First, a shoutout to Chia on this one. I've been working on my 53-man roster for a few days now, but he posted his earlier today. Ours have only a few differences, but his is great, too. If you haven't already, check it out--he has a link to it and his blog in the fanshots section, or you can just check it out here.
I was originally planning on including this in my Grading the Cowboys' Off-season post, but it ran a little longer than I intended, so I decided to break them into two parts. None of this is based on my personal training camp observation, since there's no way I could afford to go to San Antonio. But I have been following ESPNdallas' live chats, as well as Raf's camp-writeup, Dave's summary, and a few others very closely. Take me seriously, but please, take me with a grain of salt: afterall, I'm not there.
So without further ado, here's my roster projection. Remember: things will inevitably change, and I'm by no means claiming that this 53-man roster projection is the best or the most set in stone. The preseason games will mean a lot, especially for the final cornerback and safety spots, but also for depth at OLB and ILB. More than anything. this is more of an analysis of the final roster rather than a definite projection, but... projections are much more fun and easier to read. So when you criticize (which you're more than welcome to do), keep that in mind.
So without further ado...
No surprises here. Tony Romo is and will be Dallas' franchise quarterback, Jon Kitna will be his solid backup for the next season, and Stephen McGee has made some good strides this training camp (although he's still a bit slow with some of his reads). My guess is that Kitna retires at the end of the year, and the Cowboys look for their "quarterback of the future" in the next few drafts, but that's just my guess... and it has nothing to do with the 53-man this year.
Felix Jones, unless he slumps and Murray wows, will start all-season long--and it's about time, too. As we've learned recently during this camp, he's still explosive. Though he's yet to start an entire season, he showed during the last half of last year that he's ready to carry the starting load (he did so without incident or injury, and with a good YPC average). That doesn't mean that DeMarco Murray won't get his fair share of snaps-per-game.
I know some of you aren't happy with Tashard Choice being left out of my 53-man roster, but that's just the way it's going to be. After an impressive showing in his rookie season, Choice has been very unspectacular in a limited role the past two years, averaging just 3.9 ypc last season. Yes, it's a bit unfair that he got little playing time behind Barber. Unfair, but that's just the way it is. When he did see the field, he didn't do much. The Cowboys also need their third-string running back to play on special teams as well, which is something Tashard Choice can't do.
Enter Lonyae Miller. With Barber gone, the void of hard-nosed, between-the-tackles, short-yardage-situation back has arisen. That will be filled with Lonyae Miller. A bigger back who can be a bruiser, Miller came into camp in very good shape. With Barber gone and with both Choice and Murray injured, he's made the most of his opportunity by shining in training camp. Remember, Miller has been on the Cowboys' practice squad for a year. He played well in preseason games last year, and I don't see that changing this time around. The coaches know what they're getting from him, and Garrett seems to have taken a liking to him--the same can't be said for Tashard Choice.
Look for the Cowboys to unload his contract via trade (I'd say a 5th or 6th rounder is fair). If they can't, I really do think they cut Choice. He's not bad, but he just doesn't fit anymore.
At an unspectacular position, the Cowboys feel like Chapas can develop into a good lead-blocker. He doesn't deliver the same kind of pop that John Phillips has so far in training camp, but it seems like the front-office like his potential. He has made some plays, and they like his instincts. Chapas cost them a draft pick, so it's hard to see him losing his roster spot. If for some reason he falters, John Phillips is more than capable of playing the H-Back role here.
Tight End (3):
No surprises here, either. Martellus has underproduced by some's standards (although he IS the second tight-end and the 5th option in the passing game), but he won't be gone. He grades out to be the best blocker of the three tight-ends (unless you count Phillips in the Hybrid-back position). If he fails to impress, the Cowboys will merely let him play out his contract. Witten is a future Hall of Famer, and Phillips' talent and versatility earns him a roster spot.
Wide Receivers (5):
This position is a bit murky, because the 5th (or 6th) receiver spot has been a revolving door so far in training camp. Of course Austin and Bryant have the potential to be all-pros. Ogletree has had a consistent training camp, and I see the third-receiver role as his to lose... at least at the start of the season.
Dwayne Harris has been compared to Patrick Crayton, and I don't see the Cowboys letting their 6th-round pick go unless he just stinks it up all camp long. The Cowboys love Raymond Radway, as do many former scouts I've read up on. He projects to be very solid on special teams, and he's had some very flashy moments so far in camp. He's a little raw at receiver, coming from small-school Abilene Christian (a friend I have there says he's a good guy to boot), but his raw speed and playmaking ability give this guy a pretty high ceiling. He may not be a well-known name, but I'd see it as an upset if he's not on the final 53.
I'm a little iffy on the potential for Parnell to pan out in this league, but the Cowboys like his potential. It seems unlikely that the Cowboys would carry ten offensive linemen (realistically, you could squeak by with 3 or 4 backups), but I don't really see them cutting anyone.
Honestly, this is the part of my 53 man that I'm the least sure about. Montrae Holland has been consistent when he's filled in for Leonard Davis, but his weight and current injury are a major concern. If Arkin can make a push to start by the end of the preseason, look for Holland to possibly be the odd-man-out. Wouldn't surprise me to see the Cowboys sign Brian Waters and let Holland go, but I'm not willing to project that here until we actually see a sign of that happening. Nagy seems expendable too if the Cowboys feel like they need an extra spot somewhere else, but he's a rookie with potential so I don't see them letting him go (unless they feel they can hide him away on the practice squad). So this is my (tentative) list...
Gurode, next to Kosier, may be the most underrated piece of the Cowboys' line. He's a consistent player, but he's also getting on up there in years. Enter Phil Costa, who the Cowboys believe is not only a solid backup but (for now) he's seen as the future at the center position. Bill Nagy factors in here, too, but I have him listed at guard.
Defensive End (4):
You heard it here, my friends. I'm predicting an end to the Igor Olshansky era in Dallas. I don't know how they'll dump him--either through trade with the Texans or with his release--but I just don't see him here next year. Five defensive ends is most certainly one defensive end too much, and Olshansky is, like Choice, the odd man out. His contract may be a bit problematic (although I don't know the specific numbers), but I just don't see this unfolding any other way. Coleman will start in Olshansky's place either way, with Bowen and Lissemore getting plenty of reps in Ryan's ever-changing defense.
Defensive Tackle (2):
Jay Ratliff, Josh Price-Brent
Ratliff stays a defensive tackle, although he'll see plenty of reps at defensive end this year as well (another reason Olshansky is donzo in Big D). Why will Ryan line Ratliff up some at DE? Because Josh Price-Brent is the real deal. Strong and quick, his presence allows the Cowboys to move Ratliff around--and he also allows them to not have to excrete a brick should Ratliff get injured. Brent was one of Wade Phillips' better choices during his time in Dallas.
Outside Linebackers (4):
Not many surprises until you get to the 4th spot, which is a toss-up. Let's face it: the Cowboys' depth at outside linebacker is a bit scary. Daniels has a lot of potential, and plays a hybrid DE-linebacker role--I really see him fitting in somewhere in a limited role in the Rob Ryan defense. It really is a tossup between him and Brandon Williams. But with Williams' injury background and lack of production coupled with Daniels' versatility on the field and as a special-teamer, I give a slight edge to Daniels. Neither will be here in 2012, though.
Inside Linebackers (4):
I usually love Raf's writing and assessments, but he and I have never seen eye-to-eye about inside-linebackers (he projected in 2009 that Jason Williams would have supplanted Bradie James starting this season). It should come to no surprise that I disagree with him about our ILB group. He has Bruce Carter being on the 53-man roster as an iffy-thing. I, on the other hand, absolutely refuse to believe that the Cowboys give up on a second round pick just because his rehab is going along slowly.
If any position on the 53-man roster is going to expand, expect it to be this one. Bradie James is a solid starter, but behind him things get a little unsettling. Sean Lee could be a breakout star, but he also has a history of injuries. If he goes down, who supplants him? Brooking, the aging veteran? Bruce Carter, another injury-prone guy? All four guys are talented, but two of the four haven't proven they can stay healthy. I feel very uncomfortable here, and I'm sure the front office feels the same way. Orie Lemon is good on special teams, and he's turned a few heads with some good stops in training camp. If the Cowboys feel like keeping one less safety or cornerback than I project, look for them to keep Lemon at ILB in addition to the four I've listed.
I had a hard time leaving Alan Ball out. Not because I like him, and most certainly not because I'll miss him at safety... But I know the coach's like him for his versatility as a backup and as the fourth corner. Josh Thomas? It's not unprecedented for the Cowboys to leave a late-round cornerback off their 53-man roster (Jamar Wall, anyone?DeAngelo Smith? Mike Mickens?!)
But think with me here for a moment. Terrence Newman goes down and Orlando Scandrick fills his role in the starting lineup. Who do you trust to be the 3rd CB, Alan Ball, who's played CB and wasn't COMPLETE garbage, Bryan McCann, who has some potential, or Josh Thomas, the inconsistent rookie?
The 4th and 5th cornerback spots will absolutely be a preseason-game battle to watch, and they're subject to change. But without having seen these guys in action, I can only postulate here. It's very possible Josh Thomas is the latest 5th round cornerback for the Cowboys to let go. But I'm also completely willing to change my opinion. This will be a difficult decision for Garret & Co. And now we know why they went after Nnamdi...
Danny McCray, special-teams ace, is gone (along with Jesse Holley), much to the chagrin of Joe DeCamillis. But the Cowboys figure they can replace their special-teams production. And who knows, maybe the Cowboys keep Danny McCray? But you have to think here: there's an uncertainty at cornerback. The uncertainty at safety (this year) isn't nearly as severe: Elam and Sensabaugh are the starters, AOA is the project that gets another year, Church is a special teamer and solid backup... Sandejo has the advantage over McCray, because Sandejo has done well filling in at the safety spot and can also contribute on special teams. McCray didn't even start in college, and I don't think he's played much, if at all, safety in training camp. If the Cowboys had a 4th cornerback they could trust, McCray would absolutely make the team. But they don't. So he's the odd man out.
With this set-up, the Cowboys could very well cut a corner two or three weeks into the season and add McCray or someone else back into the picture.
Special Teams (3):
Matt McBriar is guaranteed a roster spot, as is the solid-yet-unheralded longsnapper Ladouceur. Dan Bailey has struggled in recent days, but he wins the kicking competition with Buehler. Kai Forbath has a shot, too, if he gets healthy by the end of camp. The coaching staff, however, will not stick a kicker on the 53-man who they didn't see kick in the preseason.