By Mike Crum
Dallas Cowboys Team Analyst and Co-Host of the Across The Cowboys Podcast
After a decade of Dallas Cowboys roster projections in the Jason Garrett era, this process had become very predictable. For instance, you knew one or two Undrafted Free Agents (UDFA) were going to make the squad almost every year. Danny McCray, Blake Jarwin, Chris Jones, Dan Bailey, Ronald Leary, Jeff Heath, Barry Church and Cole Beasley are just some examples of big contributors under Jason Garrett that the team found on the UDFA list. Throughout training camp, you could listen to insiders like Bryan Broaddus or David Helman, and you'd get an idea of two or three potential UDFA candidates. Then, by simply going over the other fifty guys you had making the team, you could deduce pretty accurately which guys would get the last few roster spots.
Enter 2020, a year that dealt us not only a new coaching staff with unknown tendencies, but a brand new type of training camp due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To start, it was restricting the time some players get to make an impression. Add to that the smart use of secrecy, limiting what opponents might be able to glean from the Cowboys' training camp, but unfortunately limiting what I could find out as well. Those types of things made this roster projection much tougher. Going over this 2020 edition I had to consider things like:
- Who replaces Jamize Olawale, who opted out of the season?
- Could Blake Bell or Dalton Schultz do the job? While both are good blockers, they are both on-the-line blockers, not accustom to lead blocking. And if one of them ends up as the fullback, then who will become the emergency third running back?
- Is there an UDFA that could accomplish both roles like Olawale was projected to do?
There are simple questions that remain every year too, such as, how many wide receivers does the new regime keep? How many offensive lineman do you keep when you have so much quality depth that you don't wanna lose?
On the defensive side of the ball, we know Mike McCarthy said he wants six edge rushers and four defensive tackles, but what affect does the Gerald McCoy injury have on those plans? Terrance Crawford was slotted in as one of the six edge rushers, so if he becomes the starting defensive tackle (DT) at the three-technique position, does that switch the numbers up? If so, who is effected by the change? The linebacker group for Dallas is extremely deep. We know the main four, but how many of the young guys behind them make the team? If not all, then which ones? Would the team decide to use one of the new protected spots on the practice squad to hide a linebacker and get a sixth wide receiver, or an extra lineman on either side? In the defensive backfield, how many bodies do they want back there? The plan from new Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan is a match-up style defense. If that is true, wouldn't more defensive backs (DBs) be necessary? Clearly I had a lot of questions going into this 2020 Cowboys 53-man roster projection, and because of that, it was the most fun I've had doing this in years.
The quarterback (QB) room didn't need much deliberation once the practice squad protections were announced. Dak Prescott and Andy Dalton were the clear starting and backup QBs. Ben DiNucci was a draft pick made specifically for Mike McCarthy and in a normal year might make the 53-man to protect him. In 2020, the team is allowed four spots on the practice squad that are protected from going to waivers, and with this team's excellent roster it just makes sense to have DiNucci take one of those spots. Under the new rules he can even be called up twice without his practice squad eligibility being affected. In emergencies they have that option if Dak or Dalton were to sustain any minor injuries. Clayton Thorston will likely get cut.
The first challenge of the 53-man projection was at the running back position. Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard are locks, but who will be the emergency third running back? Does he actually make the team as the primary fullback? I believe he does, so i'm going with Sewo Olonilua. He is a big bruiser type back at 6'3", 230+ pounds. He was excellent as a short yardage runner in college, and that size transitions well to the fullback position in the NFL if he can be taught to consistently keep his pads low. Another reason I see this as the pick has to deal with practice on Friday, August 21st. Sewo went out with an injury and instead of using one of the other two UDFA running backs at fullback, the team shifted in Dalton Schultz (who scored on a goal line run.) This tells me the team sees Sewo as the clear fullback player of the three, and I believe that Rico Dowdle and Darius Anderson will be fighting for a practice squad position.
The initial decision on the wide receivers group was, how many will the team keep? I went with five: the three clear studs - Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb - minus injury, will be on the field as the primary receivers basically every snap. In order for the fourth and fifth receivers to make an impact they will need to do so in other ways. In his press conference on August 21st, coach McCarthy discussed how important versatility and special teams will be for the guys behind the top three wide receivers to make the team. With that in mind, my first choice was Cedric Wilson. If necessary, Wilson can be an effective slot receiver, but has the size to also play outside. He can also be your primary punt returner, saving Lamb for special occasions when you know he should get a real chance to make a return. The fifth spot was much tougher, but only because I'm a big fan of Jon'Vea Johnson. In my opinion, if Johnson can consistently catch the ball, he is easily the fourth best wide receiver on this team. He has speed to stretch the field like nobody else at wide receiver here, and is already a really good route runner to boot.
My issue is that Ventell Bryant is making this team. Bryant is an elite special teams player, possibly the best on the team, and as the coach said, guys like that make the team. Special teams coach John Fassell will fight hard on Bryant's behalf. I had to ask myself, is the team going to value a fourth wide receiver prospect whom they hope never sees the field regularly because the team stays healthy at the position? Or would they prefer a guy that will make a huge impact on a crucial unit of a good team? It really is an easy call as sad as it makes me. Jon'Vea will get a practice squad spot and if Wilson gets hurt again, might never give up that fourth wide receiver spot. Noah Brown will be a New York Giant, we all know Jason Garrett will make that happen. Devin Smith, Aaron Parker, and Tevin Jones might battle for a practice squad spot. I'd lean Parker, assuming Smith would rather try to make another team as a free agent.
The first offensive group where the starters weren't penciled in, and I had to figure that out to move forward, was the offensive line. Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and La'el Collins are obvious. The competition is at left guard and center. I think the COVID-19 pandemic-style camp makes its biggest impact here. In my opinion, the Cowboys will lean on experience, and both Joe Looney and Connor Williams started on the Cowboys 2018 playoff team. They will get the nod to start this year as well. Connor McGovern might actually be the superior guard prospect. Unfortunately for him, an injury kept him off the field all season last year, and with this offseason I can't see him supplanting Williams.
Tyler Biadasz is certainly a better prospect than Joe Looney has ever been. Tyler "Badass," as he is affectionately known, did win the Rimington Trophy last season as college football's best center. That said, Tyler needs some time in the weight room to fill out his excellent frame, and a year off to fully recover from his hip injury couldn't hurt either. Now if Looney misses time this year, do I believe Biadasz could take that spot and never look back? Absolutely, but it's unnecessary to send him out there now as a rookie.
Brandon Knight impressed last year's staff in spot work playing for Collins and Tyron, and is in line to take Cameron Fleming's spot as the team's swing tackle. The ninth spot was the toughest. The scout in me says this spot should be Adam Redmond's. He is better than Cam Irving inside from what we have seen of them both playing at this level. Neither are capable at the offensive tackle position, but Irving has played there in actual games in this league and the team might see his versatility (I really wanna use quotation marks here) as more important. I'm not doing my 53-man projection though; this is my prediction of what the team will do, so I'm going with Irving. This leaves a lot of guys you don't want to lose vulnerable to the practice squad and the waiver wire. I believe Mitch Hyatt, Cody Wichmaan and Adam Redmond will be sent through, and the team will cross its fingers. I have a feeling the team will want to protect Terence Steele, and will use their second protection spot to do so.
Tight end was a beautiful position to project. Blake Jarwin - aka "The Bird" - is the starter, while Blake Bell and Dalton Schultz will both be the backups. Cole Hikutini and Sean McKeon will likely be cut. That was fun. That is 22 of the 53-man roster spots devoted to the offense. Let's add the three known special teams guys - punter Chris Jones, kicker Greg Zuerlein, and long snapper, LP Ladouceur - to make the total 25. That leaves 28 spots for the defense.
As a mentioned earlier, McCarthy stated that he wanted six edge rushers and four defensive tackles, and I'm gonna stick to that. Kind of. I do believe Demarcus Lawrence, Dontari Poe, Tyrone Crawford and Everson Griffen will start as the basic four-man front, but I think Crawford will just be left as a defensive end on the Cowboys count of edge rushers and DTs. Hey, he will play the defensive end in a 3-4 front, so it's not technically even a lie. That leaves the defensive tackle rotation after Poe as Neville Gallimore, Antwaun Woods and Trysten Hill.
The edge rotation was a little tougher. Aldon Smith is the clear next guy, likely splitting snaps with Griffen even. That leaves two guys out of Dorance Armstrong, Joe Jackson, Bradlee Anae and Ron'Dell Carter.
I'll start with Anae. He will be on this team. As good of a locker room guy as you can ask for, will be great to have in practice due to his effort, and should be an excellent special teams contributor. That alone would be reason enough for Anae, but add in the fact that he was a quarterback pressures and sack monster in college and I'm saying he stays on the 53. Between Jackson and Armstrong its really close. I like Jackson's fit better for not only Nolan's versatile system, but for what Jim Tomsula's likes as well. He is big, can play multiple spots in either front Nolan wants to run, and he is only in year two of his contract. That said, I still went with Dorance Armstrong. Dorance has been Demarcus's primary back up for two seasons now, and he has the potential to bring a lethal speed rush, which is a different style than all other edge rushers on this defense. I believe Jackson and Ron'Dell are very valuable to this team, and both will get protected, taking the last two spots of the protected practice squad.
The Dallas Cowboys linebacker group is elite. They have two special young prospects in Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. They also have two more veterans who could start on almost any other defense in this league in Sean Lee and Joe Thomas. Plus they have three kids who could be good contributors in limited roles, and should all be solid in special teams in Justin March, Luke Gifford and Francis Bernard.
Leighton, or "LVE", has moved to the middle linebacker position, where he could be an All-Pro. Jaylon becomes the over linebacker who can pass rush in certain situations, and who can also use his speed to cover in zone defense schemes as needed. Lee and Thomas are as good of depth guys as you can ask for. If injuries pop back up with Jaylon or LVE, they can start and be effective. As the third linebacker, Lee should easily see almost thirty percent of the snaps. Listening to Fassell's preferences, I know he likes defensive players on his unit as much as possible, and I think that helps all three of these kids to make the team. It was cemented that I was going to have all three of them make the roster when I used all four of the protected spots earlier. March is already a good special teams player, and should be fine if needed to play the old Damein Wilson or Anthony Hitchens role when Nolan calls for his base defense. Bernard has already shown flashes in camp as a cover linebacker, picking off two passes, one of them off Dak even. He could play as a cover linebacker in emergency situations. Gifford has the prototypical size, and has shown the skill to develop into a Sean Lee replacement after the 2020 season. Unfortunately for LaDarius Hamilton he gets cut.
I was honestly surprised at how easy the defensive backs were to project. The safety spot was clear; Xavier Woods and HaHa Clinton-Dix are the starters, Darian Thompson and Donovan Wilson are the backups, and Luther Kirk doesn't make the team.
Now to the cornerbacks. I spent a lot of time listening to coaches, players, and the insiders to get an idea of how I believe the defense is gonna go. The starters could be Anthony Brown and Chidobe "Chido" Awuzie outside. Jourdan Lewis would get the start in the slot, and then Daryl Worley, and Trevon Diggs make the team as the backups. Add a few special teams guys and you're set, but I think it's gonna be a little more matchup oriented. Chido is the CB1, and he actually hasn't been as bad as even I thought if you look at some of the analytics. Add to that a new system that's built for him to be more successful, and I think he's solid there. I'm betting on Diggs to take the second spot straight out and I think it's because the other guys are better in specific roles. Throw the rookie out there and let him learn and make plays. As the season moves on he should continue to improve.
I think Brown is a very good slot corner. He's done it well when healthy, and I see no reason to change that. So in nickel coverage, Chido, Diggs, and Brown will be the lineup, but this is gonna be a matchup defense and we have two more guys that will be vital to this style. First up, Daryl Worley. As a Raider he did his best work as a hybrid corner/safety position that was matched-up with receiving tight ends. Wanna see something impressive? Go back to last season and watch how he completely smothered Travis Kelce. This season the Cowboys go up against a loaded tight end group that includes the likes of Tyler Higbee, Hayden Hurst, Greg Olsen, Austin Hooper, Evan Engram, Zach Ertz, Eric Ebron, Mark Andrews and George Kittle. I believe Worley will matchup against them in coverage a whole lot all year long.
As far as Cowboys fans darling, Jourdan Lewis, I know we are bummed I don't have him as a starter, but I promise you he will have a major role. To begin with, he will be the fourth corner. And we all know that injuries happen, so I expect Lewis to be the first guy out at any of the three starter spots. Next, we will need Lewis to matchup in passing situations against receiving running backs. This season should be a blast for him, as he'll have to cover guys like Miles Sanders, Saquon Barkley, Todd Gurley, Kareem Hunt and Kenyon Drake. Why wouldn't the Cowboys put him in to stick with those studs on passing downs? He has been effective in that role before versus guys like Alvin Kamara. There's no reason to think he won't continue to be successful.
With the main cornerback spots secured, those final spots go to the special teams aces. CJ Goodwin is the epitome of this. Goodwin will make this team on special teams alone. He is an ace on punt and kickoff coverage and Fassell will absolutley love him. The final spot is for Reggie Robinson. I believe Robinson will eventually become the starting corner opposite Diggs, but this year he will be about special teams. In college he was known for his physical man coverage and his ability to block kicks, of which he had four. Last, I think Saivon Smith makes the practice squad along with Chris Westry, who has unique size the team will want to see develop. Deante Burton won't make the team.
That's 11 defensive backs, seven linebackers, and ten defensive lineman to add to the 25 already on offense and special teams combined. I know there is the Randy Gregory situation. If he does return and an injury hasn't opened up a spot for him already, I think Armstrong moves to the protected position on the practice squad, and Jackson becomes unprotected. Incredibly recent news also adds Earl Thomas (ET) into the mix as well. As far as ET goes, Thompson could be the odd man out of the safety room, but because of his special teams contributions, and the latest news of his excellent camp play, I could see him staying. The Cowboys instead shifting Bernard to the protected practice squad. Assuming Gregory and Thomas are there, the protected group could be DiNucci, Steele, Bernard and Carter. At that point I think they'd just live with Armstrong being grabbed off the practice squad.
Now I want to hear from you. Tell me what you agree or disagree with. I can take the heat - after all, I'm a Cowboys fan ;) - so bring the fire.
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