Here are the biggest questions with just two weeks to go until opening night.
1. WHO WILL START ON THE OFFENSIVE LINE IN WEEK 1? With a different starting O line for each of the 4 pre-season games, who are the Cowboys planning to start come opening day? Another way of looking at this is: Who are the 5 best O-linemen?
These four are pretty clear. Of course, only 3 of these are healthy enough to play, with Leary hopeful to return for the Giants game.
It's pretty clear Nate Livings isn't going to be ready soon. The Cowboys could use their one IR-return slot on him since they will owe him his salary regardless, and then if he gets healthy at some point, he would provide veteran depth. But right now, he has NO CHANCE of opening the season as a starter.
Phil Costa is also not in consideration any longer.
David Arkin? Many guys on this site continue to defend him, and I can see the value in his mobility and fight. But it's also very clear that the front office sees him as a backup at best. And after the complete absence of a running game against Arizona with Arkin and Bernie at guards, we saw Dallas move 3 guys to put Arkin on the bench -- Free to guard, Parnell to tackle, and Bernie to left guard. This tells me that Arkin is at best the #7 guy.
Therefore, it's down to Jeremy Parnell v. Mackenzy Bernardeau v. someone not on the Dallas roster. I'm sure most people think if Leary is back for the opener, that Bernie will be back at right guard, with Free back at tackle. I would reluctantly agree, but I don't think it's a done deal yet. Personally, I'm still hoping it's Brian Waters, but it's a very faint hope at this point.
Answer: Smith, Leary, Frederick, Bernie, Free.
For Livings, my guess is they'll use their IR-return slot on him. Since Dallas saves nothing by cutting him, why not keep him for veteran depth if someone else goes down?
For Ratliff, I wonder about putting him on PUP, leaving him out the first 6 weeks. This is not the hardest part of the schedule, and with Nick Hayden playing well, and Hatcher probably a better pass rusher, this would allow Ratliff to get completely healthy, and perhaps make it more likely he would last until the end of the season when he returns. Since we don't know the true medical reports, this is just a guess. But it would allow Dallas to keep an extra D-lineman, or perhaps an extra safety who also has injury concerns.
Matt Johnson may be the hardest call. Can you afford to keep him over a guy like Heath who has stayed healthy and is making plays? I don't see Johnson making it to the practice squad. Some team will test him out, and if he stays healthy for them, could have quite a find. My view is that Dallas should keep him, and go with 6 safeties.
Other injured players -- like Dunbar, Claiborne, Spencer, Sims, and Beasley all seem ready to return week 1 or shortly thereafter. And their roster spots don't seem in jeopardy.
Frampton (calf) and Magee (concussion) are bubble players who will need to be healthy to make the squad.
Answer: Livings - IR-return; Ratliff - PUP, Johnson - 53 man.
3. WHAT ROSTER SLOTS ARE STILL UNSETTLED? Here's what's settled. Romo and Orton at QB, 4 RBs, 4 TEs, the first 5 WRs (Dez, Miles, Williams, Harris, and Beasley), the first 5 CBs (Mo, Carr, Scandrick, Webb, and Moore), and the specialists (Bailey, Jones, LaDouceur). Here's what's not:
a. Will Tanney make the 53? NO. Seeing the other QBs that are on the market or will be soon, I'd say Tanney will be exposed to waivers to move to the practice squad. No one is going to grab him to start or be a backup this season. How many other teams can afford to use a 53-man slot on a purely developmental guy that they didn't pick?
b. Who will Dallas keep on the O-line? I've named who I think will start: Smith, Leary, Frederick, Bernardeau, Free. I think Livings will be put on IR-return. That leaves Arkin, Costa, Kowalski inside, and Parnell as swing tackle. Since Bell didn't back up at either tackle spot against Cincy, I don't think Dallas will keep him, and Weems or Coughman can make the practice squad. That makes 9. If Dallas picks up a guard, Kowalski would be the first guy out. If Dallas adds a tackle, they could keep 10 O-linemen.
c. Will Dallas keep 6 WRs? NO. Armstrong is clearly the potential 6th WR, and he has a chance. I just think Dallas is more likely to go long at DL, RB, and Safety.
d. Who will Dallas keep on the D-line? Ware, Spencer, Hatcher and Hayden will likely start game 1. Selvie, Bass, LIssemore, and Wilber are backups. Ratliff may be put on the PUP list. If he is, that leaves a potential spot for another depth guy. I'm guessing they won't use the extra slot on the D-line if Ratliff is PUP'ed.
e. Who will Dallas keep at Safety? Allen, Church, and Wilcox are set. Heath played on all the special teams yesterday and forced a fumble. I'd say he's in. That leaves Johnson, Frampton, and McCray fighting for 1 or 2 slots. I'd say Dallas will keep Johnson, and will decide after the last game to keep a 6th safety, and it likely won't be McCray.
f. Who will Dallas keep at linebacker? Lee, Carter, Durant, Holloman, and Sims are locks. I think it's between Magee and McSurdy for the 6th slot, with the possibility we keep both.
My overall take at the moment:
2 QBs -- Romo, Orton
5 WRs - Dez, Miles, Williams, Harris, Beasley
4 TEs - Witten, Hanna, Escobar, Rosario
4 RBs - Murray, Dunbar, Tanner, Randle
9 OL - Smith, Leary, Frederick, Bernardeau, Free, Arkin, Costa, Kowalski, Parnell, (Livings IR-return)
8 DL - Ware, Hatcher, Hayden, Spencer, Wilber, Bass, Lissemore, Selvie (Ratliff PUP)
7 LB - Carter, Lee, Durant, Sims, Holloman, Magee, McSurdy
5 CB - Mo, Carr, Scandrick, Moore, Webb
6 Safeties - Allen, Church, Wilcox, Johnson, Heath, Frampton
K - Bailey
P - Jones
LS - LaDouceur