Going into the pre-season game against the Oakland Raiders, the Dallas Cowboys will get the first look of the season at most of the starters. For many NFL teams, there are serious questions about who is going to be the starter at several positions.
For the Cowboys, that is not much of an issue. As they get closer to winding up training camp, the current starting lineup looks like this:
|QB||Tony Romo||DE||DeMarcus Ware||K||Chris Jones|
|RB||DeMarco Murray||DE||Anthony Spencer||P||Dan Bailey|
|TE||Jason Witten||DT||Jay Ratliff||LS||L.P. Ladouceur|
|TE||James Hanna||DT||Jason Hatcher|
|WR||Dez Bryant||OLB||Bruce Carter|
|WR||Miles Austin||ILB||Sean Lee|
|WR||Dwayne Harris||OLB||Justin Durant|
|LT||Tyron Smith||CB||Morris Clairborne|
|LG||Ronald Leary||CB||Brandon Carr|
|C||Travis Frederick||CB||Orlando Scandrick|
|RG||Mackenzy Bernadeau||S||Barry Church|
|RT||Doug Free||S||Will Allen|
I have twelve players listed on both offense and defense to account for the third wide receiver and the nickel cornerback, who are roughly equivalent to starters. I have highlighted all the players that might conceivably be challenged for their position, but barring health issues, I really think the one highlighted in red, Mackenzy Bernadeau, is the only player actually in real danger of not being the starter, as Dallas continues to explore guard options, with Brian Waters being the most popular name around the rumor mill.
So with the starters all but nailed down. Dallas is primarily concerned with figuring out who the backups are.
This is where it is important to keep some number in mind. Namely, 53, 27 and 26. 53, of course, is the final roster number. 27 is the number of players listed as starters. 26 is the number of players that you will be able to use as backups for the starters.
Here is where I think things have changed significantly for the Cowboys this season. When you get down to it, the depth pretty much means one player for each starting position, with a couple of extra slots that you have to allocate. And based on what I am seeing this year from the observers at camp and the first pre-season game, those backups are stronger than they have been in years past.
Look at just one group, the defensive line. After the draft, this was one of the positions that was seen as thin. Based on the unofficial depth chart at DallasCowboys.com (which is a bit behind on some player cuts), this is how the depth currently stacks up.
|LDE||Anthony Spencer||Ben Bass||Toby Jackson|
|DT||Jason Hatcher||Sean Lissemore||Jeris Pendleton||Landon Cohen|
|DT||Jay Ratliff||Nick Hayden||Jerome Long|
|RDE||DeMarcus Ware||Kyle Wilber||George Selvie|
We haven't seen Spencer or Ratliff, but the team expresses confidence that both will be ready to play when the regular season starts. Meanwhile, Ware and Hatcher have been tearing people up in practice.
The second tier have all looked good, with the possible exception of Lissemore, who has not been bad, but has not stood out the way many expected. And the third tier of players, especially flavor of the week Selvie, have all had some very good practices. The cuts here may be hard to do. Just to my (admittedly untrained) eye, this looks like good depth. Maybe very good.
That is how it has gone up and down the roster. While the second and third players may not be fully ready to start, there are not a lot of them that scare you with the thought of them having to play. The only exception is the offensive line, where the backup situation at guard and tackle is tenuous. But the starters, as projected, look to at least be an improvement over what the Cowboys rolled with the first week of 2012.
Just to get a flavor for the difference in the roster, you might want to take a quick look at the initial depth chart last year. In case you are busy, let me throw out some names from that list:
John Phillips. Kevin Ogletree. Felix Jones. Derrick Dockery. Andre Holmes. Mario Butler. Gerald Sensabaugh. Kenyon Coleman. Marcus Spears. Dan Connor. Mana Silva. Mike Jenkins.
Those are just some of the names that the team has since cut ties with. Based on my observations, I don't see any of them that the Cowboys are likely to regret not being available.
I will admit that I am in full pre-season blue-and-silver colored glasses mode. But I also don't hear anyone arguing that most of the backups vying to make this team are not a stronger bunch than we have seen in recent years. Outside that nagging O line issue, which is largely injury driven at this time, the personnel look pretty good. I think the final cut down is going to see Dallas parting ways with some NFL quality talent, and hoping that some of it gets through waivers to sneak onto the practice squad. It's why I really don't want to see any more of the starters than is absolutely necessary to get the rust knocked off. Of course, making sure those starters stay healthy is important. But mostly, the team needs as many snaps as it can get to sort out which players to keep, and which ones to let go. The depth this year looks to be that good.
At least, I think. Or hope. We'll find out a little more tonight.