It's not the most ideal scenario for the Dallas Cowboys, but it could most certainly be worse. As teams around the NFL suffer one devastating injury after another, the Cowboys have remained mostly upright, and the injuries they have suffered haven't been of the season-ending variety. As the team shaved its roster down from 80 men to 53, however, it did free up three seats by making the decision to send Ventell Bryant, La'El Collins and Sean Lee to injured reserve. In years past, this would've been highly concerning, but the new IR rules in 2020 make that no longer the case.
Due to both the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and new collective bargaining agreement that itself amended IR rules, players are no longer forced to sit a total of six games before returning to the field. They are now sidelined for only three, their health permitting, which means Bryant, Collins and Lee are eligible to return as early as the Oct. 4 battle with the Cleveland Browns. Additionally, the Cowboys are allowed to return an unlimited number of players from IR this season, a massive change from 2019 and prior.
With an abbreviated ability to ramp up in August for the regular season, injuries such as the leg ailment on Bryant, the sports hernia on Lee and the hip injury on Collins need more time to heal. In not forcing them to remain on the active roster, the Cowboys made room to return linebackers Justin March and Joe Thomas, who provide great depth in the absence of Lee, as well as defensive back C.J. Goodwin to aid in the secondary.
Due to NFL rules, players have to remain on the 53-man roster for 24 hours before being moved to injured reserve, making the initial release of March, Thomas and Goodwin procedural.
But, while the Cowboys will presumably be fine in the absence of Bryant (having claimed wideout Malik Turner off waivers to fill the role at WR depth and on special teams), that's less true when factoring in Lee and most certainly Collins, given the impact of the latter two. Lee, who has fought injury at roughly every step of his NFL career, is coming off of one of the best and most durable seasons since joining the team in 2010. He was key in helping to save the Cowboys corps of linebackers in 2019, as Jaylon Smith struggled and Leighton Vander Esch found himself on injured reserve with a neck injury. The value in keeping Lee around for 2020 was hammered home last season, but the team will now be without him for most all of September.
The presence of both Thomas and March will help salve that wound, but things don't look nearly as promising -- on paper -- behind Collins at right tackle. This is one area the Cowboys have been hit hard at in training camp, with backup swing tackles Mitch Hyatt and Wyatt Miller having now been waived injured. They'll now lean heavily on Cameron Erving -- signed to a one-year deal this offseason -- and Brandon Knight, an undrafted talent who admittedly impressed in limited duty last season. From there, it'll be on undrafted rookie Terence Steele to provide rotational support, but the jury is out on if the former Texas Tech standout can step in and immediately help impact a game with no preseason snaps under his belt.
This may ultimately lead to the Cowboys getting, and in particularly with their blocking schemes and willingness to unleash more of the storied West Coast installs put in place by Mike McCarthy in his first year with Kellen Moore. It is really a simple science in that if Dak Prescott gets the ball out quickly over the next three weeks, he won't have to worry about backups to backups being able to protect him for six seconds.
Collins, who has missed only one game the last three years, is a force for the Cowboys opposite Tyron Smith and beside Zack Martin, so his absence will be felt. Time will tell just how much, but the good news is -- like Lee and Bryant -- there's a chance their veteran lineman returns when the calendar moves to October.