arrives. While newly-promoted offensive coordinator Kellen Moore attempts to piecemeal the running back production together, defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and passing game coordinator Kris Richard have their own issues to sort out.
For them, questions surrounding the safety position continue to be the prevailing concern going into the season. The Cowboys wisely opted to not overpay Earl Thomas, and then passed on an oft-injured Eric Berry not long after. They went on to sign veteran George Iloka on a one-year deal, but Iloka didn't show much of anything in camp. He rapidly became an afterthought thanks to rookie Donovan Wilson, and he also couldn't give the incumbent Jeff Heath a run for his money.
Additionally, in looking at the defensive roster, just how fragile was the bubble beneath former first-round pick Taco Charlton?
The answer is rather obvious, because it took a teammate being suspended to help his chances of remaining on the roster, but Charlton is coming off a strong camp and a stellar dress rehearsal that led to owner Sean Lee returning from yet another injury, do the Cowboys go heavy at that position as a means of planning for what appears to be the inevitability of his absence in 2019? With the team having now concluded its cutdowns, we have that answer and much more.. Looking at the linebacker unit, with veteran linebacker
The Cowboys have finalized the first version of their 53-man roster for Week 1 of the regular season. It's important to keep in mind that an NFL 53-man roster is fluid. Changes will be made in the next 24 hours, weeks, and months during the regular season. As of now, these are the 53 men the who will march into battle with every week for Dallas.
Below, we'll break down the roster on each side of the ball and special teams.
|QB||Dak Prescott||Cooper Rush|| |
|RB||Ezekiel Elliott**||Tony Pollard||Alfred Morris||Jordan Chunn|
|FB||Jamize Olawale |
|LWR||Michael Gallup||Devin Smith|| |
|RWR||Amari Cooper|| |
|SWR||Randall Cobb||Tavon Austin|| |
|TE||Jason Witten||Blake Jarwin||Dalton Schultz|
|LT||Tyron Smith||Cameron Fleming (swing)|| |
|LG||Connor Williams|| |
|C||Travis Frederick||Joe Looney||Adam Redmond|
|RG||Zack Martin||Xavier Su'a-Filo|| |
|RT||La'El Collins||Brandon Knight|| |
Uncertainty at running back, for now
The asterisks next to Elliott's name are there for a reason. His decision in the next few days will ultimately impact how the RB depth chart looks a few days from now, but Darius Jackson and Jordan Chunn have already been shown the door.
Is it likely Elliott be on the field come Week 1? Absolutely, with a deal imminent and both sides, despite .
Is it guaranteed? No, it is not.
That being the case,to challenge for the role of RB1 against the Giants was a bit of a no-brainer, especially considering his familiarity with the team and having been asked to step in for a suspended Elliott in 2017. It was easy for him to stave off a perennial practice squad talent in Jackson than rookies Weber and Tony Pollard, with the latter truly establishing himself as a potential starter in the absence of Elliott.
For some depth insurance during the Elliott holdout -- but more so for added special teams assistance --.
The right depth at receiver
The rest of the offensive setup is fairly straightforward, with a couple of exceptions. From a wide receiver standpoint, the need for a turbo talent that can take the top off an opposing defense saw several players clawing for the chance at being that guy, and while guys like Reggie Davis and Jalen Guyton put on a show at times in camp, it's Johnson that was initially running away with it going into the preseason opener. The problem was Johnson's drops in camp also showed up against the 49ers, and that opened the door for someone else to take the lead -- notably Devin Smith, who impressed with the chances he's gotten from a poor-performing Mike White who operates behind a questionable backup O-line.
And as such, Smith gets a nod.
The team believes Brown can take the next step in 2019, but you wonder if his body will allow it. He landed on IR with a hamstring injury in 2018 -- although he'd return in November -- and started this camp on the physically unable to perform list. Still eligible for a seat on the practice squad but also still not healthy, keeping him around for as a reservist (see below) makes sense. Austin entered camp on the bubble by virtue of his own durability concerns and the addition of Pollard, but he's done well and the coaching staff will find every possible reason to not release him, especially when factoring in his positive and infectious locker room energy. The bottom line is the Cowboys can excel with those they've chosen to keep around.
The team is running light with five wideouts for now, using extra space to beef up OL depth, especially with rookie Connor McGovern headed to injured reserve.
Filling out the offense
The decision to release tight end Rico Gathers was the correct one, with Witten back and both Jarwin and Schultz looking crisp in camp. Carrying just three tight ends allows for an added space elsewhere, and the club needs it. The Cowboys carried three tight ends last season, but it was wholly unnecessary because Prescott remains as durable as a steel beam in a light breeze.
Injury concerns on Jarwin and Schultz have now waned, and the trio of TEs is set in Dallas.
|DE||DeMarcus Lawrence||Dorance Armstrong||Joe Jackson|
|DT (1T)||Antwaun Woods||Trysten Hill|| |
|DT (3T)||Maliek Collins||Christian Covington|| |
|DE||Tyrone Crawford||Kerry Hyder||Taco Charlton|
|SLB||Sean Lee||Justin March-Lillard|| |
|MLB||Jaylon Smith||Joe Thomas|| |
|WLB||Leighton Vander Esch||Luke Gifford|
|LCB||Byron Jones|| |
|RCB||Chidobe Awuzie||C.J. Goodwin|| |
|SCB||Anthony Brown||Jourdan Lewis|| |
|FS||Xavier Woods||Kavon Frazier||Darian Thompson|
|SS||Jeff Heath||Donovan Wilson|| |
How Taco fits into the plans for 2019
The hiccup in the Cowboys' defensive matrix comes by way of Quinn, who was slated for a Week 1 return from a fracture in his left hand --. This will give other linemen two additional weeks to make their case for a 53-man roster seat, and there are a few who might need it in a big way. One is Charlton, whose back was against the wall going into the offseason.
Charlton was initially not on this projection -- one of my final cuts -- and for good reason. The former first-round pick is entering his third season with the Cowboys and has yet to deliver production that is anywhere near his draft selection. Making matters worse is the fact he battled injury and attitude issues in 2018, and he has undergone two different surgical procedures this offseason, which has hampered his ability to get ahead with his conditioning in an all-important third year. Charlton has looked good at times in camp, but he has also been unimpressive in stretches, and that's opened the door for someone like Jackson to show his bully ways -- which is precisely what the former Miami (FL) standout is doing after being selected 165th-overall.
Releasing Charlton would hit the Cowboys' salary cap for $458,000, but now it's simply not worth making the move. He steadily improved in camp and owned the preseason dress rehearsal, so it makes sense the Cowboys would now give him at least one more shot at proving himself in games that matter.
As far as linebackers go, all the team needed to do was locate depth behind the top three spots that included a strong talent who could be insurance for the oft-injured Sean Lee, and they feel they've now done that. Gifford has strong upside and could require more time to heal from his offseason injury, but the fact he got the initial nod says a lot about what they believe he can be.
Safety decisions dictate secondary configuration
Don't expect any change atop the cornerback depth chart, but new faces did make for a bit of a shakeup.
That brings us to the safety position, which has carried big headlines for the Cowboys over the last couple of years. The decision to not pursue a still-available Berry shows their confidence in the current stable of talent, and it's Woods who has burst forward to show the team they should've never considered signing another free safety in the first place. The third-year talent feels "disrespected" by the attempts and it's showing in camp. He's essentially taking over and solidifying himself as a true centerfielder, and the good news for the Cowboys is they have more depth behind/beside Woods than some would give them credit for.
Frazier has shown himself more than simply a special teams ace, and can flex between wrecking ball strong safety and roaming free safety -- the latter evidenced in his time as a starter in place of an injured Woods to start the 2018 season. That flex allows room for rookie Donovan Wilson to grab a seat behind Heath, in a move that sent George Iloka packing. Wilson has proven himself more intriguing than Iloka, and the Cowboys are still quite pleased with Heath, so he's staying put. Love him or hate him, Heath has been one of the few Cowboys' defenders able to take the ball away in recent seasons.
If he can improve his cover skills, all the better. If not, simply keep him at box safety and know that if Woods is injured, there's the option to start Frazier and slide Jackson to the third level for assistance. The club could also start Frazier over Heath, and pair him with Woods for a potentially dynamic duo.
Goodwin lands on the 53 by virtue of strong special teams play and a contribution or several defensively in August.
|K||Brett Maher|| || |
|P||Chris Jones|| || |
|LS||L.P. Ladouceur|| || |
|KR||Tony Pollard||Jourdan Lewis||Randall Cobb|
|PR||Tavon Austin||Jourdan Lewis|| |
Maher was on the bubble, but the problem was the Cowboys didn't do anything to challenge him.
He was solid in his first NFL campaign, but there's much room for improvement. Maher finished 2018 having registered an accuracy rate of 80.6% on FG attempts, and that's a good number until you apply the proper perspective, in that it slotted Maher as the 25th-best kicker in the NFL. That number buoys when you filter out anyone with fewer than 30 attempts, but he still ranks second-to-last in that group, ahead of only Cody Parkey -- who finished with a 76.7 percent accuracy rate and is currently unemployed after costing the Chicago Bears a playoff win against the Eagles. Thankfully for Maher, his foot wasn't the reason the Cowboys were eventually knocked out of the playoffs in the divisional round, but he did miss a 58-yarder that would've kept the 24-22 contest from being a nail-biter in the waning minutes.
That's ironic considering Maher -- who set a franchise record with his 62-yard blast in the second battle with the Eagles -- had been a sharpshooter from 50 yards and beyond throughout the season, while struggling miserably when kicking in the 30-49 yard range.
The team brought in Kasey Redfern to challenge Maher in camp, but Redfern didn't fare well, and was released. The rest of the special teams unit is par for the course, much unlike other positional groups in North Texas.
|Connor McGovern||OL||Injured Reserve|
|Chris Westry||WR||Injured Reserve|
The latest on Randy Gregory remains a bit of a mystery, seeing as initial reports stated the veteran pass rusher would apply for reinstatement from his current indefinite suspension back in July, but it didn't happen. Fast forward to the last week in August and team exec Stephen Jones says he believes that's now been done, but wasn't exactly definitive in his statement. While that gets sorted out, the Cowboys will also be without Robert Quinn -- although for a shorter period of time. Quinn landed in Dallas this offseason by way of trade with the Dolphins, but has been suspended the first two games of the season.
That will give him time to heal the fracture in his left hand, but it also comes equipped with no pay.
Rookie third-round pick Connor McGovern suffered a torn pectoral muscle in the spring and hasn't participated in training camp or the preseason, and a recent setback all but assures he'll be sidelined for most -- if not all -- of the 2019 season. Rookie Jon'Vea Johnson fired out of the gate this summer but faltered in the first three preseason games, before impressing in the August finale; but he suffered a shoulder injury in that game that keeps the Cowboys from having to make a decision on his future just yet. Like Johnson, Ross is battling a severe shoulder injury as well, leaving the team without his promising ability to stop the run.
With the regular season now only days away, the Cowboys are mostly healthy, or at least healthier than most.