On the cusp of the preseason final 53 man roster -- which will likely see some changes before we play the Giants September 8th -- I thought I would look at the roster by position group to see where we are strong, and where we have gaps.
RB - Strong. Murray is a high quality starter when he's healthy. Lance Dunbar has juice as a speed guy. Joseph Randle provides reliable depth, and someone who might take on the MBIII role of running out the clock in games where Dallas has the lead. Phillip Tanner's position could be upgraded, but he's a decent, cheap 4th guy who plays well on special teams. This group is even reasonably well protected against injury.
TE - Strong. Jason Witten is still near the top of his game. James Hanna provides exceptional speed; the team needs to figure out how to use it. Dante Rosario, assuming he sticks, is a solid TE who has caught 35 balls in a season. Gavin Escobar is a big target with soft hands who could be a weapon in the red zone. Could use better blocking out of this group, but Callahan's pre-season emphasis on running the ball worked all these guys pretty good.
WR - Very strong. Dez Bryant is a top-5 WR who is working to become the best in the NFL. Scary good. And he's only getting better. A healthy Miles Austin could still be a very solid #1 guy. He's easily a 1,000 receiver again. Terrence Williams is unproven and raw, but showed the potential in college to be a guy who could blow the top off a defense. As the third option, if he gets on the same page with Romo like Laurent Robinson did, he could punish teams with quick-strike TDs. Probably a year or two from being great, however. Dwayne Harris is a solid guy who shows very good moves after the catch, just as he does at punt returning. Cole Beasley is a smurf who can get open quickly from the slot.
OL - Weak. If Doug Free starts at guard and Jeremy Parnell starts at tackle, Dallas will have new guys in 4 of 5 starting line positions. Fortunately, Tyron Smith will still be at LT, and with family problems behind him, should be much better in year two there. Ron Leary is a rookie coming off a knee scope. We have high hopes for him, but he has a long way to go to match Nate Livings performance at LG last year. Travis Frederick is also a rookie, but looks like an upgrade from Ryan Cook, Phil Costa, and Mackenzy Bernardeau, who started at center last year. Doug Free may be better than Bernardeau at right guard, but he's played only 1/2 of a preseason game there. There will be growing pains. Jeremy Parnell missed most of training camp and half of the preseason. That didn't stop Dallas from pushing him ahead at right tackle in the dress rehearsal game to get the "best 5" guys on the field. He has a great punch, but he doesn't move as well as Free, which will limit Dallas's options on that side. If this group can stay healthy and play together for 16 games, it could become a pretty decent unit. But it will have growing pains. And it is by no means clear whether this unit can stand up against the stronger front-7 units in the NFL.
Behind them, the team doesn't have anyone it wants to rely on as a starter. David Arkin has had every chance to crack the starting lineup, but does not have the power to do so, and after 3 years, has not shown he's going to get it soon. Phil Costa is passable at backup center, but has no future in Dallas. Kevin Kowalski may be cut by the end of the day. Nate Livings' knees have pretty much ended his career. And Mackenzy Bernardeau isn't good enough to prevent the Free/Parnell experiment at RG/RT. He had a negative rating from PFF, and deservedly so. And who is the swing tackle going to be now that Parnell has likely become a starter? I don't think he's on the roster yet.
Dallas may have a starting 5 that is passable, but it doesn't have quality depth or anyone working their way up into the starting unit.
OFFENSE OVERALL - Potentially very solid. Dallas's offense isn't in the same league as New Orleans, or New England, or Green Bay. But it has enough skill players to get to the level just below those units. It will all come down to the performance of the offensive line.
DL -- Strong but Thin. The starting D linemen could be exceptional, with Demarcus Ware still at the top of his game, Jason Hatcher as good as he's ever been, and Anthony Spencer coming off a career year. Ware and Spencer are unproven as DEs in a 4-3, but that's where they played in college, and it has to be a good thing to have Spencer rushing far more than he did last year. The weakness in this unit is behind these three. They have Nick Hayden, who was out of football last year, filling in at the 1 slot. George Selvie, another reclamation project backing up at DE. Ben Bass, a UDFA who only lasted one game last season before he got hurt backing up Hatcher and Hayden inside. And Ken Wilber, an undersized second year guy trying to back up Ware's weakside DE role. Dallas still has Jay Ratliff, but he's on PUP, and who knows if or when he'll be healthy enough to play this year. No one else seems worthy of a roster spot. I expect Dallas to add one or two guys off other team's cuts to provide rotational depth.
LB -- Strong but Thin. Two of the starting linebackers, Sean Lee and Bruce Carter, have the chops to become Pro Bowlers in Kiffin's scheme. Unfortunately, both have had injury issues in the past. The key will be keeping them healthy for a whole season. Justin Durant provides journeyman skills at the SAM spot. DeVonte Holloman is a rookie who's shown great playmaking skills, but also needs to learn the postiion. Behind them, it's pretty weak. Ernie Sims looked overmatched against the Texans, who had huge early runs to his side. Brandon Magee is a UDFA who missed the last two preseason games with a concussion. Caleb McSurdy showed that's he's slow like Dan Connor, but doesn't fill as well. Dallas has to hope Bruce Lee stay healthy, because it's a big drop off behind them.
CB -- Strong but Thin. Mo Claiborne will be solid if healthy. Carr is solid on the other side, Scandrick is very good in the slot, and in BW Webb, they have a rookie who can learn the ropes but has already shown a ballhawking knack. Sterling Moore, who's likely to survive roster cuts, is pretty good as a 5th guy, as he's started enough games to be relied on. However, with Claiborne out, they moved Scandrick outside, where he's not best, and Webb inside, where he was up and down. That's why this group is thin.
S -- Thin. Will Allen is a veteran who hasn't been asked to start 16 games in his career. But he knows the scheme and should be an upgrade over Gerald Sensabaugh. Barry Church is a promising younger guy who is still improving. Behind them, it's not clear who the team will keep. JJ Wilcox is a rookie with some promise, but also some holes that can be exploited if he's forced into the lineup. Jeff Heath is a willing UDFA who may have worked his way onto the roster. But he's also not someone you'd want to have to play much this season. Matt Johnson may have the best potential of any safety on the roster, but he hasn't been able to stay healthy enough to demonstrate it. He may not survive the cuts to 53. Eric Frampton and Danny McCray are special teams guys also in danger of being cut. McCray is a liability on D.
DEFENSE OVERALL -- Potential to be great IF the starters stay healthy. Ware, Spencer, Hatcher, Lee, Carter, Carr, and Claiborne could be great starters. Church and Allen can be a competent starting S combo. Scandrick is very good as a slot CB. Durant and Hayden are journeymen. Holloman has the potential to take Durant's slot. But behind that, the D is pretty thin.
K - Strong. Dan Bailey is super accurate, and provides adequate depth on kickoffs. I think we took the right guy, but the kicker we had competing with Bailey last year, Kai Forbath, is also tearing it up for Washington.
P - Strong. Chris Jones looked very good against the Texans. He needs a coverage team that can make his punts look good.
LS - Strong. Ladouceur has never had a bad snap.
TEAM OVERALL -- Strong but thin. The front line starters for Dallas can compete with any team in the league. But there's still a lot of quality depth issues, at offensive line, defensive line, linebacker, cornerback, and safety. So the paramount concern this year has to be health, health, health.
The key on the offensive side of the ball is going to be the ability to pass and run block. If we can run the ball, we can keep defenses honest, and control games much better. We've seen how inefficient our offense can be throwing out of shotgun 47% of the time. It generates lots of yards, but not so many points.
The key on the defensive side of the ball is to find some better rotational depth on the D line to keep guys healthy and fresh.
Dallas needs to keep churning its roster to get better. The biggest impact move it could make would be to sign Brian Waters for RG, and move Free back to RT and Parnell to swing tackle. But it seems as if this ship has sailed. If they don't sign Waters, they still need a swing tackle, and my keep their eyes on guard depth, if not for the 53, then someone who can emerge from the PS like Leary did.
On defense, I'm guessing the team will be looking for DTs to shore up the rotation inside, and better depth at linebacker and safety.