Cowboys 2013 Offseason: Assessing The Roster Changes

Franchising defensive end Anthony Spencer was Dallas principal offseason move. - Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys went into this offseason with far fewer holes than in 2012 - and with far fewer resources to fill those holes. Nevertheless, they spent wisely, managing to get good value, for their dollars as well as their draft picks. As a result, we have a roster that reflects the priorities of its head coach: youth, depth, athleticism.

Back in mid-February, I offered up a series of posts in which I looked at the offseason task facing our fave team. My starting point was to imagine I was a member of the Dallas braintrust, tasked to ask a pair of key global questions: first, what positions need to be filled and/ or replaced? and second, how might we best address those roster spots: via free agency? the draft? a combination of the two?

The first step was to take a long, hard look at the Cowboys roster. As we waved goodbye to the 2012 campaign and to several Cowboys whose contracts expired as the season did, and welcomed in a new defensive scheme, the roster offered a cornucopia of unanswered questions. All the starters appeared to be set, but holes existed at positions that would receive a lot of snaps when they deployed in formations other than standard 21 personnel: third receiver, second tight end, backup running back.

In addition, several questions emerged: would they look to find a cheaper option at Fullback than Lawrence Vickers? What would they do with Doug Free and his big contract? The questions were no less numerous on defense, where (with Kyle Wilber and Alex Albright moving to defensive end) the team had only two legitimate holdovers at linebacker, a lack of quality depth at safety and numerous questions along the defensive line.

The Cowboys had only six draft picks and very little money to spend in free agency, but used these limited resources efficiently, engineering an impressive roster overhaul in surprisingly few moves.

Let's begin with the offense as it looked a couple of weeks after the Super Bowl. I have gone only three deep on the depth chart (apologies in advance; there may be some pet cats that don't show up). Any roster spots previously manned by players who were no longer officially on the roster, such as Felix Jones and John Phillips, I marked with a "????"). In addition, I marked the team's only two RFAs, Phil Costa and Danny McCray, with a single asterisk. Aging vets whose roster spots appeared to be in danger received the dreaded triple asterisk.

Here's what the offensive depth chart looked like in mid-February:

Position Starter Backup Third String
QB Tony Romo Kyle Orton
RB DeMarco Murray ???? Phillip Tanner
FB ***Lawrence Vickers
SE Dez Bryant ???? Cole Beasley
LT Tyron Smith Darrion Weems
LG Nate Livings Ronald Leary
OC *Phil Costa Ryan Cook Kevin Kowalski
RG Mackenzie Bernadeau David Arkin
RT ***Doug Free Jermey Parnell
TE Jason Witten ???? James Hanna
FL Miles Austin Dwayne Harris Danny Coale

And here's what the offensive depth chart looks like now. For the updated charts, I've colored free-agents light blue; recent draftees are in light red. I've also included select UDFAs; they're in light green:

Position Starter Backup Third String
QB Tony Romo Kyle Orton
RB DeMarco Murray Joseph Randle Lance Dunbar
FB ***Lawrence Vickers
SE Dez Bryant Terrance Williams Cole Beasley
LT Tyron Smith Darrion Weems
LG Nate Livings Ronald Leary
OC Travis Frederick Phil Costa Ryan Cook
RG Mackenzie Bernadeau David Arkin
RT ***Doug Free Jermey Parnell Darrion Weems
TE Jason Witten Gavin Escobar James Hanna
FL Miles Austin Dwayne Harris Danny Coale

February's three most evident roster holes - backup tight end and running back, third receiver - have been filled (we can say what we want about the offensive line, but at present the team has starters at all five positions). Moreover, there is significantly more - and better - depth on this side of the ball, which is a critical step forward for a team that waggish scribes have characterized as composed of "stars and scrubs."

Here's what the defensive depth chart looked like around Valentine's Day. As above, vacated roster spots received the dreaded "????"; aging veteran corners with bloated contracts are marked with three asterisks:

Position Starter Backup Third String
LDE ???? Tyrone Crawford ***Marcus Spears
LDT Jason Hatcher Sean Lissemore Rob Callaway
RDT ???? ***Jay Ratliff
RDE DeMarcus Ware ????
SLB ???? Alex Albright Kyle Wilber
MLB Sean Lee Dan Connor Orie Lemon
WLB Bruce Carter ????
LCB Brandon Carr Sterling Moore Vince Agnew
SS Barry Church ???? *Danny McCray
FS ***Gerald Sensabaugh Matt Johnson
NCB Orlando Scandrick
RCB Mo Claiborne Orlando Scandrick

Some degree of confusion at all three defensive levels. Inferior depth at safety cost them last year, when Danny McCray was asked to play at a level of responsibility that exceeded his talent. In addition, the switch to a 4-3 scheme meant that the bulk of the team's ‘backers were now defensive linemen. And here's where the roster is now. As before, FAs are in blue; draftees in red; UDFAs are in green:

Position Starter Backup Third String
LDE Anthony Spencer Tyrone Crawford Alex Albright
LDT Jay Ratliff Sean Lissemore
RDT Jason Hatcher Rob Callaway Ben Bass
RDE DeMarcus Ware Kyle Wilber
SLB Justin Durant DeVonte Holloman
MLB Sean Lee Ernie Sims
WLB Bruce Carter Brandon Magee
LCB Brandon Carr Sterling Moore B.W. Webb
SS Barry Church J. J. Wilcox Danny McCray
FS Matt Johnson Will Allen Jakar Hamilton
NCB Orlando Scandrick B. W. Webb
RCB Mo Claiborne Orlando Scandrick

This is where the offseason makeover is most evident, and also manages to still be most confusing. On one hand, both positions that were the biggest question marks in February now sport good, if unproven, depth. On the other hand, one of the offseason's highest priorities will be to figure out which defensive linemen play where. We know who the starting defensive ends will be: Ware and Spencer. Other than that, little is certain, and particularly so when it comes to promising youngsters like Tyrone Crawford and Ben Bass, who flashed the ability to be active 5-techs in training camp last year. But where will they play in the new scheme? Strongside end? Defensive tackle? Your guess is a good as mine.

As Jason Garrett has made clear, the Cowboys will have competition throughout the roster. And, as we know, competition for the final spot tends to push upward, as the third stringer pushed the number two guys, who keeps the burner on under the starter's backside. On offense, I think we'll see this in particular at receiver, where a lot of solid players will be competing for fourth and fifth positions. On defense, there should be some interesting jockeying for spots at defensive tackle, backup linebacker and safety. The good news is that they seem to have some viable, young athletic candidates for these positions.

There are still numerous soft spots that must be addressed in future offseasons, foremost among them the offensive and defensive lines, where much-anticipated improvements never materialized this year. But they did bring some good players into the fold (I think the team had its best draft since 2005 - yes, better than 2011). In 2010, Garrett inherited an old, thin, and overpriced group and, in three seasons, has created a younger, deeper, more competitive, and less entitled bunch. There is still work to do, but I'm encouraged by theprogress made. Now, about those offensive and defensive lines...

More reading:

In the Film Room: JJ Wilcox and the "Jump" call

Who Will Be The Cowboys' 2013 Breakout Player?

Tony Romo Cuts Back On Golf

Draft Grade: Safety J.J. Wilcox

Five Training Camp Battles On Offense

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