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Who’s on pace to make the Cowboys roster and who has work to do?
The Cowboys are one of two NFL teams to still play four preseason games this year thanks to the Hall of Fame game, and after their 19-16 loss to the Cardinals on Friday the team is now officially halfway through the preseason. Between training camp and the two games played thus far, we’re starting to get a better idea of who’s on pace to make the final roster and who still needs to impress.
At this juncture, let’s take look at who is on course for the final 53.
It seems unlikely that Dallas will carry three quarterbacks, although they could surprise us all. The competition for that backup job has been less than inspiring thus far, and it’s very possible that the Cowboys look to add someone who gets cut from another team at the deadline. But for right now, Garrett Gilbert has looked the most consistent at quarterback, even if that’s saying more about Cooper Rush and Ben DiNucci than it is Gilbert.
Running back (4)
Nick Ralston (FB)
Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard are obvious locks, and the third running back is going to have to play on special teams. That’s exactly what Rico Dowdle did last year in this role, and he’s looked good as an actual running back in preseason games too. Undrafted rookie JaQuan Hardy looked really good against the Cardinals, and he may have a real shot at taking a roster spot from Dowdle. But Dowdle hasn’t done anything to cost himself a spot yet, so Hardy will have to significantly outperform him in the final two preseason games.
The decision to keep Nick Ralston is me going out on a limb. Dallas may not keep a fullback at all, as few teams do, but if that’s the direction they want to go from a roster building standpoint then Ralston has done enough so far to earn a shot. In both preseason games, Ralston was active on special teams and showed some good blocking techniques in the run game. The fact that Sewo Olonilua, a second-year fullback who spent most of last year on the practice squad, is going to miss some time with an injury only helps Ralston’s case.
Wide receiver (6)
The reality is that these top five are locks right now. There had been some talk in the summer of the Cowboys getting ready to move on from either Wilson or Brown due to financial reasons, but both have looked good in preseason so far, especially with Cooper not suiting up yet.
The sixth and final spot – which Dallas may not even keep a sixth receiver – could get interesting. Malik Turner has looked undeniably good in both preseason games and has made a good case, but Dallas didn’t spend draft capital on him the way they did on Simi Fehoko. Turner is also much more likely to make it to the practice squad than Fehoko, who also had some good reps on Friday night. Turner also suffered an injury in the game, which could even make the Cowboys’ decision for them. Either way, if it’s a close call then Fehoko likely gets the nod.
Tight end (3)
This position group is probably signed, sealed, and delivered at this point. Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz are both capable of being starters on this offense, and Sean McKeon has impressed throughout all of training camp and both preseason games. The only real question is McKeon’s health after going down with what ended up being a high ankle sprain Friday.
Cowboys TE Sean McKeon suffered a high-ankle sprain Friday, source said. He’ll rest and continue to be evaluated as timeline determined. Preliminary estimate is 4-6 weeks. Unfortunate setback for McKeon, who had inside track on No. 3 TE job. Jeremy Sprinkle the clear option now.
— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) August 14, 2021
How quickly McKeon recovers from this unfortunate injury will determine what Dallas does here. In the event that the Cowboys temporarily put McKeon on the injured reserve, though, it’s a pretty good bet that free agent signee Jeremy Sprinkle makes the roster in his place.
Offensive line (9)
If it wasn’t already official, Tyler Biadasz officially won the starting center job on Friday after Connor Williams tried and utterly failed at it. That’s not to disrespect Williams at all; after all, he hadn’t played the position once until a few weeks ago. But it’s very obvious that Williams belongs at guard.
Ty Nsehke hasn’t done much to lock up a spot yet as the swing tackle, and his injury sustained Friday night could complicate things further, but expect Dallas to load up with depth on the line after what happened last year. Neshke provides that. As do Brandon Knight and Terence Steele, as well as Connor McGovern provided he isn’t starting at left guard. Josh Ball’s injury status makes it seem like he’s going to be stashed on the injured reserve, at least for now.
We discussed potential cuts that the Dallas Cowboys could make this week on the latest episode of Jersey Boyz on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Subscribe to our network so you don’t miss any of our episodes! Apple devices can subscribe right here and Spotify users can subscribe right here.
Interior defensive line (5)
So, the good news with Neville Gallimore is that his injury, a dislocated left elbow, is not going to be season-ending and doesn’t require surgery. The bad news is that he’ll miss roughly six weeks (or more) because of it. Gallimore was coming off a promising rookie year and an offseason in which he got into considerably better shape, and was gearing up for a big role on this defensive line. Now, Dan Quinn will have to find someone else to step up as they will likely have to IR Gallimore for some portion of the season.
That bodes well for Brent Urban and Carlos Watkins, both of whom have flashed in training but received little action in preseason thus far. Rookies Osa Odighizuwa and Quinton Bohanna have popped off the screen quite a few times as well, and may end up being thrust into bigger roles much like Gallimore was last year.
Traditionally, Quinn has gone with five intrerior defensive linemen and five edge defenders, so the assumption here is that he’ll do the same this year. If that’s the case, there’s one more spot up for grabs. Both Trysten Hill and Chauncey Golston (who’s technically an EDGE but will get some play on the interior as well) are still on the PUP list, but could be candidates if they’re activated soon. And Dallas could also look to a veteran free agent like Geno Atkins. But for now it’s Justin Hamilton, a forgotten name who’s quietly looked good this camp and could be a benefactor of these injuries.
DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory are going to be the top two guys coming off the edge, but Tarell Basham has had a very good camp as well and is expected to be the third guy in the mix here. Bradlee Anae, a Draft Twitter Darling last year, has also been making moves in camp. With Basham injured prior to Friday night’s game, Anae got the start and, aside from a senseless penalty, did not disappoint.
Ron’Dell Carter led the #Cowboys with 5 pressures and Bradlee Anae was second with 4 pressures vs AZ.
— John Owning (@JohnOwning) August 14, 2021
However, Dorance Armstrong arguably had the biggest impact in the game, frequently flashing and finished with the second-most tackles on the team and with two sacks. Last year, Armstrong maintained his roster spot and active status over Anae largely for his special teams ability, so him performing this well in a preseason game certainly helps his case and likely put to rest any discussions about not keeping him.
The conversation that will have to happen whenever Golston is activated off the PUP list is which of the above five gets replaced by the rookie. Of course, it’s also possible that Golston instead takes a roster spot from Hamilton or another interior defensive lineman, but it’s still something to watch for.
Leighton Vander Esch
Dan Quinn has traditionally gone light at linebacker, usually only keeping five on the roster at a time, so expect nothing different here. Micah Parsons is looking just as advertised, and Leighton Vander Esch is reminding everyone how good he is when healthy. Jaylon Smith has looked, well, like Jaylon Smith, but that contract makes it very hard to justify cutting him. Keanu Neal had a great game on Friday, but his roster spot was never in question to begin with anyway.
If indeed Quinn only goes with five linebackers, then the final spot will be one of much debate. There’s a lot of love for both Francis Bernard and Luke Gifford, but Bernard has been injured for a while now while Gifford hasn’t really stood out yet. Jabril Cox, on the other hand, has been great in both preseason games after hardly registering a thing in camp thus far. Cox has led the team in tackles in both games and flashed the coverage skills that made him such a steal in the draft. The rookie still has work to do, but if the fifth linebacker spot is the last one, Cox has been making a very strong case to be it.
There doesn’t seem to be much wiggle room here, with most of the intrigue surrounding who starts and where. We know Trevon Diggs is starting at one outside spot, and Jourdan Lewis is starting in the slot. Maurice Canady has been highly impressive in the slot too, and likely secured himself a roster spot as a result.
Anthony Brown has been manning the other outside corner spot for now, and while Kelvin Joseph has been pushing for the starting job he didn’t play too well against Arizona. Nahshon Wright has played like the better rookie through two games, but he’s likely going to be used on special teams in the short term. And C.J. Goodwin is a special teams ace, though he’s technically listed as a corner and is thus included in this section.
There is strong potential for a lot of fluctuation at this position, but right now it seems like these four are in the best position. Damontae Kazee and Donovan Wilson are likely the two starters in Week 1, and Malik Hooker’s upside can probably secure him a spot even though we’ve yet to see him actually play. Meanwhile, Jayron Kearse has versatility to play both safety spots and contribute on special teams.
Dallas is using rookie Israel Mukuamu everywhere, and he’s handled things well — highest-graded rookie safety right now.
LOS: 8 snaps
— Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) August 14, 2021
Rookie Israel Mukuamu has shown some potential thus far, especially as a versatile chess piece, but he may need to do a bit more in the remaining preseason games to steal a spot from someone like Hooker or Kearse. Darian Thompson’s special teams ability could also throw a curveball into the decisions, but for now it’s looking like these four are in the best position.
Special teams (3)
This is pretty straightforward. Hunter Niswander has done an admirable job as the pinch kicker while Greg Zuerlein recovers, but it’s fairly obvious that Bryan Anger will be the starting punter. Thanks for the memories, Niswander.