FRISCO, Texas — Cutting down an NFL roster is one of the more difficult things teams will have to do all season, and when it came time for the Cowboys to make their decisions ahead of the league’s cutdown deadline of Tuesday, Aug. 30 at 4 pm ET, they found themselves faced with some real “headscratchers” – as owner and general manager Jerry Jones referred to them.
It goes without saying, and yet it must be said, that there is also a certain portion of roster-building that involves transactional acrobatics, and the Cowboys were no stranger to such in 2022, knowing they’ll have to move All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith to injured reserve, but doing so before Aug. 31 would mean he’s unable to return this season; and the same applies to wide receiver James Washington.
Instead, they’ll both be moved after Tuesday’s deadline, allowing them to return at some point down the road and then opening spots on the active roster to be filled by whomever the Cowboys already have their eye on.
Overall, there were no surprises – the aforementioned acrobatics notwithstanding – and that includes Michael Gallup being carried on the active roster after starting training camp on the team’s physically unable to perform (PUP) list.
And with the Tuesday’s transactions in the books, here’s how each position fared following cutdowns:
Quarterback: Don’t look now but there’s only one quarterback on the roster in Dallas – both Cooper Rush and Will Grier having been set free on Tuesday – so either the Cowboys are truly of the belief that Dak Prescott is “in the best shape of his life” heading into the 2022 season or there’s some chess being played here.
The truth is it’s both: Prescott looks great but no team is willing to walk into an actual NFL game with only one QB on the active roster because, after all, this is still a contact sport. How the Cowboys go about resolving this will likely come to light in the very near future, and it could include Rush, Grier or potentially both in some capacity; or could they first see what falls from the backup QB tree around the league first? Either way, there will be another helmet behind Prescott’s when Sept. 11 rolls around.
running back: Much to the surprise of no one, the RB room is owned by Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard again in 2022, but all eyes were on the battle for RB3 heading into training camp. It was one that got exceedingly interesting thanks to the health of Rico Dowdle clashing with the emergence of undrafted rookie Malik Davis in what became one of the best position clashes in camp this summer.
Dowdle gets the nod during the cutdown to 53 players though and, while it never truly felt as if he was ever in jeopardy of losing his seat, Davis made a great case for why the Cowboys should consider carrying four running backs on the roster – it being entirely unlikely he’d survive waiters. It was a risk they opted to take, however, and Dowdle must now ready himself for what is projected to be a lot of usage as RB3 in 2022.
tight end: Sean McKeon entered last season with a lot of promise that was derailed by injury but, now healthy, he presented another tantalizing receiving option for Prescott. That was before the team used a fourth-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft on Jake Ferguson and then circled back to sign Peyton Hendershot in undrafted free agency. The former has a chance to challenge Dalton Schultz for the future at TE1, sure, but McKeon needed to keep Hendershot at bay this summer.
Instead, it was Hendershot walking past McKeon to secure a spot on the 53-man roster, aided by a strong showing in the preseason finale against the Seahawks and having won strong favor with tight ends coach Lunda Wells. With three TEs on the roster and Schultz under a franchise tag, don’t presume the competition at tight end is over – it isn’t.
offensive line: There were no surprise moves made here, and besides, we all know the headline for this group: Tyron Smith could miss months with an avulsion injury in which his hamstring was torn from the bone near his knee. What’s unknown is if the offensive line – one that entered 2022 with a lot of questions (even before releasing former starting right tackle La’el Collins) – will be a solid unit when things get underway against the Buccaneers.
The first step in the team’s pivot at left tackle is to move rookie first-round pick Tyler Smith back to that position after committing the former Tulsa tackle to left guard for the entirety of camp and, barring a move for a veteran and/or a setback in his recovery from an ankle sprain, it’s on the rookie to hit the ground running in Week 1; and he’ll need Connor McGovern and Tyler Biadasz to play well to his right as the two veterans are looked upon to level up (and the same goes for young backup guys like Josh Ball and Matt Waletzko).
wide receiver: KaVontae Turpin changed his equation for the Cowboys. The reigning USFL MVP was brought into camp in July with the goal of making him the return ace, but he’s proven to be that and possibly more. For as electric as he is as a returner (ask the Chargers), he’s also made as a wideout and even a quasi-RB (maybe also helping Dowdle keep Davis out of the picture) and keeping him was a no-brainer.
It was then about determining how things would shake out with Michael Gallup not heading to the reserve list and Noah Brown having one of the best camps of anyone. That left rookie third-round pick Jalen Tolbert to battle it out for depth supremacy against others like fellow rookie Dennis Houston and Simi Fehoko, but it always felt like would go down to Houston versus Fehoko – both having fantastic camps – and the Cowboys answered it by realizing sometimes the best choice between Option A and Option B is actually Option C: all of the above.
defensive line: It’s quite telling that four defensive linemen were released from what was one of the largest groups for the Cowboys, and don’t be surprised if one or two of those waived find their way back to the team’s practice squad in short order. It’s a unit led by DeMarcus Lawrence and, in a very real capacity, linebacker Micah Parsons, but it was no secret things needed to be sorted out after losing Randy Gregory to free agency.
The answer was to re-sign Dorance Armstrong, draft Sam Williams, grab Dante Fowler in free agency and expect Neville Gallimore, Chauncey Golston, Quinton Bohanna and Osa Odighizuwa to take the next step in 2022. As we have this conversation, the entirety of that plan has come together swimmingly for the Cowboys, to say the least, and that’s great because there will be no lifeguard on duty when Tom Brady and Joe Burrow come to town to begin the season.
linebacker: It’s rare you’ll hear this but, yes, a linebacker is a force in both the defensive line and linebacker room – namely Micah Parsons – but he’ll have some serious help in 2022. The addition of four-time linebacker Anthony Barr , who made his preseason debut for the Cowboys in the August finale against the Seahawks, is in position to truly thrive in Dan Quinn’s system and it’s no exaggeration to say Leighton Vander Esch has looked like the Pro Bowl version of himself in camp.
The team will the return of former fourthround pick Jabril Co enjoy from a torn ACL also in 2021, and Cox has already shown flashes of the quickness and coverage ability that made him a star linebacker at LSU. That’s a rotation of four potent options at linebacker, and though you won’t see rookie fifth-round pick Damone Clark on the field anytime soon (non-football injury list for 2022), the Cowboys arguably already have one of the best and deepest LB corps in the NFL – a far cry from what often the case in the pre-Quinn years.
cornerback: On to the defensive backs, and this is where the Cowboys were really up against it as it relates to trying to narrow their roster by 27 players on Tuesday. Unlike in recent seasons, Dallas didn’t find themselves in dire straits at the position but instead with an overflow of talent and that led to them holding onto a total of six cornerbacks. It’s a testament to not how well they’ve drafted when you consider it’s a group led by Trevon Diggs, Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis, all former draft picks who’ve made an impact in the NFL.
It’s now time for the young guys behind them to keep the good times rolling, and most of that pressure lies on former second-round pick Kelvin Joseph. This is especially true when factoring in how quickly rookie fifth-round pick DaRon Bland has come up to speed and Nahshon Wright, yet another former draft pick of the Cowboys, flashed at times in camp and this year’s final preseason game. So, as it stands, every one of the six CBs on the roster are homegrown or, at minimum, seeds that are already beginning to sprout roots.
safety: This was easily, and I do mean easily, one of the best camp battles to witness. It seemed a foregone conclusion who the top three bodies were at this position – ie, Malik Hooker, Jayron Kearse and Donovan Wilson – but would the Cowboys carry four safeties into 2022, or five? They opted to go five the handful, and it came down to Israel Mukuamu’s two interceptions in as many preseason games, along with his outstanding coverage, to put impressive rookie safety Tyler Coyle (a special teams performer) on the outs.
And, with that, Mukuamu becomes the fifth helmet in a safety room that is flat-out flooded with talent is inarguably one of the strongest parts of the defense. Quinn has completely revamped the way the Cowboys attacked the position and, unlike the CB group, the safety unit was saved by low-risk, high-ceiling free agency signings like Hooker and Kearse who have again found their groove in Dallas.
Specialists (K/P/LS): Wait, so you’re telling me there’s no kicker or long snapper on the roster, along with no backup quarterback? Of course that’s what you’re thinking right now, but much like the point above regarding Prescott being the only QB on the roster, it’s all about two key words: for now.
Brett Maher and Jake McQuaide were removed from the roster on Tuesday, true enough, but this feels much more like roster gymnastics than actual moves to fret over. Maher beat out Lirim Hajrullahu in camp and the Cowboys have had nothing but praise for him and, unless Rowdy is planning to snap to punter Bryan Anger this season, a long snapper will be on this roster before the Buccaneers fly into town. The specialists will all be sorted soon enough, so no worries.