Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Things aren’t looking so good for these players now.
On Tuesday the NFL and NFLPA agreed to completely get rid of the preseason for the 2020 season after initially considering playing just one or two games. In addition to trimming the training camp roster maximums to just 80 players, this will have a significant impact on how teams evaluate their players and make final cuts.
For the Cowboys, with an almost entirely new coaching staff, all they have to go off of is how players perform in training camp and any preexisting film on the player. The lack of in-game experience from preseason games will hurt some players, and these eight players in particular could suffer the most.
A third-round pick for the Cowboys in 2019, Connor McGovern was expected to push Connor Williams for playing time at left guard, but an injury kept him out of preseason games and ultimately landed him on the injured reserve list for his rookie year. Now in his second season, McGovern will once again play in zero preseason games.
Preseason games are perhaps most important for offensive linemen because it gives coaches an opportunity to actually see them perform in real time against defensive linemen with full pads on. It can be very difficult to judge offensive linemen in practices, especially when there’s no contact allowed or pads being worn. Additionally, playing in preseason games helps give teams an idea of how individual linemen work with each other as a full unit, an underrated aspect of line play.
McGovern will still have a shot to try and unseat Williams at the left guard position, but it seems a lot less likely now. McGovern has no film on him as an NFL player, while Williams has two seasons worth of experience starting at left guard, with at least some of it being positive. Given that whoever starts at left guard will also be playing next to a new starter at center, Williams’ experience should give him an advantage here that will be hard to chip away at now.
Speaking of that center position, Travis Frederick’s retirement opened up a hole at center. While it’s not easy, or even realistic, to replace one of the league’s best centers over the last decade, the Cowboys must do their best.
Tyler Biadasz might be their best shot at doing so, as the fellow Wisconsin Badger drew favorable comparisons to Frederick for his dominant college career. But a down senior season caused Biadasz to slip to the end of the fourth round this year, and there are concerns over whether that dip in production was tied to arthroscopic surgery the offseason prior.
When drafted, Biadasz was regarded as a potential long-term cornerstone for the Cowboys’ line, but there were questions over whether he’d be able to regain his form and play right away. The preseason was supposed to figure that out, and if Biadasz looked like his former self he’d have easily won the starting job over veteran Joe Looney. Now, things are a lot more uncertain, and the starting center job could now be Looney’s to lose.
I’ve been one of Dalton Schultz’s biggest (only) supporters since he was drafted out of Stanford in the fourth round in 2018. I anticipated him assuming the starting tight end role by the end of his rookie year, but Geoff Swaim and Blake Jarwin prevented that. Witten’s return in 2019 meant even less action for the tight end built like a lineman.
Entering the 2020 season, Schultz’s job was clearly in jeopardy. Jarwin ascended to TE1 status with his four-year contract extension, and Mike McCarthy brought in free agent Blake Bell to presumably take over as Jarwin’s immediate backup, meaning Schultz is competing for the third and potentially final spot for tight ends.
Schultz’s top competition is Cole Hikutini, who spent last season on the Cowboys’ practice squad, as well as undrafted free agents Sean McKeon and Charlie Taumoepeau. That might work in Schultz’s favor as far as staying on the final roster, but Schultz was also expected to at least compete with Bell for the TE2 spot. That chance is diminished now, and assuming the Cowboys brought Bell in for a reason, it’s likely they’ll favor Bell over Schultz without preseason games to go off of.
DT Trysten Hill
Some fans may have already forgotten about Trysten Hill, but the Cowboys’ top draft pick from last season is still here. Considered a raw prospect coming out of UCF, Hill was billed as having the potential to become exactly what Rod Marinelli has been searching for in a 3-technique defensive tackle.
But the rookie only saw 121 snaps on defense (11% of total defensive snaps) in seven games and logged just five tackles. With Marinelli gone and Jim Tomsula bringing a diametrically opposite approach to the defensive line, Hill seemed like an outcast.
That was before Dallas went out and signed Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe, and then drafted Neville Gallimore. Now it looks like Hill may get even less playing time than he did in his rookie year. Marinelli was the one guy in Hill’s corner last year, and having the defensive coordinator and defensive line coach in your corner is a good thing. But now there’s seemingly nobody in his corner.
Hill probably isn’t in danger of being cut outright, at least not yet, but the writing is very much on the wall. A solid training camp combined with some flashes in preseason games may have helped his chances with the new coaching staff, but that’s out the window now.
Every year there’s at least one undrafted free agent who manages to impress enough during training camp and the preseason to earn a roster spot with the Cowboys. Brandon Knight and Ventell Bryant were the stories last year, and heading into this year it looked like Francis Bernard had a good shot at being the next such case.
The linebacker, who was dubbed by Pro Football Focus as “one of the most pro-ready linebackers” in his draft class, was never going to challenge for starter’s snaps behind Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, and Sean Lee. But Bernard offered valuable depth and a potential successor to Lee as the defense’s third linebacker in base formations.
In the short term, though, Bernard needed to show his ability to contribute on special teams, which preseason games are crucial for determining. Additionally, playing well in the preseason games would have given Dallas a more clear idea of what kind of depth Bernard would bring. Without those games to play in, Bernard is surrounded in just as much uncertainty as he was before, which led to him going undrafted. In order to make the final roster, the Cowboys will need to do a lot of projecting.
Jourdan Lewis may be the most polarizing player on the roster. Depending on who you ask, Lewis is either a transcendent talent who’s been sabotaged because of a coach’s irrational prejudice against short people, or he’s a liability in coverage because he’s too small to hold his own.
The reality is likely somewhere in the middle, as Lewis has been productive when on the field but far from perfect. Either way, the new coaching staff gives him an opportunity to prove himself all over again, but Lewis will likely still compete with Anthony Brown for the starting slot corner role. Given that both players have been fairly equal in terms of production in the slot, it seemed like the two would each get ample opportunities in preseason games and the best man would win.
Now, things are much more complicated. There’s going to be a lot less substance to go off of here, which means the coaches may end up doing some guesswork based on their own preferences. If that’s the case, then Lewis is in trouble considering cornerbacks coach Al Harris has expressed a desire for bigger defensive backs.
As a sixth-round pick in 2019, Donovan Wilson wasn’t expected to do much, but a highly productive preseason performance not only earned him a roster spot but got fans hoping for the hometown product to overtake Jeff Heath as a starting safety. It didn’t happen, and Wilson only saw 16 total defensive snaps for the year while spending some time on special teams.
Xavier Woods and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are the projected starters at safety going forward, and Chidobe Awuzie may eat into some playing time there as well, so special teams was going to be a major emphasis for Wilson heading into this season. As with Bernard, it’s a lot harder to demonstrate your value as a special teamer without preseason games, meaning Wilson could once again see little to no playing time.
Most people expect Greg Zuerlein to be the Cowboys’ kicker for the 2020 season, and that’s a logical assumption considering new special teams coordinator John Fassel has worked with Zuerlein his entire career thus far. But Kai Forbath still has a shot at winning the competition after Zuerlein’s down year in 2019.
Working in Forbath’s favor is the fact that he was perfect on field goals during his brief time in Dallas last year, while Zuerlein only made 72.7% of his field goals last year. The Cowboys are hoping Zuerlein rebounds and returns to the kind of player he has been most of his career.
But if that doesn’t come to pass, Forbath had a chance to succeed by simply being better. While Forbath and Zuerlein can still have a competitive position battle without preseason games, it takes away more chances for Forbath to prove himself. And with Zuerlein already the favorite, Forbath needed all the chances he could get.