As I think about the roster decisions Dallas is going to have to make, there really isn't that much flexibility. When you look at position groups, I think you can start with a base number of players you need for each group.
My base would look like this:
3 specialty players -- Punter, Kicker, Long Snapper.
23 offensive players, broken down as:
- 2 QBs -- minimum need; what Dallas went with last year
- 5 WRs -- minimum need level
- 4 TEs -- 4th TE has replaced FB spot on roster
- 3 RBs -- minimum need level
- 9 OLmen -- minimum need level
24 defensive players:
- 8 DLmen -- starter and backup for each position
- 6 LBs -- starter and backup for each position
- 5 CBs -- with risk of injury, can't go with less
- 5 Ss -- might roll with 4, but special teams skills of safeties dictates 5
Most of these positions are already locked up.
3 specialty players - only competition is at punter.
5 WRs - (4 locks, 1 close, 6 guys hoping to unseat Beasley or for Cowboys to go long) Bryant, Austin, Harris, and Williams are locks. Beasley is close. Lots of guys fighting to be one of 3 extras or to beat out Beasley for 5th slot -- Rogers, Green, Coale, Armstrong, Anthony, Benford.
4 TEs (4 locks, no competition here) - Witten, Hanna, Escobar, Rosario are locks. Cochart and Smith are also practicing, but have no chance barring injury to one of the first four.
3 RBs (1 lock, 2 close, others hoping Cowboys go long) - Murray is a lock. Randle and Dunbar are close. To carry a 4th RB would use up one of the 3 extra slots. If the Cowboys go long here, Tanner is ahead of Kendial Lawrence.
9 OLmen (5 locks, 4 guys fighting for 3 interior spots, tackles hoping Cowboys go with 10)- Smith, Frederick, Free, Costa, and Leary are locks. Parnell is close. That leaves 3 certain slots among: Livings, Bernardeau, Arkin, and Kowalski. A 4th tackle would be an extra slot. Cook is almost certain to be cut because of his age and contract cost.
8 DLmen (7 locks, 6 fighting for 1 spot or hoping Cowboys go with 9) - Ware, Spencer, Hatcher, Ratliff, Lissemore, Wilber, and Bass are locks. That leaves one certain slot among: Hayden, Sheffield, Taylor, Igbinosun, Pendleton, Long, or someone not yet on the roster. Cowboys might well use an extra slot here because of Ratliff's injury history.
6 LBs (2-3 locks, 8 fighting for 3 slots) - Lee and Carter and probably Durant are locks. Tons of competition to be their backups. Albright, Holloman, Magee, McSurdy, Sims, Taylor, Lacey, and Lawrence are all on the roster. Probably the biggest fight in camp for the 3 open backup spots.
5 CBs (5 locks, not much competition here) - Carr, Claiborne, Scandrick, Webb and Moore are locks. Along with QB and TE, this group is basically set. Brandon Underwood and Devin Smith are the competition.
5 Ss (4 locks, 2 fighting for 5th spot) - Church, Allen, Wilcox, and Johnson are locks. McCray and Hamilton are the prime candidates for the 5th spot. Pellerin, Frampton, and Heath are longshots.
So, other than the competition within groups, where are the Cowboys likely to go "long"? There are only 3 players that you can add to extend the numbers of any of these groups. Here's how I would rank where I think Dallas will use these extra positions:
- 10th offensive lineman,
- 9th defensive lineman,
- 6th wide receiver,
- 3rd QB,
- 4th running back,
- 7th linebacker, or
- 6th safety.
From this perspective, you can see that a number of guys are unlikely to make the team by beating out someone else in their group. Their best chance is to be one of the three "extras" on the roster.
For example, Alex Tanney isn't going to beat out Kyle Orton. He needs Dallas to go to a 3rd QB and not use that extra slot somewhere else. Same is true for Phillip Tanner, who is unlikely to unseat Joseph Randle for the all-purpose backup job, and whose game is different from change-of-pace back Lance Dunbar. Same is true for the guys trying to be a 4th offensive tackle - Darrion Weems, Edawn Coughman, or Demetress Bell.
The other factor here is the game-day roster of 46. This means that 7 guys must be inactive. The first guys on this list are the injured ones. Last year, Jay Ratliff spent 10 games here. Matt Johnson was in this group every game until they IR'ed him late in the season. If healthy, the game day roster might look something like this:
3 specialty players
That's 45 guys on the low side. That means you will likely have to go short at 2 of three positions -- WR, LB, S.
What this also helps you decide is about guys like Phillip Tanner. He's a good special teams player. But he's fighting numbers here. To put him on the 53-man roster, you have to use one of your three extra slots on him. Then you would have to bump off another guy to get him on your 46-man game day roster to play him on special teams. And that other guy may be just as good at special teams. If you just want to stash him for RB depth because Murray is often injured, he needs to be a lot better than the guy you can keep on the practice squad. This is why I think Tanner is a long shot to make the team.
All the other extra guys you might keep would be easier, because they would likely be inactive on game day. A 10th O lineman would be for injury depth, or because you hope he might move up the depth chart over time. The same would be true of a 9th D Lineman or 3rd QB or 6th WR or 7th LB, or 6th safety.
To boil this all down, where are the battles? Here's my ranking.
1. Linebacker. 8 guys fighting for 3 backup slots.
2. Offensive line: 2 guard spots unsettled, one of Livings, Bernie, Arkin, or Kowalski likely gone. If you keep 10, extra slot will likely be for 4th tackle.
3. Wide receiver. 6 guys hoping to unseat Cole Beasley for 5th slot or that Cowboys keep 6 WRs.
4. Defensive line: 6 guys (plus potential free agent addition) fighting for 8th slot or hoping Cowboys keep 9.
5. Safety: Starting job next to Church unsettled, McCray battling to stay on as special teams ace ahead of 4 other guys.
6. Running back: Tanner hoping Cowboys keep four (unlikely); Lawrence hoping to pass Dunbar as change-of-pace guy (even more unlikely).
7. QB: Tanney hoping Cowboys keep him like they once kept Romo, as future hopeful.
8. Punter: Spencer Benton hoping to pass Chris Jones.
There is no real competition at Tight End, Cornerback, Kicker, or Long Snapper.
If I had to guess where I think the Cowboys are likely to go "long," I would rank it the way I did above:
10th O lineman, 9th D lineman, 6th wide receiver, 3rd QB, 4th RB, 7th LB, 6th Safety, in that order.
Of course injuries could affect any of this, but let's hope we don't have any more of those!!