This is the wrap up for the roster review I have been doing over the past week. Hopefully it will help you in watching what is happening with the Dallas Cowboys as they begin training camp - now just a couple of weeks away!
Before I cover the final group of players, here are the previous installments in the series:
Now on to the final unit for review, the specialists. Although these guys only see the field in certain circumstances, they can turn a game around, and have played a part in winning more than one as time ran out.
Split 'em. Placekicker Dan Bailey does not even have competition in camp. With the contract he received last year, his place on the roster is pretty secure. He is one of the most accurate kickers in the league.
Long snapper. L.P. Ladouceur is one of the senior members of the Cowboys, entering his tenth season as the long-snapper. Casey Kreiter has been brought in to share the load and perhaps as insurance, but given the dependability Ladouceur has brought to the job, he would probably have to pull an Orton to not be on the roster.
Punter. This is seen as the only real competition among the specialists. Chris Jones has been pretty reliable, but challenger Cody Mandell may have a better leg. But this is not just about who can do the best job booming punts or putting the other team inside the 20. Jones is also the holder for Bailey. That may be more important than whether Mandell can average four or five yards more punting.
I've covered all the players currently on the Dallas roster. There are a lot of questions to be answered this year. Most of them are on defense, but a few also linger offensively. Rather than look at the contenders, I want to sum up my series by listing the players I think are locked into a roster slot as long as they are healthy.
Quarterback: Tony Romo and Brandon Weeden will be on the roster. The team may talk about expecting Kyle Orton to show up, but we have already seen those kind of expectations get shot down already. Even if he does show up, just to try and protect his signing bonus money, I question what kind of shape he is going to be in. That includes his desire to play, which I seriously doubt. I think the talk about him showing in Oxnard is just a way to keep the door open for him in case he has an about face. I don't expect one, and don't expect to see Cap'n Neckbeard around come September. Weeden as a backup doesn't scare me, and I figure the team would rather go with two QBs this year to free up a spot. Even if Orton came back, you pretty much have to keep Weeden because you cannot be sure how long Orton's motivation will continue.
Running backs/fullbacks: The only two players who are solid memebers of the 53-man roster are DeMarco Murray and Lance Dunbar. Everyone else is in a competition, not only with the other players looking to make the team, but with how the positions will be allocated. I expect a fullback to be on the roster, but that is hardly binding, is it?
Tight ends: Jason Witten and Gavin Escobar will be there. Given how thin the team is, with only two other TEs currently on the roster, I almost include James Hanna in the sure-thing department, but I think there is a chance the team brings in someone to try and take that spot. Also complicating things is not knowing how many TEs will be used in the season, with three or four seeming to be the options.
Wide receivers: You can put down five names: Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, Dwayne Harris, and Devin Street. The first four should be fairly obvious (ignore anyone who drones on about Bease being limited). As for Street, they traded up to get him. Street won't get put on the street. Anyone else has to hope they go deep at wideout.
Offensive line: Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, and Doug Free are starters. Mackenzy Bernadeau may not win the starting job, but he will be on the roster as a multi-position backup if he doesn't. The swing tackle is a pretty open competition, and the battle to play left guard may turn out to be one of the closest of camp, with Ronald Leary and Oche Nwaneri contending with Bernie. Leary and Nwaneri may well both make the team in some capacity, but they are certainly not guaranteed.
Defensive line: Making any predictions requires getting away from the trunk of this tree a bit, but I'll go out there. I don't see how the following players would not make the team: Henry Melton, DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Terrell McClain, and George Selvie.
Outside of those names, I am sure about nothing. It sounds like a lot of players did some good things, but there just isn't enough data you can gather on Rushmen in helmets and T-shirts. From what I can tell, the rest of the candidates are pretty closely bunched after minicamp, with wild cards like Anthony Spencer who could wind up going the PUP route. The last slot or two will probably come down to who looks good in the final preseason game. And the actual decision may be made at the very last minute by a bleary eyed group consisting of Rod Marinelli, Monte Kiffin, and Leon Lett, after watching video nonstop from the end of the game to the cutdown deadline.
Linebackers: The guys that you can mark down in this group are Bruce Carter, DeVonte Hollomon, Anthony Hitchens, and Kyle Wilber. The name that is glaringly absent here is Justin Durant, who is ripe for a challenge with new signee Rolando McClain coming on board. I'm not saying Durant won't win out in the end, I'm just saying that he is not at all a sure thing in early July.
Defensive backs: Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Orlando Scandrick, Barry Church, and J.J. Wilcox will be manning the secondary this year. The rest is going to a contest almost as tight as for the Rushmen. Again, there are some pretty good-looking candidates in the running. And one unicorn.
Specialists: As I said up above, Bailey and Ladouceur are solid here.
If you add up the names I have as certain to make the final roster (again, assuming that nasty "I" thing doesn't get involved), then you come up with 32 spots, leaving 21 that still are to be determined. That seems like a much higher number than normal, reflecting the uncertainty of the majority of the backup positions for the Cowboys this year. The team has not had a lot of depth for some time, and most of the uncertainty is about just that. Of course, even the starters could shift a bit on defense.
As I said, 21 seems like a lot of players to determine in getting to the final 53, and you can also be watching for the eight prospects for the practice squad. This promises to be one of the most riveting training camps in recent memory, with lots of open jobs and, hopefully, more than enough qualified candidates.