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The Fallacy Of The Depth Chart

How do you read, or even write, an NFL Depth Chart?


We've all looked at depth charts once or twice, maybe even made our own a time or two. We set them up when we play Madden, and we argue about them after the cut-down to 53 players. But what does a depth chart really tell us? I believe there's some ambiguity involved that ought to be cleared up.

If you were to look at the Cowboys' roster right now, specifically at the running back position, what would you see? DeMarco Murray, Joseph Randle, Lance Dunbar, Philip Tanner and Kendial Lawrence, in some order (probably that order, for now). So we have a 'depth chart' for the position, but what does it mean?

Do we give DeMarco Murray the ball as often as possible, allow Randle to come in when Murray needs a breather, and Dunbar cleans up in the event of an injury? No, not at all.

These guys play different positions. Forget that they'll be lining up to take the handoff, pass protect or go out for an outlet pass - they just aren't the same types of players. DeMarco Murray is a starting running back. We'll call his position the 'Feature' back. Along with a good overall game, a primary characteristic of a feature back is the stamina to play extended snaps in a game. Dunbar, on the other hand, is a 'Change of Pace' back. He isn't likely to be a good option for 30 carries per game, but he is capable of making an impact on 5-10 touches, albeit on very different plays than Murray might be used for.

With just those two positions available (it appears the Cowboys are foregoing the 'Power Back' that characterizes many instances of the Coryell offense), how would we slot our current five? I'd say Murray, Randle and Tanner are all 'Feature Backs,' while Dunbar and Lawrence are 'Change of Pace Backs.'

This doesn't translate to a depth chart very well, unless it is very specific. And depending on how closely your particular scheme micromanages the offense, that could mean a separate depth chart entry for all 11 positions on every play in the scheme.

As for the 'Running Back' entry on the depth chart, I'd say it's fair to break that up into the feature and CoP categories. If we were planning to keep three backs this year, I'd say that two of those slots should go to feature backs, and the remaining spot to a CoP back - hopefully stashing another CoP guy on the practice squad.

This is why Jason Witten can say that Lance Dunbar has a chance to catch 50 balls as the third back. He really wouldn't be the third at anything, but rather the number one guy at his position. The only 'backup' at the position would be Randle, because there wouldn't be any particular situation where you'd want him on the field over Murray.

That's the key to understanding what a true backup is: someone who would never replace the man in front of him when that man is healthy. An easy example would be any quarterback not named Romo on this roster. There isn't a package or play where you'd take Romo off the field (at least I hope not). Orton and Stephens are backups.

We see that dichotomy clearly on the offensive line. The differences are so etched into stone that it's become customary to designate depth at all five positions separately - although I'd say Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick are just about as similar to each other as DeMarco Murray and Lance Dunbar. That we don't see it as such is merely a product of the way we're accustomed to ingesting the information.

How about wide receivers? This one gets tricky. There are inside and outside receivers, a dichotomy which most fans are familiar with. If you're filling outside receivers, I think the top four are Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Dwayne Harris, and Terrance Williams. In a single-receiver set, you won't see a later player on the field unless the guys in front of him are unavailable. They're backups at the position.

But when you move inside, things change. The starting slot receiver is Miles Austin (which means that, when a slot receiver is required, Harris becomes second-in-line outside). Cole Beasley and the rest of the position group are fighting for spots behind Miles.

The double-occupancy by Miles Austin of both inside and outside spots makes for an interesting numbers game at wide receiver. The team could keep five players, but still be three deep inside and out. Likewise, they could keep a sixth receiver with little regard to where he plays as a developmental prospect.

Cornerback is similar to receiver in that you have inside and outside guys. This is why when we mention losing Orlando Scandrick last season as a big blow, less knowledgeable fans might laugh and say 'He's your third corner! You already have two to play ahead of him!' Really, he's our first slot corner, and losing him was incredibly impactful to this team's defense.

So when you look at the depth chart and try to slot guys numerically in order of talent, only to be surprised when cuts roll around as 'inferior' players stay while our pet cats are put up for adoption, take a closer look. More than likely, the Cowboys' front office was trying to fill out a much more intricate depth chart than you have (even if it happens to be a chart made by me!).

And just to further complicate things - remember that special teams coaches have depth charts, too, for every possible situation, and they have quite a bit to say when it comes to bottom-of-the-roster decisions.


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