Cowboys' Projected Winners of Key Position BattlesAugust 18, 2021
Cowboys' Projected Winners of Key Position Battles
The Dallas Cowboys got one game closer to the regular season and figuring out their Week 1 lineup in a 19-16 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Friday.
Mike McCarthy's team was on the losing side of a preseason game for the second week in a row, but these games aren't really about the wins and losses. They are about preparing for the season and, in some cases, figuring out what the rotation and snap share is going to look like in key positions.
Fortunately, the Cowboys are set at some of the most important positions. Dak Prescott, as long as he's healthy, is throwing the ball, while Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup form one of the most impressive receiver trios in football.
Other positions? Not so much.
The Cowboys still have a lot to figure out at some key positions, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Here's an updated look at some of those with predictions as to how it will shake out by Week 1.
As much as the Cowboys figure to be in nickel and dime personnel packages, there are really only two linebacker spots that would be considered full-time starters.
So, while the initial depth chart from training camp listed three starters, there were only two who were on the field for the first snap against the Cardinals.
There's already been some movement from that unofficial depth chart to the Cardinals game. It has first-round pick Micah Parsons starting alongside veterans Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch in their base 4-3 alignment.
When the game started against the Cardinals, though, they employed a slot cornerback and had Parsons playing alongside converted safety Keanu Neal on the inside.
Neal has made his mark every time he's been on the field in his new role. According to Marcus Mosher of Locked On Cowboys, he posted a PFF grade of 97.9 in his 19 preseason snaps with three stops, a forced fumble while not missing a single tackle.
Smith and Vander Esch have much more experience at linebacker. It won't be all sunshine for Neal or Parsons as they continue to acclimate to a new position and a new league, respectively.
It's too early to pencil in Neal over either of the veteran linebackers, but it does appear to be getting closer each passing day.
Prediction: Parsons, Smith and Vander Esch are the starters, but Neal plays more snaps than Vander Esch.
Cornerback (No. 2 and Slot)
After the 2020 season, one thing is sure about the Dallas Cowboys' group of cornerbacks: Trevon Diggs is a starter.
After that, everything is—and should be—up for grabs. The secondary had a rough season in 2020 and will look to regroup under Dan Quinn as the new defensive coordinator.
That begins with figuring out who will man the most important spots. With Diggs locking down one of the outside corner spots, the question becomes who will see the most work opposite him and who will draw the assignment of playing in the slot.
The Cowboys—like most teams—will likely play nickel personnel more than their base 4-3, so whoever draws that assignment will be integral to the pass defense.
That battle appears to be coming down to Jourdan Lewis and Maurice Canady. Lewis has predominately played on the inside in his role as a starter last season. The fact that the club brought him back on a three-year, $13.5 million contract this offseason would be an indication they plan on him reprising that role.
However, Canady, has made a strong case. The 27-year-old has largely been relegated to spot duty with the Baltimore Ravens in his career, but he was ranked the No. 2 corner on the Cowboys roster by the staff writers on the team's website.
On the outside, incumbent Anthony Brown is going to have to hold off incoming rookies Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright.
So far, it looks like the veteran will at least start the season there. He's been steady as a corner throughout his time in Dallas and neither Joseph or Wright have particularly stood out as ready to go.
As Jon Machota of The Athletic noted, Joseph's stock is down after the preseason game against the Cardinals. He was called for a holding that cost the team and was burned deep on the next play.
For a team with the kind of aspirations the Cowboys should have they can't afford to bring along a guy like that in the starting lineup right now.
Prediction: Canady starts in the slot, Brown starts outside.
Fantasy managers and Cowboys fans alike will be interested to see how this one plays out. Playing tight end on an offense that boasts the likes of CeeDee Lamb, Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and Ezekiel Elliott with Dak Prescott throwing the ball is a gold mine of opportunity.
The targets might be low, but when the Cowboys throw it to their tight end, it's likely he wasn't the first guy on the defense's radar.
The question is whether one of Blake Jarwin or Dalton Schultz will step up in the role and remain healthy.
Jarwin appeared to be set up for a breakout year in 2020. He was finally going to get a crack at the TE1 role with Jason Witten off to the Raiders. Instead, he tore an ACL and watched Schultz step into the lineup.
The 25-year-old ended up proving worthy of the spot with 63 receptions, 615 yards and four touchdowns on 89 targets.
Now the roles are a bit reversed. Schultz is nursing an ankle injury that kept him out of the preseason game, and Jarwin is getting a leg up based on the injury. He was listed as the first-string tight end in the training camp depth chart and got a bit of a run in the preseason game.
He was targeted just once and didn't record a reception, but the fact that he's out there and seemingly healthy will likely make him the starter.
Prediction: Jarwin starts Week 1.