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Midseason Review: The Cowboys' Top 55 Players, Regardless of Position

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At the midway point of the Cowboys' season, how might we assess their roster's strengths and weaknesses? Returning to a summertime experiment, Ol' Rabble ranks them from number one (DeMarcus Ware) to number fifty-five (Matt Johnson).


During training camp, I twice indulged in a roster assessment exercise in which I listed who I thought to be the top 53 players, independent of position. As you all know, the usual "53" man roster posts that receive a lot of airtime in the final weeks of preseason look at the top players by each position group, taking into account the necessary juggling that invariably accompanies the bottom-of-the-roster decisions: does the team take a sixth receiver over a ninth linebacker? However, this doesn't fully take into account the talent distribution across the team. So, in order to get a better sense of where the Cowboys were stronger and where weaker, I wanted to rank them regardless of position.

Now, at the season's midway point, I thought it might be useful to see how much has changed in terms of our outsiders assessment of the Cowboys' roster. As I did back in August, I've ranked the players on the current roster from 1-53 to get a revised sense of the team's strong and weak points. A note: I've included certain players on IR, such as Sean Lee and Barry Church, who would be certain fixtures on the 53 were they healthy, and dis-included others, like Caleb McSurdy, who likely would not. As a result, my "53" is actually a "55." Following each player's name is the number of spots he's risen or fallen since August. New additions to the list are designated with italics.

1. DeMarcus Ware, OLB
2. Sean Lee, ILB (+3)
3. Jason Witten, TE (+3)
4. Tony Romo, QB (-2)
5. DeMarco Murray, RB (+3)
6. Anthony Spencer, OLB (+7)
7. Bruce Carter, ILB (+8)
8. Jay Ratliff, NT (+3)
9. Miles Austin, WR (-2)
10. Dan Bailey, K

11. Brandon Carr, CB (-7)
12. Tyron Smith, OT (-3)
13. Dez Bryant, WR (-10)
14. Morris Claiborne, CB (+1)
15. Jason Hatcher, DE (-3)
16. Barry Church, S (+7)
17. Kyle Orton, QB
18. Doug Free, OT (-4)
19. Mike Jenkins, CB
20. Sean Lissemore, DL

21. Orlando Scandrick, CB (+5)
22. Nate Livings, OG (+7)
23. Kenyon Coleman, DE (+15)
24. Gerald Sensabaugh, S (-2)
25. Marcus Spears, DE (+5)
26. Victor Butler, OLB (+2)
27. Felix Jones, RB (-9)
28. Josh Brent, NT (+16)
29. Phil Costa, OC (+11)
30. Tyrone Crawford, DE (-3)

31. Danny McCray, S (+4)
32. Kevin Ogletree, WR (+4)
33. Brian Moorman, P
34. John Phillips, TE (-13)
35. Mackenzie Bernadeau, OG (+6)
36. Dan Connor, ILB (-12)
37. Lance Dunbar, RB
38. Lawrence Vickers, FB (-13)
39. Ernie Sims, ILB
40. Alex Albright, OLB (-9)

41. Dwayne Harris, WR (+1)
42. Phillip Tanner, RB (+4)
43. Cole Beasley, WR (-4)
44. Jermey Parnell, OT (-10)
45. James Hanna, TE (-13)
46. Kyle Wilber, OLB (-13)
47. L.P. Ladouceur, LS (+6)
48. Derrick Dockery, OG
49. Andre Holmes, WR
50. Ryan Cook, OC-OG
51. Charlie Peprah, S
52. David Arkin, OG (-7)
53. Eric Frampton, S
54. Gary Guyton, ILB
55. Matt Johnson, S

A few random thoughts generated by this comparison:

  • The old guys still have a little juice in their games. During camp, when veterans like Jason Witten, Miles Austin and Jay Ratliff missed significant time, I wondered whether Father Time had caught up to them and these prolonged injuries might well signal the beginning of the end. Eight games into the 2012 campaign, all three look to have returned to health (although Rat re-injured his bum ankle against the Falcons) and, as a result, are flashing their old dominance.
  • Biggest surprise in 2012? The fall-off in the passing game. Romo and his starting receivers have all dropped down the list. Both Romo and Austin dropped a couple of spots; Bryant, who looked like a world-beater in camp, suffered the most significant drop among the top 30 players. Uncertainty about the team's third receiver was a leading training camp story; since the season's start Ogletree has somehow moved up four spots. If you think this is misleading, you'd be correct; he moves up largely because he wasn't even on the top "53" after the first two weeks of camp.
  • The Cowboys backup tight ends have disappointed. When All-World TE Jason Witten went down with a spleen injury, it appeared that, while a serious blow, the Cowboys were equipped to handle the loss because they had excellent depth in John Phillips and James Hanna, both of whom had strong training camps and had looked very good in preseason games. In the regular season, however, neither of these guys has made much impact, which is doubly discomfiting given that the Cowboys have resorted to a short passing game featuring the underneath routes that are likely to be staples of the TE route tree.
  • While the offensive line starters have struggled, it could be worse; the offensive line depth is terrible. The bottom of the list is dotted with backup O-linemen. Jermey Parnell (44); Derrick Dockery (48); Ryan Cook (50); and David Arkin (52) all round out the roster's bottom ten. If you think the offensive line play has been bad thus far, imagine having the kind of injuries that have decimated the Eagles. Given the same injuries, we'd be looking at a starting front of Parnell, Nate Livings, Cook, Arkin and a street free agent at RT. That would be straight-up U-G-L-Y.
  • There is one unit whose poverty might well outstrip that of the O-line: safety. Three of the bottom five names on this list man the safety position. Admittedly, this is largely a byproduct of injuries to Barry Church and Matt Johnson, which have resulted in the additions of street free agents Eric Frampton and Charlie Peprah, whose low rankings reflect their newness. Once they digest the playbook and get a few snaps, this (we hope) will change.
  • As I noted in a recent article, the Cowboys linebackers are the team's best unit. Going by this list, the four starters come in at positions 1, 2, 6 and 7. While I admit I may be biased in favor of this group, I don't think such a ranking is too far off the mark, and thus hold with the essential truth of the above statement. Of course, that assumes that Sean Lee is healthy...
  • The defensive line is solid but decidedly unspectacular. None of the top D-linemen rank low on this list, nor do any of them rank particularly high. Other than the oft-injured Ratliff (whose ranking might well be lower had he played more this season, as I suspect he benefited from the rest his injury bestowed), the top-rated player is Jason Hatcher, who comes in at #15. He's followed in rapid succession by Sean Lissemore (20); Kenyon Coleman (23); Marcus Spears (25); Josh Brent (28) and Tyrone Crawford (30). The good news is that the linemen are tightly bunched; the bad news is that, other than a well-rested Ratliff, the position group lacks a dominant player.
  • The Cowboys' free agent class isn't as impressive as we had hoped. Brandon Carr (#11) has played like a solid veteran rather than a perennial All-Pro; the struggles of interior linemen Livings (22) and Mackenzie Bernadeau (35) have been well documented. QB Kyle Orton (holding steady at #17) played well in the fourth quarter against Chicago, but he's the one guy on the roster we don;t want to see get significant snaps. Whether due to injury, circumstance, age, or poor performance, ILB Dan Connor (36) and FB Lawrence Vickers (38) have both struggled to get on the field. Their play thus far serves as a reminder that free agents are players who have not been re-signed by the teams that know them the best.

An experiment like this not only shows which position groups are strongest or weakest relative to the others on the team, but also can shed a great deal of light on the roster's depth. I like the Cowboys first fourteen players, and am happy to have players 15-20 on this team. However, when we look at players 21-30, the team's lack of quality depth (or, more properly, depth of quality) becomes painfully evident. That section of the roster is populated by veteran players (many of them older vets) who have hit their ceiling. And those ceilings aren't particularly impressive.

The team desperately needs several youngsters - players like Crawford, McCray, Phillips and Wilber - to enrich this area of the roster in 2013, if not by the end of this season. Hitting on third, fourth and fifth-round draft choices in the next couple of years is going to be an absolute necessity if this team is ever to posses the "competition throughout the roster" that Jason Garrett so fervently desires. I'll be here, watching, with my fingers crossed.