As fans get revved up for the start of the regular season, NFL teams are working overtime preparing for the final roster cuts. With a new coaching staff and fierce competition from young players, the 2011 Cowboys roster could see quite a few changes from a season ago. Jason Garrett has all but announced the expected overhaul across the offensive line, releasing three veteran starters from last year. Working down the Cowboys depth chart, there are several positions that seem to warrant keeping more players than is common practice, soon making the cuts down to the magic number (53) a painful battle of give-and-take.
The fans are not the only people lobbying for particular players to make (or leave) the team. Around the league, coaches, scouts, and owners are working overtime preparing final camp profiles for the players. Who has been better than expected? Who has shown the best work ethic and who has improved the most during camp? Questions abound and coaches will plead their cases for keeping additional players and roster spots will become scarce.
Let's take a look what positional roster groups may provide the coaches some flexibility to help keep young players at other positions or the special teams.
The size of an NFL roster exceeds that of virtually every other sport, yet every year teams release players that had coaches petitioning for them to make the roster. With eleven on both sides of the ball, a kicker, punter, and special teams specialists (snapper/returner), half the roster is filled with starters. So strictly speaking, you could create a roster allowing one backup for each starter with a few wild cards to add to specific positions if have versatile players to handle special teams duties. So for a team with a 3-4 defense like the Cowboys the generic roster would be as follows:
Quick inspection reveals a few areas where the Cowboys have some tough decisions to make.
As recently reported here at BTB, Jerry Jones has been on the radio revealing of few of the wild cards he has discussed using with Coach Garrett. The Cowboys appear primed to keep four running backs on the roster, making sure undrafted free agent Phillip Tanner makes the roster after earning his star with a great performance this offseason. So that's one wild card used up with Tanner helping backup Felix Jones alongside DeMarco Murray and Tashard Choice, since the Cowboys have never been without at least one fullback on their roster - right now we know that will not be Chris Gronkowski. (-1 Wild Card)
Jerry Jones also implied that the Cowboys will be looking to keep seven defensive linemen on their roster. This makes sense even with recent news of Igor Olshansky being released today (a chorus of Cowboys fans at BTB just began to sing and cheer), since Rob Ryan likes using multiple defensive line rotations. Current news seems to confirm Clifton Geathers earned the seventh spot and confirms the need for a wild card. (-1 Wild Card)
The way Jon Kitna handled the 2010 season while at the helm in Tony Romo's absence due to injury, it would be a tough sell for any coach to release such a proven veteran. Of course, the way Stephen McGee has continued to improve also makes it difficult to try and take advantage of the new rule concerning the "3rd QB" spot on the roster. A team could gamble and only keep two quarterbacks or have a wild cat player as their 3rd QB who with the new rule can play on special teams and other packages without forcing the starters to be benched. Instead, the Cowboys will likely keep both veteran backup and young understudy, using another wild card spot on the roster. (-1 Wild Card)
During the final preseason game, Jerry Jones also revealed the team is currently looking at five wide receivers. This is usually the case as a team will seldom start the season with the generic total at the position. The way Manny Johnson has improved this offseason, wide receivers coach Jimmy Robinson may be fighting to keep six receivers, with Kevin Ogletree, Dwayne Harris and Jesse Holley seeming the likely backups to starting star duo Miles Austin and Dez Bryant. So this position battle at receiver will likely require at least one wild card and then still exclude a player that has shown promise. (-1 Wild Card)
The potential for John Phillips at TE and even HBack already makes this a heavy position for the Cowboys, especially considering Coach Garrett's frequent use of multiple tight end sets. This roster position was already almost insured a wild card, but the preseason performance of Martin Rucker and the injury to Martellus Bennett makes decisions even more difficult. (-1 Wild Card, maybe -2)
With recent news that Dan Bailey and David Buehler will both be kept on the roster, and the obvious need for our Pro Bowl punter and deep snapper, this means yet another extra roster spot has been sighted. (-1 Wild Card)
Tough Decisions Already:
As you can tell, we are now at a minimum of six spots above the generic roster numbers, and all the wild cards have been used up, and already it seems one promising receiver and one talented tight end will be forced off the roster. This could lead to the Cowboys looking to add some wild cards by reducing the generic roster number for one positional group...and it could be the youngest one on the roster.
Bill Nagy and Phil Costa are not only likely first time starters, but they are also versatile interior linemen that could provide the Cowboys with some flexibility with the number of linemen kept on the roster. This means that perhaps one backup guard spot can been shaved off the roster and have the only backup interior linemen be rookies Kevin Kowalski and David Arkin. That would be a lot of youth along the offensive line, both starting and as backups, and it could make Montre Holland expendable. While the big many performed well in the final preseason game, playing more reps than expected and making some nice blocks while on the move, his release could provide another wild card for the roster.
At offensive tackle, the Cowboys could look to keep only one backup swing tackle in Jeremy Parnell and release the struggling Sam Young. This would mean the Cowboys only keep eight total linemen, a risky proposition considering the total NFL experience of those eight, but it would allow for more roster flexibility elsewhere. (+1 Wild Card, maybe +2)
This appears to be another crowded depth chart. Orlando Scandrick and Barry Church have both had an exceptional offseason, and though they are considered the primary backups they will often be on the field with the starters with the defense is faced with multi-receiver sets. The Cowboys have mentioned Alan Ball's success at corner during the preseason stepping in for the injured starters, and Danny McCray is improving as a safety though already a solid special teams contributor. That fills up the generic roster spots of eight, and still young raw talent like Bryan McCann and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah who can provide some sparks as special teams returners and future potential at corner and safety are outside looking in. There is also an undrafted rookie Mario Butler that has shown some flashes at corner. This is a roster group in need of a wild card or two. (-1 Wild card, maybe -2)
It is said a 3-4 defense can never have enough linebackers. With Sean Lee and Victor Butler showing great strides as primary backups fighting for rotational work (some would debate starting spots) the Cowboys are still looking for the final two in the generic roster linebacker core of eight. Bruce Carter was drafted in the 2nd round, and while currently out until Week 6, the Cowboys will clearly be considering his future return and inside linebacker Kenwin Cummings seems to be the front runner for the fourth inside backer spot but could find it is only temporary. At outside backer Brandon Williams has been fighting to keep his roster spot, but young Alex Albright could be taking his place. The depth at linebacker is not great enough to warrant the use of a wild card, but it doesn't appear to be capable of providing one either. (NA Wild Card)
As you can see, there are a few more wild cards needed than available. Coach Garrett, Jerry & Stephen Jones, and company will face some difficult decisions today as the roster is trimmed down to 53. There could be some interesting moves or under stocked roster groups depending on what players on the bubble manage to earn a wild card and the star on their helmet. I am sure we will continue to debate which players deserve to stay, but we may have to start thinking about which ones will be released to do so, just like NFL coaches across the league are doing as we speak...as we eagerly await the 2011 Dallas Cowboys official roster.