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Cowboys Mid-Preseason Roster Assessment: Modeling a Cut-Down To 53

A step-by-step look at the - wait for it - process of whittling down the current list of 80-some-odd players to a 53-man opening day roster.

And the 53rd and final spot goes to...
And the 53rd and final spot goes to...
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

On my last day in Oxnard, I spent the afternoon at the house of a Cowboys-lovin' friend, a fellow training camp regular who I have previously referred to on these pages as Knowledgeable Cowboys Fan (KCF). The two of us hung out in his kitchen, ostensibly to have lunch. The real purpose of our get-together was to engage in a thought experiment: using what we have learned at camp (both of us attended every practice) and the first two preseason games (each of us has reviewed the tape on both contests) to pare the roster down to a workable "53."

You may recall a post from camp's second weekend in which my podcast partner Landon McCool and I sought to rank the 90 players on the Cowboys roster as of the Blue-White scrimmage. As you might imagine from a couple of Cowboys nerds, we spent an evening, first in a local pub, then in our hotel room, moving around a collection of index cards, each of which bore the name of a current Cowboys player. These were the cards that I initially created to memorize the players' numbers on the flight to Los Angeles; in KCF's kitchen, they received a third, and final, use.

A caveat before we begin: we made our selections based on assumptions about what the Cowboys will do, not what the two of us (both of whom have some very strong notions about how we would run the circus differently) would do. So, whenever making cut-or-keep decisions, we relied on recent Cowboys behavioral history to guide our choices. For example, KCF offered that the team is more likely to keep Ken Bishop than Davon Coleman (who has played much better), since the former is a draft pick. Indeed, this fits the team's behavior; Jerry Jones is loathe to cut draftees, as that reflects poorly on the team's General Manager.

As befits the current iteration of the Cowboys, this was a process. KCF and I began by arranging the players by position and then selecting out those we considered "roster locks." That list gave us 35 of the 53 players:

QB (2): Tony Romo, Brandon Weeden
RB (2): DeMarco Murray, Lance Dunbar
WR (5): Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, Devin Street, Dwayne Harris
TE (2): Jason Witten, Gavin Escobar
OL (6): Tyron Smith, Ronald Leary, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Doug Free, Mackenzy Bernadeau
DE (4): DeMarcus Lawrence, George Selvie, Tyrone Crawford, Anthony Spencer
DT (2): Henry Melton, Terrell McClain
LB (5): Kyle Wilber, Justin Durant, Bruce Carter, Rolando McClain, Anthony Hitchens
CB (3): Brandon Carr, Mo Claiborne, Terrance Mitchell
S (2): Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox
Specialists (2): Dan Bailey, L.P. Ladoceur

A couple notes: as you can see, we assumed that Anthony Spencer would be ready to play early enough in the season to warrant a spot on the initial 53. Also, Orlando Scandrick is not on this list (or anywhere to be found on our lists) because suspended players don't count against the 53. Of course, if that were not the case, he would be found here.

As you'll observe, this list is comprised largely of starters and/or key veteran role players. However, we kept all the 2014 first- to fifth-round draftees among the "locks." In part, this is because they have all looked good in camp - but also because they are Jerry's picks, and therefore his pets. As far as late round or UDFA types are concerned, our choices were guided by a shared observation: you can parse the team's interest in late-round/UDFA rookies by how much, or how diligently, or how hard, they are coached. It's clear that the coaching staff want Terrance Mitchell to make the roster, for example, in the way that Jerome Henderson rides him, gives him extra reps, and takes him aside to offer little tidbits of advice.

Along these lines, the team's behavior around the "two McClains" - DT Terrell and MLB Rolando - suggests that the Cowboys see both as starters with big upside. Both have been quickly given elevated roles (Terrell in mini-camps and OTAs; Rolando in Oxnard) and, when injured, handled with the extremest care by the training staff, as if they were rare merchandise. So, although neither was a big-ticket purchase or required a sizeable investment, we agreed that both were roster locks.

The next step was to determine the roster's middle class. To do this, we arranged the cards by position and selected out the remaining players who we thought offered critical depth at thin positions (see: defensive tackle) or might make notable special teams contributions. At this point, we realized we had to begin considering the numbers at each position. Because defensive tackle and both secondary positions were a bit thin, we had to make sure we included sufficient numbers to field a team - but without being so beholden to the numbers that better players at other positions failed to make the cut.

This step yielded the following eleven players:

RB: Joseph Randle
TE: James Hanna
OL: Uche Nwaneri
DE: Jeremy Mincey
DT: Davon Coleman, Ken Bishop
CB: Sterling Moore, B.W. Webb
S: Jakar Hamilton, Jeff Heath
Specialists: Chris Jones

This gives us three more players on offense, seven on defense and one specialist. With the bottom-roster players still to be decided, we now have a total of 46 out of the final 53, with 20 on offense, 23 defensive guys, and three specialists.

Thus far, the choices were fairly easy, rarely occasioning debate. The third final step - selecting the final seven players - was the most difficult. We began by switching gears; now, instead of selecting guys we were sure would make the roster, we winnowed the field by choosing our "anti-locks," players we felt were certainties to be cut. To illustrate our process, I've included the entire remaining roster, and put lines through the names that we eliminated:

QB: Caleb Hanie, Dustin Vaughn
RB: Ryan Williams, D. J. Adams, Tyler Clutts, J. C. Copeland
WR: Jamar Newsome, LaRon Byrd, Chris Boyd, Dezmon Briscoe, Tim Benford
TE: Asa Watson, Jordan Najvar,
OL: Jermey Parnell, Darrion Weems, John Wetzel, Ronald Patrick, Wayne Tribue, Josh Aladenoye, Stephen Goodin
DE: Kenneth Boatright, Caesar Rayford, Dartwan Bush, Martez Wilson, Adewale Ojomo, Ben Gardner
DT: Nick Hayden, Zack Minter, Amobi Okoye
LB: DeVonte Holloman, Cam Lawrence, Will Smith, Orie Lemon, Dontavis Sapp, Keith Smith
CB: Tyler Patmon, Justin Green
S: Ahmad Dixon, Matt Johnson, Ryan Smith, Johnny Thomas
Specialists: Casey Kreiter, Tom Hornsey

More notes: as you can see from the above list, we didn't feel that Dallas would keep three quarterbacks (although they will almost certainly try to get Dustin Vaughn on the practice squad). In addition, we felt that, while Amobi Okoye might offer mid-season DL help, it was unlikely that he would be ready anywhere near game one. And, finally, although Ben Gardner is still technically on the roster, he's already destined for an IR designation. So, all these players get The Turk.

That leaves 22 players for the final seven spots. And there are a few basic roster needs that have not yet been met: a fullback/ blocking TE; one or two backup offensive tackles; a backup LB, preferably one who excels on special teams. We decided to address the offensive needs first, with the choice coming down to Tyler Clutts vs. Asa Watson/ an as-yet-unnamed H-back. Clutts is game, but hasn't shown enough ability as a blocker to be a difference-maker in the running game, so we opted for the other choice, fully cognizant that this mystical blocking back isn't currently on the roster (we don't think it's Watson just yet).

At backup OT, the options are all disappointing: Parnell, whose game appears to have regressed since his injury in camp a year ago; Weems, who has been injured for the bulk of camp and never realized the athletic promise that sparked the Cowboys' interest in the first place; Wetzel, who has had a good camp and is on the rise, but is athletically limited. We thought that the team needed to move on from at least half of the Parnell/ Weems experiment and chose Parnell and Wetzel, with the proviso that backup OT will be one of the positions Will McClay and Co. are grinding on most furiously during cut-down week.

Four spots remain. Even though Ahmad Dixon lost a lot of good will after being late to Friday's walk-through and subsequently missing Saturday's second preseason game, the coaches were so enamored of him after the Charger tilt that we feel he makes the team. This means bidding adieu to our favorite unicorn, Matt Johnson, and also relegates Tyler Patmon to favored practice squad status; this team has enough problems in the front seven that they can't afford to keep more than ten DBs

That leaves three spots, with one going to a backup linebacker/ special teamer. Other possibilities include a fourth RB, a sixth WR, and a 10th OL or a defensive lineman with a special trait. With those choices in mind, we narrowed the field to the following players:

Ryan Williams
Jamar Newsome
LaRon Byrd
Chris Boyd
Ronald Patrick 
Kenneth Boatright
Nick Hayden
Zack Minter
DeVonte Holloman
Cam Lawrence

Given the Cowboys struggles against interior runs, we felt it was necessary to keep the best run-stuffing DT they had, be it Nick Hayden or Josh Brent (if and when he is reinstated), with Brent being the better and more likely option. The final two spots went to linebackers: DeVonte Holloman (provided his neck injury is not too severe) and Cam Lawrence have both been core special-teamers throughout training camp and, as such, would provide more worthwhile snaps than a sixth receiver (I like Jamar Newsome; KCF likes LaRon Byrd) or a fourth running back.

The wild card here is Zack Minter; if he continues to practice and to play as he did against Baltimore, then they'll have to find room for him. The question is: at whose expense? He's not going to unseat Henry Melton, so if he sticks, he'll have to bump Ken Bishop or Davon Coleman off the roster. As I wrote to KCF when we discussed Minter's performance against Baltimore, if he continues in this vein, "I fear it's going to come down to Minter vs. Coleman," as both are backup three-techs.

Here's a chart showing the complete 53, organized into the various "cut levels":

Pos. Roster Locks Valuable Pieces Bottom-Roster
QB Tony Romo
Brandon Weeden
RB DeMarco Murray
Lance Dunbar
Joseph Randle
WR Dez Bryant
Terrance Williams
Cole Beasley
Devin Street
Dwayne Harris
TE Jason Witten
Gavin Escobar
James Hanna Asa Watson/ 4th TE
OL Tyron Smith
Ron Leary
Travis Frederick
Zack Martin
Doug Free
Mackenzie Bernadeau
Uche Nwaneri Jermey Parnell
John Wetzel
DE DeMarcus Lawrence
George Selvie
Tyrone Crawford
Anthony Spencer
Jeremy Mincey
DT Henry Melton
Terrell McClain
Ken Bishop
Davon Coleman
Nick Hayden/ Josh Brent
LB Kyle Wilber
Justin Durant
Bruce Carter
Rolando McClain
Anthony Hitchens
Cam Lawrence
DeVonte Holloman
CB Brandon Carr
Mo Claiborne
Terrance Mitchell
Sterling Moore
B.W. Webb
S Barry Church
J.J. Wilcox
Jakar Hamilton
Jeff Heath
Ahmad Dixon
K Dan Bailey
P Chris Jones
LS L.P. Ladoceur

What think you of our process, BTBers? Like it? Loathe it? Go to the comments section and let 'er rip!

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