Building the Cowboys Roster: Assessing The 2014 Offseason

Henry Melton was the Cowboys one off-season splurge - Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

As we gird our loins in preparation for the year's cruelest month - the long stretch from the final mini-camp to the start of training camp, BTB offers its annual "Building the Roster" series to help get you through. Today, we kick it off with a close look at the team's offseason roster moves.

Around Valentine's Day, a gander at the Cowboys' depth charts offered more questions than they provided answers. How would they get under the cap, and how many players would have to be cut to do so? Along those lines, what would they do with DeMarcus Ware and his big contract? When would they jettison Miles Austin? Could they afford to re-sign Jason Hatcher? How many of last year's stop-gap defensive linemen would they keep? What were they going to do about the lack of depth on the offensive line, especially along the interior? Would they seek a replacement for Bruce Carter?

The Cowboys had eleven draft picks and a handful of free agent money with which to try to answer these questions. For the most part, they used these limited resources efficiently, engineering a roster overhaul that was particularly impressive on the defensive side of the ball.

Let's begin with the offense, however. Here's what the offensive depth chart looked like a couple of weeks after the Super Bowl. Any roster spots previously manned by players who were no longer officially on the roster, such as Ernie Sims and Brian Waters, I marked with a "????"; 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 Lance Dunbar Joseph Randle
FB Tyler Clutts
SE Dez Bryant Cole Beasley Dwayne Harris
LT Tyron Smith Darrion Weems
LG Ronald Leary ????
OC Travis Frederick ????
RG Mackenzie Bernadeau ????
RT ***Doug Free Jermey Parnell
TE Jason Witten Gavin Escobar James Hanna
FL Miles Austin Terrance Williams

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 Brandon Weeden Caleb Hanie
RB DeMarco Murray Lance Dunbar Ryan Williams
FB Tyler Clutts J.C. Copeland
SE Dez Bryant Devin Street
LT Tyron Smith Darrion Weems
LG Ronald Leary Mackenzie Bernadeau Ronald Patrick
OC Travis Frederick Tyronne Green
RG Zack Martin
Tyronne Green
RT Doug Free Jermey Parnell
TE Jason Witten Gavin Escobar James Hanna
FL Terrance Williams Cole Beasley Dwayne Harris

The few changes on this side of the ball reflect the fact that the offensive starters were secure, and that, in a nice instance of foresight, the Cowboys had already drafted a replacement for Miles Austin. In turn, Williams' vacated WR3 role was filled with fifth-rounder Devin Street. The selection of Martin allowed a solid incumbent starter in Mackenzie Bernadeau to move to a key backup role, providing good depth along the interior O-line - as does FA signee Tyronne Green (and, according to observers, rookie UDFA Ronald Patrick). In addition, the team got both better (I believe) and younger at backup QB. Adding Ryan Williams was gravy. All of these additions create significantly more - and better - depth on this side of the ball, a critical step forward for a roster that meme-riders continue to characterize as composed of "stars and scrubs."

Here's what the defensive depth chart looked like around Valentine's Day (any young children might want to avert their eyes). As above, vacated roster spots received the much-feared "????"; aging veteran corners with bloated contracts are marked with three asterisks:

Position Starter Backup Third String
LDE George Selvie
Tyrone Crawford Caesar Rayford
LDT Nick Hayden ????
RDT ???? Ben Bass
RDE ***DeMarcus Ware
????
Martez Wilson
SLB Kyle Wilber
DeVonte Holloman
Cam Lawrence
MLB Sean Lee ????

WLB Bruce Carter ????
LCB Brandon Carr Sterling Moore
SS Barry Church Jakar Hamilton

FS J.J. Wilcox
Matt Johnson Jeff Heath
NCB Orlando Scandrick B.W. Webb

RCB Mo Claiborne Orlando Scandrick

Although there is some solidity in the secondary, with ten returning players, the linebacker corps was up in the air, especially at the reserve spots. The defensive line was, to put it succinctly, a shambles - and about to get worse, as DeMarcus Ware would soon be released. To make matters less certain, both Crawford and Bass were coming off season-ending (and season-long) injuries. Who might predict what they'd be able to provide in 2014?

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 Fourth String
LDE George Selvie
Tyrone Crawford Ben Gardner
Anthony Spencer
LDT Terrell McClain
Nick Hayden
Ken Bishop
Amobi Okoye
RDT Henry Melton Ben Bass Davon Coleman Chris Whaley
RDE Jeremy Mincey DeMarcus Lawrence
Martez Wilson
Dartawn Bush
SLB Kyle Wilber Will Smith Cam Lawrence

MLB Justin Durant
Anthony Hitchens Dontavis Sapp
WLB Bruce Carter DeVonte Holloman Keith Smith
LCB Brandon Carr Sterling Moore Terrance Mitchell
SS Barry Church Jakar Hamilton Ahmad Dixon
FS J.J. Wilcox Jeff Heath Matt Johnson
NCB Orlando Scandrick B. W. Webb Dashaun Phillips

RCB Mo Claiborne Orlando Scandrick Tyler Patmon

This is where the offseason makeover is most evident, so much so that I had to add a fourth string just to accommodate defensive linemen with a legitimate chance to make the roster. In the offseason, the Cowboys took a D-line that had five straggling survivors and transformed it into one that goes four deep with guys seemingly capable of making plays at the NFL level. That's some good work. On the other hand, the makeover at linebacker continues, and has been put on hold by the Sean Lee injury, which forces all the other LBs to step up a spot. They have added a handful of "run-and-hit" types that tend to prosper in this system, so we'll see what happens. The already-solid secondary received some nice depth players to boot.

Jason Garrett wants the Cowboys to have competition throughout the roster. And, as we know, competition for the final spot tends to push upward, as the third-stringers push the number two guys, who keep the burner on under the starters' backsides. 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 serious jockeying for spots all across the defensive line, as well as backup linebacker and safety. The good news is that they seem to have some viable, young athletic candidates for these positions.

The Cowboys have brought some good players into the fold of late; the past two drafts, I think, have been as productive as any since 2005. In 2010, Garrett inherited an old, thin, and overpriced group and, in four seasons, has created a younger, deeper, more competitive, and less entitled bunch (for example, notice how few vets received the "***" designation).

There is still work to do, however. Numerous soft spots remain that must be addressed in future offseasons, foremost among them defensive line and linebacker, both of which are filled with more questions than we should expect can reasonably be answered in 2014. What Dallas might do to bolster those and other positions will be the subject of future installments in this series.

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Next: A global look at the 2015 draft: which positions look to be the strongest?

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