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Dallas Cowboys Roster: Rebuilding Or Simply Normal Roster Churn?

Only 13 players are left on the current Cowboys roster from the team that started the 2011 season. Is that a normal number in the NFL or a sign that the Cowboys are rebuilding?


Every offseason we seem to run into the same discussion. Some people will argue vigorously that the Cowboys are in rebuilding mode, while others refute that notion with equal vigor. On Monday last week, Jerry Jones added fuel to this year's discussion by saying that the Cowboys are not rebuilding mode this year, but merely "revamping" the defensive line. Is the difference between the two just a matter of semantics?

After Jerry's comments, I wanted to understand just how much roster churn the Cowboys have undergone in the last three years. Given that the Cowboys have now had three successive 8-8 seasons, a good degree of churn is probably to be expected.

To determine the level of churn over the last three years, I looked at the 53-man roster on opening day of the 2011 season and compared it to the roster as it stands today. The result: Only about a quarter of the players on the 2011 opening day roster are still under contract with the Cowboys today. 13 players, to be exact. Here's an overview of which players from the 2011 opening day roster are still with the team:

Position and No. of players
Quarterbacks (3) Tony Romo
Running Backs (4) DeMarco Murray
Wide Receivers (6) Dez Bryant, Dwayne Harris
Tight Ends (4) Jason Witten
Offensive Linemen (9) Doug Free, Tyron Smith, Jermey Parnell
Defensive Linemen (7)
OLBs (3)
Inside Linebackers (4) Sean Lee
Cornerbacks (5) Orlando Scandrick
Safety (4) Barry Church
Specialists (4) Dan Bailey, L.P. Ladouceur

This certainly looks like the Cowboys are in rebuilding mode. After all, 13 out of 56 is a pretty significant roster turnover, especially if you look at the defensive line, which is just an empty white space in the table above.

But while a phrase like "less than a quarter of the players remain on the roster" sounds ominous, is it really? When I initially set out to write this article, I was pretty sure that I'd see a lot of churn, so I wasn't really surprised by the number. After all, it does highlight one particular aspect of the NFL: a continuous roster renewal that's the modus operandi of just about every NFL team.

Just to verify my assumption that this level of churn is pretty normal across the NFL, I took a look at the numbers for the other NFC East teams, and compared the 2011 opening day rosters to the most current roster lists on each team's website. Here's how the four NFC East teams compare:

Players left on 2014 roster from the 2011 opening day roster
Cowboys Giants Eagles Redskins
13 17 15 18

The thing to keep in mind here is that rosters are still very much in flux. The Cowboys for example could improve their number if they re-sign Phillip Tanner and Anthony Spencer, just as the Eagles' number could drop if they lose Evan Mathis (DeSean Jackson is already excluded).

That doesn't look like too big a difference between the four teams. You can always find a reason why the Cowboys are a player or two short versus the other teams. So I could have stopped right there and loudly scoffed at the notion that the Cowboys are rebuilding (which was my original intent when I started writing this). But then I looked at the five best teams of the last three years (by W/L record) to see what kind of roster churn they had over those three years.

Players left on 2014 roster from the 2011 opening day roster
Team Patriots 49ers Broncos Packers Seahawks
W/L Record 37-11 36-11-1 34-14 34-13-1 31-17
Players left 18 24 17 23 21

The first thing that we can take from this comparison is that roster renewal is intrinsic to the way the NFL operates. Even the good teams have replaced half their roster over the last three seasons.

The second thing we see is that the Cowboys are definitely at the low end of the scale with just 13 players left. There are certainly many reasons for this. One is the fact that Orlando Scandrick, Doug Free, and Jason Witten are the only draft picks left on the team drafted before 2010. That's it. Just three guys. Sure, there are UDFAs like Tony Romo and Barry Church still on the team, and yes, better cap management may have kept DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher around, just as better player relations management may have kept Jay Ratliff around.

The Cowboys may not like the term "rebuilding", but whether we call it revamping or reloading doesn't really make much of a difference: Over the last three years the Cowboys have had to fill in a big black hole where veterans from the 2006-2009 draft classes should have been. And without that backbone of talent to carry you through the years, it's really not much of a surprise to see the Cowboys labor through consecutive 8-8 seasons.

What is perhaps even more telling than looking at the absolute churn number on the Cowboys roster is to look at where the churn on the Cowboys' roster occurred. The Cowboys have just three defensive players left on the roster from the 2011 team, and the defensive line has been gutted with all the precision of a sledge hammer.

That crater on defense is going to be hard for Cowboys to refill in one offseason, which makes you wonder how much longer this rebuilding/revamping/reloading is supposed to be going on. Because here's the thing - at the end of each rebuilding process you're supposed to emerge with a rebuilt (and winning!) team.

Is this the year the Cowboys find back to their winning ways?

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