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© Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

It's time to get down to brass tacks in the NFL. The 2021 preseason is officially over and the Dallas Cowboys were one of only two teams who had four games in August to evaluate talent, and they're hoping the added contest -- i.e., the Hall of Fame Game against the Pittsburgh Steelers -- will help them enter the regular season with the most sharpened roster possible, led by the return of two-time Pro Bowl quarterback Dak Prescott. They have until Tuesday, August 31 at 4 p.m. ET to slash the roster from 80 men down to only 53, and that means it's time for a lot of uncomfortable conversations and tough decisions as the deadline speeds toward them.

So who stays and who goes? Well, before we get into that (you've probably already peeked anyway), it's key to note the Cowboys currently have three players still on the COVID/Reserve list -- CeeDee Lamb, Carlos Watkins and Connor Williams -- who won't count against the 53-man roster, but who are scheduled to be activated before the team begins practicing to take on Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That technically allows for three additional seats to use temporarily by Dallas, should they want to get creative with the forming of their depth chart.

In other words, there's no such thing as a "final" roster in the NFL

You'll see players on the 53-man count come Tuesday evening who'll head to injured reserve on Wednesday, freeing up those seats as well for new additions and/or re-adding familiar faces to the active roster. Three players are expected to move to IR after having been carried on the active roster for 24 hours -- because anyone placed on IR prior to cutdowns won't be allowed to return for 2021, per NFL rules, i.e., Rico Dowdle (RB), Mitch Hyatt (OT), Reggie Robinson II (CB), Sewo Olonilua (FB). So you can expect to see Neville Gallimore (DT), Sean McKeon (TE) and rookie Josh Ball (OT) to survive roster cuts only to be moved shortly thereafter, which allows each to return from their respective injury early in the regular season. 

Those three players (and any in the future) can return to practice after three weeks and the Cowboys have 21 days to place them back on the active roster -- opening a six-week window for each. Additionally, there is no limit to the number of players a team can return from IR, as long as those players were first on the active regular season roster. Lastly, as it relates to anyone on the 16-man practice squad, they're allowed to be activated three times during the season, and they'll revert back to the practice squad automatically after the first two occasions, but revert to waivers (if not a vested veteran) after the third call-up.

OK, that's the roster science going into 2021, now let's lay out the projected depth chart in Dallas.

[*denotes player heading to IR after cutdowns]

[**denotes player who could take seat of IR-destined player]

Offense 

Position
StarterBackupDepthDepth
QB Dak Prescott Cooper Rush

RB Ezekiel Elliott Tony Pollard Nick Ralston
WR Michael Gallup Noah Brown

WR Amari Cooper Malik Turner

WR CeeDee LambCedrick Wilson Jr.

TE Blake Jarwin Dalton SchultzSean McKeon*Jeremy Sprinkle**
LT Tyron Smith
Ty NsekheJosh Ball*

LG Connor Williams Connor McGovern

C Tyler BiadaszMatt Farniok/R**

RG Zack Martin


RT La'El Collins Terence Steele


Rush to Judgement

The most notable change here from pre-training camp predictions is at the role of backup quarterback. To now, it's been Garrett Gilbert's job to lose, and he mostly did well in keeping it in his pocket. That was until Cooper Rush did very well against the same Arizona Cardinals that Gilbert struggled against, which gave the Cowboys the reason they were looking for to revert back to their former undrafted free agent from 2017. Rush didn't get much work in the preseason finale and was unimpressive when he did, whereas Gilbert played well, but it feels like the team is now comfortable leaning on Rush while knowing they can likely stash Gilbert on the practice squad. 

Excited for the new Cowboys season? We are too! Follow along on the CBS Sports app and get the latest insights from Patrik Walker, who's on the ground in Dallas. Plus, get the latest Dak Prescott news, Ezekiel Elliott predictions, and much more from our team of experts. If you already have the app, you need to set the Cowboys as your favorite team for up-to-the-second news and analysis.

The loss of Dowdle to season-ending IR was quite the blow to the RB depth chart, but it opened the door for Ralston to make the team, much like how the loss of McKeon will do so for Jeremy Sprinkle -- the latter likely to be added back to the active roster after McKeon is moved to IR. As for the offensive line, it would behoove the Cowboys to see what's out there regarding backup tackle, at least until Ball is ready to join the fray. With 31 other teams dropping players, there will be options to investigate, and Dallas needs to go full Dick Tracy in trying to see what improvements can be made at that position behind Tyron Smith and La'el Collins.

Oh and, once again, for those who willfully ignored the calligraphy on the wall between January and now:

Prescott is indeed back and ready for Week 1.

Defense 

Position
StarterBackupDepthDepth
DE DeMarcus Lawrence Dorance ArmstrongOsa Odighizuwa/R
DL  Neville Gallimore
Quinton Bohanna/RCarlos Watkins
DL  Brent Urban
Ron'Dell Carter
Justin Hamilton**
DE
Randy Gregory Tarell Basham

LB Keanu Neal Luke Gifford

LB Micah Parsons/R 
Jabril Cox/R

LB
Leighton Vander Esch Jaylon Smith


CB Trevon Diggs Nahshon Wright/R

CB Maurice Canady Kelvin Joseph/R
C.J. Goodwin (S/T)

NCB Jourdan Lewis Anthony Brown

S Damontae Kazee Malik HookerIsrael Mukuamu/R**
S Donovan Wilson Jayron Kearse

Defensive driving

Things didn't go as planned for promising third-round pick Chauncey Golston, who remains on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list and will remain there to start the season. He'll then be held to the same timeframe as players being moved to IR after the roster deadline, but his absence in camp and preseason -- along with the injury to Gallimore -- gave fellow rookie third-round pick Osa Odighizuwa a chance to step in and step up; and that's precisely what he did. Odighizuwa is now a lock to make the roster, and while many questioned if Armstrong would, I projected in June that he would. One strong camp and impressive preseason later, pencil him in as well, as he readies to try and break out in a contract year.

And speaking of a contract year, several on this defensive depth chart are either operating in one or could be (ahem, Jaylon Smith) if they don't perform well. There's a ton to prove if you're a player on the Cowboys defense, from the unleashing of Randy Gregory to players like Kazee and Hooker trying to work their way back to prime form from season-ending injuries suffered in 2020, and lots in-between. Also, I projected Carter to show his value this offseason and he's done that in a major way, making it difficult to fathom a Cowboys depth chart that doesn't include him, and especially on a defensive line that is absent Golston, Gallimore and Trysten Hill (who will also start the season on PUP). 

If Carter keeps going at this rate, and once Golston and Gallimore are returned, the conversation on Hill because intriguing. As for the promise of Bradlee Anae, it feels like the team will first try to see if they can move him in a trade and, if not, hope to add him back to the practice squad for a second consecutive season.

The secondary looks as expected overall, but time will tell if Brown -- like Jaylon Smith -- eventually becomes a trade piece.

Special teams 

PositionStarterBackup
K Greg Zuerlein
P Bryan Anger
LS Jake McQuaide

Snap, crackle and pop

It's a new era on Cowboys special teams, thanks to the molding of it by John "Bones" Fassel. This season will see legendary long snapper L.P. Ladouceur surprisingly replaced by Jake McQuaide -- a Pro Bowler in his own right -- while Chris Jones is replaced with Bryan Anger, who eventually replaced Hunter Niswander at punter. McQuaide joins Zuerlein in being a carryover from Fassel's days with the Los Angeles Rams, and the Cowboys are banking on all three making noise once the right milk is poured. Don't rule out a possible move of some sort, though, with Fassel keeping his eye on punter Johnny Hekker in Los Angeles, sources telling CBS Sports. That would obvious create a bit of a shakeup, but Fassel has made it clear he's a coach who prefers to have "his guys".

Practice squad candidates

There are many that will be quality enough to get a look for the Cowboys practice squad, and here are some who'll likely get a first look as the team tries to flesh out the unit ahead of the Week 1 opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, including a notable like Isaac Alarcon -- who made great strides but one the Cowboys can also carry on the practice squad (to begin the season) without having to count him against the 16-man unit. And thanks to a new IPP rule for 2021, Alarcon can be activated to the roster at any time, giving the Cowboys a lot of flexibility in how they manage him against their O-line needs. 

Offense:

Defense:

This list isn't all-encompassing, but rather a list of in-house players who might get extra consideration by the Cowboys, while leaving plenty of room for acquiring released players from other teams. In chopping down the roster to 53 players, there will inevitably be several tough decisions to make, but they have to be made, and it's on the players to make a strong case in June, July and August to not be set free ahead of September by throwing every proverbial haymaker they can as they fight for their future with the Cowboys and NFL as a whole.

Ring the bell. 

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