The Dallas Cowboys have completed their winless preseason and will be taking on the San Francisco 49ers in ten days. However, the team must first cut their roster down to 53 players. All offseason, fans have been debating how many players the Cowboys will keep at certain positions as this number crunching will greatly depend on which players on the roster bubble manage to win a spot on the team. It seems the team will have some hard decision to make as many of those same questions remain after the fourth preseason game. Though suspensions have made some initial 53-man roster decisions easier (but will have to be revisited in a few weeks), injuries have made the roster juggling more difficult.
Specifically, the injuries of Anthony Spencer, Terrell McClain, and DeMarcus Lawrence will make the defensive-line roster depth a tricky situation and the ripple effect will become a major factor in other decisions. Keeping three players that won't play to start the season means the team will likely look to "go long" on rushmen on their 53-man roster. The versatility of linebacker Kyle Wilber as a situational pass-rusher will help a little, but if the team keeps ten rushmen, it will mean they will have only eight available for the early weeks of the season (ten minus Spencer, McClain, and DLaw, plus Wilber, equals eight), but one of them will be a starting linebacker.
The Emergence of Davon Coleman
The absence of Terrell McClain and Henry Melton this preseason has provided opportunities for some young players and a few of them have stepped up. Davon Coleman has been the most pleasant surprise of training camp and he has continued to improve throughout the offseason while getting a tremendous amount of snaps during preseason games. He has shown impressive burst from his 3-tech position and should be considered promising depth as a situation pass rusher. Where he has struggled has been against the run. While he can use his burst and speed to disrupt stretch runs or create some havoc against zone blocking schemes, he has trouble anchoring at the point of attack against power runs up the middle. However, it seems clear that Coleman has earned himself a spot on the roster and will likely be heavily involved in the rotation at 3-tech as Melton knocks off the rust from his knee injury last season.
The Battle of the Over Tackles
Rookie Ken Bishop has steadily improved and looks much stronger as the 1-tech than he did to begin the offseason. His conditioning seems to be the biggest issue as his ability to fight through double-teams greatly diminishes as the game wears on (as was apparent playing the entire fourth preseason game), but he might have won himself a spot on the roster. His greatest competition has been newcomer Zach Minter. After having a phenomenal introduction in his first preseason game against the Ravens, Minter has had less impact in the following two games, but finally managed to make a couple of splash plays last night versus the Broncos. He has had some struggles holding up against power runs up the gut, but has shown some intriguing pass-rushing ability and mobility during stunts. Has he done enough to beat out Bishop? Will the upside of Bishop and Minter challenge incumbent Nick Hayden for a roster spot?
The Lack of Defensive Ends
It seems clear that Rod Marinelli will need to find ways to make up for the lack of talent at the defensive-end positions. We have seen more blitz packages this preseason than I expected and this may be Marinelli testing out ways to compensate for the lack of production from his edge rushers. The loss of Demarcus Lawrence was a big blow. While fans should not expect too much from a rookie, even one drafted in the early rounds, the young pass-rusher had shown some flashes in training camp and the injury not only keeps him out of the rushmen rotations, but also slows down his development.
George Selvie has been limited this offseason due to injury; Tyrone Crawford has shown some flashes, but has not been consistent nor managed to take that "next step" as he makes his return from his 2013 season-ending injury; Jeremy Mincey is not your prototypical edge rusher. If Cowboys fans are going to stress about the team's defensive capabilities, the defensive ends should be their primary concern. One glimmer of hope (not from his 2013 Super Bowl ring) has been second-year player Kenneth Boatright. He has shown some flashes playing as a primary rusher at right defensive-end, but his efforts have been inconsistent and his splash plays have come primarily against backups. He has also struggled against the run, allowing a rushing touchdown last night versus the Broncos and losing containment a couple of times as well.
The Roster Juggling Act
As stated earlier, the absence of Spencer, McClain, and Lawrence to start the season makes the defensive-line depth chart a variable that will send shock waves across all roster decisions. Keeping ten defensive linemen may not be enough, so the team may have to "go short" at other positional groups. Right now, I think there are twelve rushmen that the team would consider keeping on the 53-man roster:
- Anthony Spencer
- Henry Melton
- George Selvie
- Tyrone Crawford
- DeMarcus Lawrence
- Jeremy Mincey
- Terrell McClain
- Davon Coleman
- Ken Boatright
- Nick Hayden
- Ken Bishop
- Zach Minter
However, three of them will not be available to start the season and George Selvie may also be questionable for the week one matchup. So of the six defensive ends listed, the team may only have three active against the 49ers depending on the availability of Selvie. Again, Wilber provides some relief to the rotation, but the Cowboys could/should be keeping a close eye on the waiver wire to bring in some more talent at defensive end. That would mean this list could grow to thirteen before everything is said and done, so one or two of the six defensive tackles listed may not make final cuts because the team needs to find more help on the edge.
The decisions the team will make on the defensive-line depth chart will influence every other positional group and roster bubble battle moving forward. As this seems to be the greatest weakness/issue for the team, it should also be the first of many difficult choices the front office makes as they prepare for the 53-man roster cuts. What are your feelings?
Which over tackles will make the final cuts? How many rushmen will the team keep on the 53-man roster? Will any free agent acquisitions push some of these players off the roster?