Special Teams And The Dallas Cowboys Roster

There is a lot of focus on Alex Albright's value to the Dallas Cowboys as a linebacker. But the deciding factor for him, and other players at the bottom of the roster, may be his value on special teams.

In my last post, I took a look at how to build a final 53 man roster for the Dallas Cowboys. I parsed and dissected and pondered, and came up with what I thought was a well-reasoned and very supportable list of names.

So, of course, the next day I read an article that explains just how little I know and how wrong I probably am.


Related: Building The Cowboys’ Roster – An Incremental Approach

The article is by Bob Sturm, posted on FoxSportsSouthwest.com, titled Examining the realities of special teams. If you have ever wondered why players like Akwasi Owusu-Ansah hang around on the roster when there seem to be more talented players that could be kept, this article will open you eyes. I strongly suggest you read through the original piece, although I will be paraphrasing things here.

Thing that I got from this is that you have to have some players on the roster who are primarily there for special teams. A team cannot just take the best players for each of the positions on the offense and defense, but has to invest in some specialists. Now, we have all heard about how the special teams are an often overlooked part of the game, but this goes a bit deeper. Sturm breaks down the 2011 Cowboys game at the Washington Redskins, and looks at the entire roster. He covers every snap of the game and all 46 players who were active that day - most of whom were on the field at some point. As far as I can tell, only the backup QB and some backup linemen failed to see any use. Of particular interest to me, he looked at the four special teams formations (excluding field goal/extra points) - kickoff return, punt return, kickoff coverage and punt coverage. There were several players who saw very little or no action on the offense or defense, but were very involved in these four ST units.

What I learned, and how I think that affects the roster, after the jump.

There were seven players who were on all four of the special teams groups: Jesse Holley, Owusu-Ansah, Alex Albright, Danny McCray, Barry Church, Bruce Carter, and John Phillips. All were players who saw almost no time on the field with the offense or defense, and AOA was on the roster strictly for special teams, as Strum sees it.

All bottom of the roster types. No linemen involved, because you have to have players who can run when you are covering or returning. But the main thing is, they just about have to be players that are hardly going to see the field outside these plays, because they cannot be too worn out.

I never thought about that. As Sturm puts it:

If there is an injury in the first quarter, are you prepared to ask the 44th guy on your roster to cover kicks against Brandon Banks or DeSean Jackson with your season on the line?

You better be.

This puts a whole new light on things. It shows why a player who has looked very, very good on the field, like Cole Beasley, may have more of an uphill struggle to make the squad than we think. He is doing very well as a receiver, but unless the team wants to go with him as the third wide receiver, he may not get a slot, because he does not have a history of returning kicks or the size to do much on coverage. To quote from another Sturm article, this one titled The surprising story of Cole Beasley:

But, (Danny) Amendola, (Wes) Welker, (DeSean) Jackson, and even (Dwayne) Harris have one thing going for them that Beasley does not. They were and are all special teams weapons. Everyone in that group was the regular returner on punts, kicks, or both in college, the pros, or both. But, at SMU, Beasley returned 4 punts and 1 kick in 4 years. He is just learning the complicated craft right now.

There is one of the reasons that Dwayne Harris may be ahead of Beasley when the team is looking at the receiver position. This is also why players like AOA, Saalim Hakim and Teddy Williams may not be as dead in the water for a roster spot as we might think. I confess. I don't think I have looked at who lines up on the special teams. And since I won't have NFL Replay until the regular season, I am not going to be able to do any research on this for a while (yes, I am one of the luddites without a DVR at home). But this does make me realize that fans like myself don't always grasp the entire picture that the coaches and staff of our teams see.

This makes me think that Danny McCray and Alex Albright are probably closer to being locks than I realized. They are developing nicely at their positions, but also have proven ST value. The difference between them and the Jessie Hollies is that they show more upside. They have the possibility of growing into position players. I think the Cowboys just decided that Holley had reached his limit as a receiver, where all the other specialists Sturm listed are still progressing as players.

This is also a great way to hang onto the occasional project player for a season or so. Strum stresses that the ST players, coming from the bottom of the 53 man roster, are especially susceptible to churn. You can take someone because, say, they can cover kicks and have outstanding speed, while you take a year to figure out if they will ever be more than that. If they aren't coming along, ala Holley, then you move on in the offseason.

Hakim and Williams suddenly become much more interesting cases in this light. Hakim's specialty was kick coverage back when he played semipro ball. He may make it just to streak down the field and light someone up. And Williams has that burning speed, but still needs to develop as a receiver. Or corner. Or something. He may be worth putting on the field on ST for a year. Then you see if he has developed other skills. Meanwhile, players that we fans would think would be more valuable overall are not kept, because they just don't have what it takes (usually raw speed) to make it on special teams.

While this does not make me smart enough to figure out which players will make the team and which won't, I do realize that when the season starts, there will likely be some names on the roster that will only make sense if I remember all this.

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