Cowboys depth chart: How the backfield looks without Ezekiel Elliott, and the ripple effects of Robert Quinn's suspension

With the preseason ready to get underway, the Dallas Cowboys have more than their fair share of things to figure out, roster-wise.

At the time this column goes to file, running back Ezekiel Elliott remains a holdout from training camp 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 hasn't done much in camp to have anyone presume he'll be a starter. If anything, he's become a bit of an afterthought, but that doesn't mean the Cowboys are lacking at safety. Quite contrary to the more popular narratives, there's been an emergence of young talent behind the incumbent guard of veterans, and that makes for an interesting conversation when it comes time to start sending guys to the exit. 

Additionally, in looking at the defensive roster, just how fragile is the bubble beneath former first-round pick Taco Charlton? And with yet another injury to veteran linebacker Sean Lee, do the Cowboys go heavy at that position to plan for what appears to be the inevitability of his absence in 2019?

Let's take a look at how it should all shake out if the Cowboys truly want the best possible roster for Week 1.

Offense


StarterBackupDepthDepth
QB Dak Prescott Cooper Rush

RB Ezekiel Elliott** Tony Pollard Alfred Morris Mike Weber
FBJamize Olawale  



LWR Michael Gallup Reggie Davis

RWR Amari Cooper Cedrick Wilson, Jr.

SWR Randall Cobb Tavon Austin

TE Jason Witten Blake Jarwin Dalton Schultz
LT Tyron Smith Cameron Fleming (Swing)

LG Connor Williams Connor McGovern

C Travis Frederick Joe Looney

RG Zack Martin Xavier Su'a-Filo

RT La'El Collins


Uncertainty at running back

The asterisks next to Elliott's name are there for a reason. If Elliott is on the active roster come Week 1, either Mike Weber or Alfred Morris will be shown the door -- because there won't be four halfbacks plus a well-paid fullback on this roster.

Is it likely he'll be on the field come Week 1? Absolutely. Is it guaranteed? No, it is not.

That being the case, signing Morris to a one-year deal to challenge for the role of RB1 against the Giants is 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'll be easier for him to stave off perennial practice squad talent Darius Jackson than rookies Weber and Tony Pollard, with the latter truly establishing himself as a potential starter in the absence of Elliott. Jackson becomes the easy cut in an Elliott-less scenario, because the Cowboys also didn't give Olawale a three-year, $5.4 million extension this offseason to show him the door five months later.

The saving grace for Jackson, if there is one, is that he's already maxed out his practice squad eligibility -- three years, per NFL rules -- so if he impresses in the preseason, maybe the chess move becomes to risk Weber to waivers with the hopes of re-signing him to the practice squad. Weber has flashed in camp as well, however, so I wouldn't be so keen on taking that chance to keep a four-year veteran with no stripes on the roster.

There's no denying Jackson has talent, but he's also had more than enough chances to prove himself.

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 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 Davis, who impressed in camp and would've done so in the second half against the 49ers if White could've gotten him the ball.

Davis was open often, but when White didn't succumb to pressure from poor protection, he was simply making bad throws and decisions. His performance also thrust Rush back into the driver's seat at QB2. 

If the Cowboys are ready to move on from the oft-injured Noah Brown, it opens the door to give Wilson a shot. The club didn't get to see what the former Boise State dynamo could do in 2018 thanks to a shoulder injury that landed him on injured reserve last summer, but he's a player with the height and speed to play outside along with the physicality to flex into the slot as needed.

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, that may be the right call for Brown, and it'd keep him around for insurance at receiver. Austin entered camp on the bubble by virtue of his own durability concerns and the addition of Pollard, but he's done well in camp and the coaching staff will find every possible reason to not release him, and carrying seven receivers isn't necessary if the right talent is retained. 

The Cowboys can excel with the six I've projected.

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, but that shouldn't be used on a quarterback. The team carried three last season, but it was wholly unnecessary because Prescott remains as durable as a steel beam in a light breeze. Cooper Rush has looked uneven yet again this offseason, and although White hasn't exactly knocked him out of the box -- White is younger with a stronger, baseball arm and has better route anticipation. 

It's a contract year for Rush and the Cowboys would save $645,000 against the cap if they release him, and they'd like to have it for what I'm about to explain on the defensive side of the ball. 

Defense


StarterBackupDepth
DE DeMarcus Lawrence Dorance Armstrong Joe Jackson
DT (1T) Antwaun Woods Trysten Hill
DT (3T) Maliek Collins Christian Covington
DE Robert Quinn (SUS/RES)* Tyrone Crawford Kerry Hyder/Taco Charlton*
OLB (SAM) Sean Lee Justin March-Lillard
ILB (MIKE) Jaylon Smith Joe Thomas
OLB (WILL) Leighton Vander Esch Chris Covington
LCB Byron Jones Michael Jackson
RCB Chidobe Awuzie Donovan Olumba
SCB Anthony Brown Jourdan Lewis
FS Xavier Woods Kavon Frazier
SS Jeff Heath Donovan Wilson

How Taco fits into front seven

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 -- now suspended for the first two games of the 2019 season. 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 Taco Charlton, whose back is against the wall at the moment. Speaking of, let's talk about that $645,000 the Cowboys can save by releasing Rush to narrow down the QB count, and why it matters when looking at the defensive line.

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 that's still a net savings of $187,000 if Rush is also cut.

For now, it's still a stretch to believe the team will admit a mistake by letting Charlton walk, but putting pride aside and realizing how much is on the line in 2019 should push them toward Jackson and what's turning into a potentially dynamic talent in Armstrong -- who has really leveled up this offseason. Armstrong could be a powerful follow-up punch as a spell to Lawrence, and Hyder has taken some first-team snaps with Quinn nursing a fractured hand. Considering the fact Covington (DL) is better on the interior than Charlton, you'll quickly see why I couldn't justify a spot for him on the 53; especially with the expectation that Randy Gregory returns at some point.

The team might, though, and the NFL just gave them an extra two weeks to find a reason.

For the linebacker group, running heavy with six bodies is something that simply has to occur. Lee is battling a sprained MCL suffered early in camp and unfortunately for him, that's right on brand. The All-Pro has an annual health issue of some sort that prevents him from playing a full 16-game stretch, and moving him to strongside (SAM) will aid that by virtue of a lessened snap count -- considering the Cowboys don't often run three-linebacker sets -- but expect the experience of Thomas and March-Lillard to keep them in uniform to protect against a possible (and likely) absence of Lee at some point.

The younger Covington is still being groomed, but he has done enough to be the sixth player in the unit.

Safety decisions dictate secondary configuration

Don't expect any change atop the cornerback depth chart, but new faces could make their way onto the roster beneath the top three spots. Rookie Michael Jackson is a long, athletic defensive back that can operate on the outside as well as in the nickel slot, and Olumba was a hair from making the team in 2018 after a preseason that raised several eyebrows. He's getting another crack at it in 2019, and Olumba is picking up where he left off one year ago, after spending all of last season learning from Richard on the practice squad.

It doesn't feel like Richard will take a chance at letting Olumba hit waivers again, nor should he.

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 sends 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. 

Special teams


StarterBackupDepth
K Brett Maher

P Chris Jones

LS L.P. Ladouceur

KR Tony Pollard Jourdan Lewis Randall Cobb
PR Tavon Austin Jourdan Lewis

Maher is on the bubble, but the problem is the Cowboys aren't sure yet about what to do if they pop it.

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 NFC 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 both have had their share of struggles. The better plan would've been to either grab a kicker late in the draft or pluck one from the several sitting in undrafted free agency in April, and there's also the matter of veteran Matt Bryant who sits available in free agency. Signing Bryant to a one-year deal to allow for a mulligan next April could be a solid plan, but it's doubtful the Cowboys execute it until they see more of Maher in August.

To be clear, signing Bryant needs to happen. As it stands, however, Maher is edging Redfern -- just barely -- as their kicker, and time will reveal how things shake out there.

The rest of the special teams unit is par for the course, much unlike other positional groups in North Texas.

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