One-armed Knife Sharpener
- Apr 7, 2013
By Bob Sturm 1h ago
One thing I think frustrates many of us on the Cowboys beat is the team’s reluctance to really try accomplishing anything in the preseason games they are forced to play. The Cowboys, perhaps to a higher degree than any other NFL team, have consistently demonstrated they would rather skip these exercises altogether.
Do they want to scrimmage teams at training camp? Not really. Heck, they barely run intra-squad scrimmage anymore. Do they want to play preseason games with any regulars at all? Not really. And they cast a pretty wide net over who the “regulars” actually are.
The biggest objective every year appears to be reaching Week 1 with as little damage possible to their roster. Therefore, when we try to sort through the preseason findings for worthy discussions, we have to dig pretty far down to find proper talking points. My colleague Jon Machota did a wonderful job of working through those storylines in this Sunday piece, but there wasn’t and isn’t a whole lot of meat on that bone to last us all week, in contrast to what the regular season regularly provides.
I certainly have plenty to say about the topics I brought up on Friday, most notably about the lack of competition at both the kicker and backup QB positions — a reality that drives me a little crazy. The Taco Charlton saga, which included him calling out his critics in the post-game scrum, remains relevant. The new-look Dallas offense being reluctant to show much in the preseason to the league is also interesting. But we will continue to focus on these pictures as the days continue and camp closes for a trip to Hawaii, then a return to Frisco over the next seven days.
Today, I want to look at two interesting roster battles. Which running backs and wide receivers will make the cut? Let’s see where things stand.
The first thing to understand about the battle among the Cowboys’ backup running backs is that this team has gone “bare minimum” at the position for much of the Ezekiel Elliott era. They really don’t wish to take him off the field, and they really don’t believe they can overuse him, so for a great deal of his three seasons — especially since 2016 when Lance Dunbar was around — they have elected to roster just two actual running backs. That would have been Zeke himself and Rod Smith. Smith certainly would get on the field as a backup, and his role did grow from year to year, but when they weren’t worried about a suspension, the Cowboys seldom would even carry three actual running backs in 2018. Instead, they really liked having a fullback on the roster in Jamize Olawale. Together, Olawale and Rod Smith combined for 266 offensive snaps in 2018. Their combined special teams total: 521 snaps.
In other words, unless the Cowboys have changed their mind, the plan on offense has been to use Zeke and employ two other guys in case of injury, as well as for heavy-duty special teams work. And when we mention the heavy-duty work, let us remember that those two guys were quite big. Olawale weighs between 240-245 pounds and Rod Smith was always above 230. In running back terms, those are two guys built to cover kicks and punts more than they were built to run outside zone. That wasn’t their job description.
With Zeke living in Cabo for the time being, the Cowboys have Tony Pollard, Darius Jackson, Alfred Morris, Mike Weber and Jordan Chunn at running back. Their fullbacks are Olawale and Ryan Yurachek.
Allow me to assume that Chunn and Yurachek are camp bodies. The Cowboys very likely plan to keep Olawale as a key part of the special teams unit. Allow me to also assume that Zeke will be back in the stable by Week 1, although we had better not speak with too much certainty on that front as the clock keeps ticking while both parties report they aren’t even talking.
Assuming Zeke is back and Tony Pollard is such a cinch for the roster that they really didn’t even make him play more on Saturday than Tyron Smith or Dak Prescott (one drive of nine snaps for each of these three players), that would really only leave one spot on the 53-man roster if we surmise they won’t carry four tight ends this year and the running back room can steal back the Rico Gathers spot.
The candidates are:
Darius Jackson. Jackson is well-known around here because he was the only pick from the 2016 Cowboys draft class (nine players) that did not survive that first season in Dallas (Charles Tapper technically made it on injured reserve). But Jackson has always been a very interesting prospect, and he now enters Year 4 in the NFL having always been employed and snapped up within a few days of being made available. In 2016, he was grabbed by Cleveland after the Cowboys waived him for Darren McFadden. They stored him until last summer when he made it back to Dallas for the 2018 camp, where he just missed the roster. When Dallas wanted to slide him through to their practice squad, the Packers needed suspension cover for Aaron Jones and employed him for a few weeks, only to cut him again. At that point, the Cowboys did place him on their practice squad last year, and he did make it onto the 53-man in Dallas last year for the final two games against Tampa Bay and New York. He is now 25 years old and at 6’0, 220, it’s easy to see the Cowboys making him Zeke’s backup as well as a special-teams contributor, but he has always been a fringe player. Some remarkable preseason results could certainly help his cause, and he showed on back-to-back snaps on Saturday night that he can demonstrate a burst off the line and also can jump-cut to daylight. I think he has a lead over Weber and Morris for the last roster spot at the moment.
Mike Weber. Weber was Elliott’s replacement at Ohio State back in 2016. Weber was certainly productive at Ohio State and is a name people know. He was taken in the seventh round and will get plenty of chances in the month of August to show what he can do at the NFL level. He is 5’10 and weighs 210 pounds or so, but isn’t as good an athlete as Jackson. Jackson’s testing scores from 2016 are better than Weber’s by every metric that measures explosiveness. Weber also had a nine-yard carry on Saturday night that demonstrated strong vision and some decent juice, but the snap before appeared to be a pass-protection bust that led to a sack (nullified by penalty) on Mike White’s blindside because Weber did not reach a blitzing defensive back. The biggest argument for Weber is he is 21 and has four years of team control on his contract, while Jackson does not. With that being said, I think Jackson is the better player right now.
Alfred Morris. Morris is the consummate professional who everyone loves. He is a pleasure to visit with and lives locally. If you need him in a pinch he will be there, and he elected this job over what we believe was a similar offer in New Orleans right before he signed. He is also 30 years old and therefore would probably hold little value on the waiver wire. If the Cowboys needed to, they could very likely slide him through easily in a roster bind. He would probably give everyone a little relief if the holdout does continue into the regular season, but I have to assume that he is probably not in the Cowboys’ plans otherwise. He offers little special-teams value and if Zeke is here, I am not sure there would be a significant reason to keep Morris.
At the moment, I suspect we will see Elliott, Pollard, Jackson, and Olawale on the Final 53.
Our friend Babe Laufenberg had this to say about the wide receivers on Saturday night’s radio broadcast: “There are four receiver spots locked up. Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, of course Randall Cobb — who they picked up this year — and I think Tavon Austin is your fourth, and he’s going to be your punt returner, most likely. But the rest of those guys on the roster you can almost put a blanket over: Jon’vea Johnson, Jalen Guyton, Cedric Wilson probably has a little step up on these guys, but they’re looking for somebody.”
I think we can all agree that Cooper, Gallup, Cobb, and Austin are in. If we then assume that there is a battle for two more spots to make up the normal six spots on a roster, and that at least one (or both) of those spots might require special teams value of some sort, the Cowboys have some options.
Noah Brown. The Ohio State alum is entering his third year and has the benefit of an established role. That role was established by Scott Linehan, however and the “blocking WR who is basically a blocking TE” position may not be as big a part of Kellen Moore’s offense. Brown is also on the PUP list with a foot injury, so we have not had a look at him, which both hurts his chances and helps those below him who are getting looks. He is just 23, has a very nice skill set, flashes receiving ability down the field and seems to be the type of end-of-the-roster receiver that you want. But there are plenty of candidates for this spot right now, and many of them made an impression on Saturday night.
Cedrick Wilson. Wilson is a 2018 sixth-rounder who was both a bit old as a draftee and was immediately injured at training camp last year. If you can get past that lost year in 2018 and just focus on his two seasons at Boise State in 2016 and 2017 plus what we have seen so far at camp, I really like what he offers the team. Wilson’s ability to make catches in traffic is easily apparent. He is not the most explosive guy on the roster by any stretch, but he catches everything close to him. I worry about his ability to stay healthy, but he is quite productive and may be big enough to contribute on coverage units. His Saturday performance only increased his value for me, but he was hit hard and illegally during the game and we await his status moving forward as he was pretty shaken up. I am told he appeared to be in pretty good shape after the game.
Jon’Vea Johnson. This undrafted rookie out of Toledo is probably the people’s choice, and this year’s most-mentioned undrafted prospect by those at camp. It generally goes back to the idea that people love juice and play-making, game-breaking ability. Johnson does have that ability to “take the top off” the defense. Unfortunately, we have also seen that he can drop passes that hit him in the hands at both camp and Saturday night, so we cannot call it a fluke when we see a drop. He oozes talent, but in the big leagues, that is no longer the difference-maker it might be at lower levels. You must be able to help right now. I like him, but I think he is definitely more of a practice-squad guy for me at the moment. He will have several more preseason chances to change minds.
Jalen Guyton. From Allen to Notre Dame to Trinity Valley Community College to North Texas, Guyton has been well-traveled and well-regarded. Another player that requires development, but the Cowboys really like what he brings to the table. Guyton has explosive traits and is often described as a better athlete than a technician at wide receiver. He’ll get a chance to help the team.
Reggie Davis. Davis has been in the league since 2017 and spent time in Atlanta, Cleveland, Atlanta and Philadelphia before being brought to Dallas and added to the practice squad last November. Davis is another fast player who has always been more of a return specialist than a receiver. That doesn’t mean he isn’t being developed and evaluated as another young receiver, but he has yet to fully distinguish himself. He is getting plenty of action, but he almost feels like Tavon Austin cover as a return specialist who might be able to do a little something as a receiver.
Devin Smith. And now, the most interesting man on Saturday night for me, but also probably the longest shot to make this roster. Devin Smith, yet another Ohio State guy, was a player of interest in the 2015 draft. In four NFL seasons since entering the league, he has made 10 catches for 135 yards and is now 27 years old. He was out of football altogether in 2018 and has never been healthy after a number of ACL issues and knee problems. But, as you saw Saturday night (assuming you were still watching late), he can still look great down the field with corner routes and deep Go’s. He would have scored a touchdown if Mike White didn’t miss yet another throw. Allow me to cite my own scouting report on him from April 15, 2015:
What I liked: He is a tremendous burner who has really impressive ball skills when there is a ball to be won in the air. He may not have fantastic size, but he does have a grade of athleticism that is pretty scary with 4.42 speed combined with a 39″ vertical leap. These two things make him very difficult to match when the ball is in the air. Ohio State would put him in the slot and run him on the 9 route against whoever the matchup would be and it was generally a major opportunity for the Buckeyes to win big. They literally ran the same play for touchdowns against Wisconsin twice in the 1st Quarter of their 59-0 win. He is too fast and too capable to get the ball for there to be any other result. He also has a real impressive knack with the over the shoulder catch. His combo of go routes combined with simple stops and curls make him a either/or route guy who is very solid in that department.
What I didn’t like: He only runs 2 routes! Well, in fairness, I did see a dig route once and a few slants, but there is almost nothing but straight line stuff from him so the corner is pretty clear on what is happening. If you put a safety over the top, then the corner sits short and Smith is neutralized. He had only 33 catches in 15 games in 2014, so there is a major issue of production when the opponent sits on him, yet he scored 12 touchdowns on those 33 catches. That is pretty crazy. Also, he averaged 28.2 yards per catch which not only led the nation, but led the nation by a large margin. He is limited in size and it is disconcerting that a senior who has been in that program for a while has such a limited route tree. Is that all he is? It is still valuable, but when he faces NFL corners, will the upside shine through as often? If he only has 2 catches a game in the Big 10, there is a chance that he will be further minimized on Sundays, and there isn’t much room for minimizing.
Since then, the Jets spent a high pick and a lot of money on him, but he has been injured for pretty much every year since. He looks healthy and dangerous again, but can that knee hold up enough to make the Cowboys discard a younger and healthier prospect that they would like to keep?
For me, if there are two spots left, Cedrick Wilson gets one and Noah Brown will probably have the inside track over Smith and Johnson for now. But Brown needs to get back on the field. I really like Devin Smith, but I also must concede that adding a 27-year old with massive knee issues is probably not a good idea unless you are going to have a role for him. I am not sure the Cowboys would, and I doubt he could cover kicks. They might want to go younger there.
Regardless, that is how I see things at these two interesting spots. These battles are worth keeping an eye on; some moved up and some moved back in Santa Clara. Onward to Hawaii and the Rams on Saturday!