Late last week, I penned a post in which I ranked the offseason roster from 1-88, regardless of position. This, I wrote, can be a useful exercise because it takes the talent distribution across the team into account. Sure, we know the Cowboys will likely keep 3-4 running backs, 5-6 wide receivers and 2-3 quarterbacks on their final roster: there are certain minimum numbers the team must maintain at each position just to get through practice. But what these numbers don't tell us is how, for example, the third running back compares to the fourth receiver. When these two hypothetical players aren't comparable, an organization will almost certainly have to release good players at positions of strength to keep weaker players at positions thinned by injury or lack of talent.
As he has reminded us time and again, Jason Garrett's goal is to create competition throughout the roster. Although there are still several soft spots, the team is closer to this goal than it was 14 months ago. Several positions, as they line up on paper, in May, appear to boast impressive depth. The formula is painfully simple: when the third-ranked player at a position can actually play (and when he's young and his arrow is pointing up), he pushes the second player. And when that second-ranked player is pushed, he gets better, thereby pushing the starter.
So the question is: at what positions might we see this in action? Which positions have the best depth? And, on the other hand, which positions need an infusion of young blood? Here's how I see it, starting with the positive:
Wide Receiver: Not only do the Cowboys have arguably the best pair of starting wideouts in the league, but they are beginning to build some darn good depth behind them. They have brought in one receiver each of the last three years who feature a different style, pose a different kind of threat and promise to make a different kind of contribution. Dwayne Harris (2011) is tough and quick and, as we saw late last season, terrific after the catch; Cole Beasley (2012) is a waterbug who can't be covered by the kind of defenders who are assigned the underneath zones where he does his work; Terrance Williams (2013) has terrific size and can take the top off of a defense right quick. The offensive braintrust can mix-and-match these guys in interesting ways. And we haven't even mentioned Danny Coale, another 2012 product...
Tight End: Of course, the gold standard, not only at the position, but for all Cowboys, if Jason Witten. This year, he has some help. With James Hanna's development last year (he was reportedly terrific on the scout team earlier in the season, which earned him the late-season playing time we all witnessed) and the drafting of the wily and velcro-handed Gavin Escobar, the Cowboys have a rich array of receiving weapons at the position. In fact, I think they are deeper at tight end than at any time since 1979-'81, when an aging Billy Joe Dupree was joined by Doug Cosbie and Jay Saldi - but I think this group is much more dynamic. The only thing they are missing is a plus blocker to help out in short yardage situations (they tried to get back into the draft to get their hands on Rutgers TE D.C. Jefferson, to no avail).
Center: A position that has plagued the Cowboys since Andre Gurode's sudden training camp dismissal in 2011 suddenly looks to be enviably deep. The primary reason for this is the acquisition of Travis Frederick - and the fact that he pushes everyone down one spot on the depth chart. Phil Costa has physical limitations which make him a questionable starter, but his game also boasts some positives that make him one of the league's top backups at the pivot. Similarly, Ryan Cook is not capable of starting for 16 games on an effective O-line. But as a third-string center, who can play three other positions on the line? That's remarkable depth--and probably why fan favorite Kevin Kowalski appears to have been moved permanently to guard.
Cornerback: A couple of years ago, corner was the Cowboys primary bugaboo. Now, it appears to be a real strength. Not only do they have a superb pair of big, physical corners, but boast enviable depth behind them. Although he has his detractors, Orlando Scandrick is thought by many to be one of the league's best nickle corners; rookie B.W. Webb has been the star of offseason workouts, and Sterling Moore is more than capable of playing quality minutes for a championship caliber team (he was poached from the Pats practice squad; the season before, he was instrumental in helping them to a Super Bowl. Plus, he can play safety. I cannot recall a time in my fandom when the fourth and fifth corners were of this caliber...other than perhaps 2008: T. New; Anthony Henry, Pacman, Scandrick, Mike Jenkins. That blew up; I suspect that this won't - RKGs, you know.
Safety: Bear with me here. I know they only have one certain starter and that he's coming off of an Achilles injury. And that their other safety spot will be contested by an aging veteran and a guy whose hamstrings were made by Chef Boyardee. All that is true, and may yet prove to the be the position's (and the team's) undoing. That said, I believe the Cowboys have quietly assembled a strong and deep group. Barry Church was on the verge of dominance when he got hurt last year. The team loves (loves!) Matt Johnson, and really wants him (and his ability, demonstrated in college, to make plays and generate turnovers) to win the starting role. Will Allen is a savvy vet who knows the system inside and out J.J. Wilcox is a fast learner who has a knack for the ball, regularly making pretty picks in OTAs. And the fifth safety is Danny McCray, who is a legitimate All-Pro caliber special teams performer.
Want more? Don't sleep on Jakar Hamilton, who got a starting nod at Georgia (over recent draftees Baccari Rambo, Sanders Commings and Shawn Williams) before having to transfer to South Carolina State. In mid-May, O.C.C. authored a comprehensive post on Hamilton and his game; the primary takeaway is that he has an excellent chance to become the most recent in a long line of Cowboys' UDFAs to make the team (and to have on-field success).
Other positions: At several other spots, depth might well emerge. In particular, this applied at defensive tackle where, if the likes of Ben Bass and Robert Callaway build on solid 2012 campaigns, Dallas could conceivably go three deep with guys who can play. But that remains a big "if." Running back and linebacker, where the backups are promising but unproven, might emerge as positions of strength (I know this applies to safety as well, but I think the safety backups are better players). In addition, if Jermey Parnell beats out Doug Free, that will mean two things: first, that Parnell has elevated his game; second, that, in Free, the Cowboys have arguably the league's most adept and well-seasoned swing tackle.
That leaves a few positions that need work: quarterback, which needs a legit young developmental player to be considered deep; offensive guard, where neither the starter nor the backups inspire, defensive end, where the starters are sublime and the backups are complete mysteries (although Kyle Wilber appears to be making strides). The good news is that these all promise to be positions of strength in the 2014 draft.
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