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Cowboys depth chart 2021: Dallas’ projected starters for Week 1 heading into training camp

As is usually the case with the Dallas Cowboys, there’s no shortage of storylines heading into summer. Their OTAs have been headlined by the return of Dak Prescott, but he’s not the only one back in uniform. So are Tyron Smith and La’el Collins, as well as tight end Blake Jarwin, and then there’s the fact Dan Quinn now coordinates the defense — the Cowboys desperately hoping he can fix everything his predecessor might’ve broken in 2020. The offense is set to get back to being prolific and maybe even more so with an intriguing addition in rookie Simi Fehoko, and the defense basically received the kitchen sink in the 2021 NFL Draft, with rookie first-round pick Micah Parsons already impressing as mandatory minicamp gets underway.

The problem is, well, the reality of it all. In other words, there’s a lot of potential with each player on the roster (that’s how they got to the NFL in the first place), but someone will inevitably either suffer an injury that opens the way for someone else or they’ll simply not make a mark quickly enough. 

And with teams now having only minicamp, training camp and the preseason ahead of them (with a four-week vacation between minicamp and training camp), there’s not as much time as teams think to truly get a handle on who deserves to be on their final roster, who doesn’t and who needs to be stashed for later. And with that, let’s take an early stab at what the Cowboys roster might look like when they visit the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1. 

Lots of tough decisions to make here, so let’s talk about them. 

Offense (24)Forecast: 100% chance of Rayne

He’s back and, by all accounts, Dak Prescott looks like he never left. As he works to get back to business with his usual cast of weapons — and having hoped the Cowboys went heavy on defense in the 2021 NFL Draft (spoiler: they did) — Prescott will see a few new faces on his side of the ball from both free agency and the draft. The addition of Ty Nsekhe looks to be an upgrade over a very disappointing stint with Cameron Erving and should help keep him upright, behind the return of Tyron Smith and La’el Collins, and the addition of rookie wideout Simi Fehoko adds a lot of speed to the WR position while Jeremy Sprinkle joins the tight end room to throw his blocking prowess into the mix. And speaking of tight ends, Blake Jarwin joins Prescott in returning from injury but in a world where Dalton Schultz has now proven himself a starter, and it sets the Cowboys up to have a true two-headed threat at TE.

There’s no doubt CeeDee Lamb will level up over his breakout rookie season, nor is there a concern about anything to come from Michael Gallup and Amari Cooper, so the most looming questions (not related to health) hover over the interior offensive line — where Connor Williams tries to hold off Connor McGovern and a progressing Isaac Alarcon, while Tyler Biadasz tries to make good on praise that has Collins seeing Travis Frederick in him. All things considered, it’s a loaded offense for the Cowboys but they’re overloaded at WR, and everyone can’t come to the party in September. That said, expect players like Noah Brown and Cedrick Wilson to win out over the slew of younger guys, most of whom will have a shot at making the practice squad. 

As for the backup quarterback role, Gilbert is taking an early lead and has thus far kept the Cowboys from signing any of the veterans they’ve worked out. Cooper Rush feels long in the tooth at this point and Ben DiNucci needs more development, and still qualifies for the practice squad — something to consider when sifting through why the Cowboys would carry only one backup on the active roster (along with the fact Prescott’s ankle was surgically designed to be stronger than it was pre-injury).

Defense (26)Let’s get ready to rumble

It’s expected the Cowboys will see fireworks in training camp, and not because it’s a late Independence Day celebration. It’s because they entered the offseason with a massive amount of need on the defensive side of the ball and, months later, they’ve now added a slew of bodies to the mix in the hopes of fixing what ails them. From free agency additions like Brent Urban and Tarell Basham to a draft aimed mostly at stacking defensive talent — led by first-round pick Micah Parsons — the position battles for Dallas this summer will bring more heat than the glowing ball hovering above them at practice in Oxnard, Calif. The linebacker position alone is set to turn heads, as Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith try to earn a future with the Cowboys against Parsons, Keanu Neal and a steal of a pick in Jabril Cox. Vander Esch is already back to wowing coaches in practice as he walks into a contract year, applying that much more pressure to Smith to match serve.

The clashes don’t stop there, though, because there’s also much to determine both on the defensive line and at safety (the latter seeing Damontae Kazee off to a running start opposite Donovan Wilson). The return of Trysten Hill from injury sees a front office favorite coming back to a roster that’s now seen Urban added to aid in the run defense, ready to challenge both Hill and Neville Gallimore for snaps following the retirement of Tyrone Crawford. Tarell Basham can also flex inside and depending upon the play call, Quinton Bohanna will most certainly get his reps as a 0- and 1-tech tasked with eating up blocks and opposing RBs. 

And then come the edges, with Randy Gregory finally set to be unleashed as starter opposite DeMarcus Lawrence, while Bradlee Anae fights desperately for a shot in his second year against the likes of Basham and another team favorite in Dorance Armstrong. Add rookies Chauncey Golston and Osa Odighizuwa to the mix and, again, there’s much to figure out — as in who gets the nod and who gets risked to waivers in the hopes of re-signing them to the practice squad. Lastly, don’t forget about cornerback, where Nahshon Wright locks horns with Reggie Robinson behind Kelvin Joseph and Trevon Diggs, with Wright being Quinn’s “guy” in the draft and Robinson probably needing a moment to get back to playing CB after having lost a year to a failed safety experiment thanks to Mike Nolan.

Special teams (3)Snap, crackle and pop

It’s a new era on Cowboys special teams, thanks to the molding of it by John “Bones” Fassel. This season will see legendary long snapper L.P. Ladouceur surprisingly replaced by Jake McQuaide — a Pro Bowler in his own right — while Chris Jones is replaced with Bryan Anger, who is set to replace Hunter Niswander at punter. McQuaide joins Zuerlein in being a carryover from Fassel’s days with the Los Angeles Rams, and the Cowboys are banking on all three making noise once the right milk is poured. 

Expect the speedy Fehoko to begin taking over return duties from Lamb and possibly Pollard down the road, with Lamb, Pollard and Wilson all being available to operate in the role(s) at certain points until further notice.

Practice squad candidates

There are many that will be quality enough to get a look for the Cowboys practice squad, and here are some who’ll likely get a first look as the team tries to flesh out the unit ahead of the Week 1 opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Keep in mind they can elevate two practice squad players on game days, a change that landed in 2020 due to the new collective bargaining agreement.



Special teams:

This list isn’t all-encompassing, but rather a list of players who might get extra consideration for the Cowboys practice squad. In chopping down the roster to 53 players, there will inevitably be several tough decisions to make, but they have to be made, and it’s on the players to make a strong case in June, July and August to not be set free ahead of September by throwing every proverbial haymaker they can as they fight for their future with the Cowboys and NFL as a whole.

Ring the bell.