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Dallas Cowboys 53-Man Roster: Reading Between The Cuts

Some observations based on the Dallas Cowboys 2014 roster cuts and what they may mean about the team's philosophy and roster-building decisions.

The NFL regular season is around the corner and the Dallas Cowboys have an official 53-man roster. There will likely be more moves in the days to come as the team places waiver wire claims, but there are insights to be revealed by studying the current depth-chart breakdown. We can make assumptions on what might have happened behind closed doors in attempting trades prior to the roster deadline. We can study the cuts to decipher the possible motives and feelings of the coaching staff. We can guess about the factors that led to specific decisions. And then we can find out if any of it holds true after future roster changes prior to the Cowboys week one matchup.

First, a quick examination of the numbers of players at each position shows the team did not do anything surprising from a sheer numbers perspective. There are few differences, but they are telling. Obviously, the injuries (past and present) along the defensive line would prove a strong factor in deciding to keep more than last season, though the difference is a minor increase (11 instead of 10). It seems the team went short on the offensive line by keeping only nine on the roster (usually 10). Last year, the Cowboys went into the season with four running backs and no fullback, but that plan changed during the season as Dallas eventually signed Tyler Clutts. It seems the team stayed the course and retained him at the cost of releasing Ryan Williams. I assume they tried to trade him prior to the deadline for roster cuts, but couldn't find a taker.

The Cowboys also didn't accomplish any trades utilizing the improved depth of their receiving corp. The team seems to believe in the abilities of last year's (healthy) group and consider Devin Street a greater combination of potential and production for 2014 than either LaRon Byrd or Jamar Newsome. But just like last season, the team again kept only five receivers on the roster. This came as a slight surprise to me as I imagined the team would want to capitalize on this new-found depth by either keeping six receivers on the roster or trading one (before or after cuts). It seems there were no available offers before the roster deadline and the cost of keeping an extra spot for one of the receivers proved too great.

The ‘Extra Spot' Debate

There was only one more difference in positional numbers from 2013, and it seems that "extra spot" from keeping one less tight end was not used to keep even more rushmen on the roster, nor take advantage of the depth at receiver or running back. In my opinion, the decision probably came down to making sure you plan for the worst.

No matter how healthy Tony Romo may be to start the season, the quarterback position is so important that the we probably should have considered it a foregone conclusion that the Cowboys would look to keep three quarterbacks on the roster. Even if Romo doesn't miss a single game this season, the chances are high that he will sit out of at least a few practices due to his continued rehab heading into the season or soreness after a game. Dustin Vaughan showed enough in the preseason to where some teams with injuries may be interested in picking him up before he can make it to the practice squad (or after). Again, planning for the worst, the Cowboys likely didn't want to risk losing him. While few considered a third quarterback a roster lock, perhaps we should have for no other reason than the need for at least two capable quarterbacks at practice in case Romo gets some rest during the season.

Perhaps pushing Brandon Weeden as a backup was also a factor in this decision. Jason Garrett preaches about the need for competition along the roster. So, the front office may think having a young pup competing to take the #2 job away from Weeden will prove beneficial to his potential this year, as well as Vaughan's long-term development. After all, Weeden is old enough to have a short future with the Cowboys. The team may have finally found a long-term project at QB they feel significantly worried about losing.

The Defensive Back Dilemma

In 2013, the Cowboys made an odd choice in keeping only four active corners on the roster to start the season. They eventually brought back Sterling Moore after injuries forced the need. This year, suspensions to defensive backs created another frustrating situation. The team will be without the services of Orlando Scandrick and Jakar Hamilton to start the season, but neither will count towards the roster limit. This gave the Cowboys a chance to keep five corners while three compete to stay on the team after Scandrick's return. I thought the Cowboys would keep Terrance Mitchell, Sterling Moore, and Tyler Patmon on the roster and utilize the extra time to determine which two were the best to keep long-term. However, the team made the surprising decision (like last season) to keep only four corners to go along with their five safeties.

New acquisition Jemea Thomas has been with the team for about a week and he was around the ball a lot when he saw immediate action in the final preseason game (at a new position, having played corner instead of safety with the Patriots). While I thought he had a chance to make the final roster, I didn't think Thomas and Ahmad Dixon would make the team before Terrance Mitchell. The rookie corner showed some flashes in training camp, and while he allowed a couple of big plays this preseason, most often against starters, he seemed to be on the brink of stopping those plays each time and was usually in good position. Perhaps his physical play that often got whistled under the more stringent penalty calling in the NFL was deemed too great a liability. Perhaps he didn't show enough on special teams.

In the end, the team left me shocked by their decision. It will be interesting to see what happens to the secondary in a few weeks. Will the team keep five corners after Scandrick returns and lose one of the five safeties? Will Hamilton still have a place on this team while in ‘Phase Two' of the NFL drug testing policy if Thomas and Dixon prove themselves in the first few weeks of the season? Will Rod Marinelli utilize three-safety formations more often than expected?

Lavar Edwards and Guessing the Mind of Marinelli

Cowboys fans have been eagerly awaiting the news of roster cuts by other teams attempting to find some potential upgrades along the defensive line. Dallas apparently made a move to ignore the waiver wire period and ensure the addition of Lavar Edwards by trading away a conditional seventh-round pick. Edwards is a very intriguing prospect. The second-year player didn't see much playing time his rookie year, but the former fifth-round draft choice does have athletic ability. In fact, his combine measurables from 2013 seem oddly familiar to a 2014 prospect the Cowboys drafted.

Name Height Weight 40YD-Dash Bench Vertical BroadJump 20YD-Shuttle Three-Cone
D. Lawrence 6' 3" 251 lbs 4.76 20 34.5" 9'05" 4.31 7.46
L. Edwards 6' 4" 277 lbs 4.75 21* 33" 9'11" 4.51 7.03

*Pro Day Results

While Edwards has similar combine numbers as DeMarcus Lawrence, it should be noted he managed to do so weighing 25 lbs more. That should certainly make Cowboys fans interested in the potential of the new defensive end. It also leads me to believe that Rod Marinelli indeed has a different vision for his rushmen than we have become accustomed to after so many years of a 3-4 defense.

More and more, teams are drafting DE/OLB hybrids in hopes their sheer speed and athleticism will help them become dominant pass rushers. It seems Marinelli shies away from these leaner ends and would prefer to have stronger edge rushers. Even Lawrence, though 250 lbs, has been praised more for his combination of power and burst than his speed around the edge.

"This kid has some strength to him," Marinelli told the team's official website. "He's a lot stronger than I thought he was. He's got some power moves that he uses to his advantage. You don't always see that from young guys. They have to get in (the weight room) and eventually it's something they can add to their game. But he's got that power right now. I think that's going to help him this year."

The need for stronger ends makes sense because Marinelli's gap penetrating schemes will not work well if the ends always go wide to get around the pocket leaving large gaps between them and the penetrating tackles. It makes me think that Marinelli covets defensive ends that can knife into the pocket by using burst-to-power technique more than "wide-nine guys" who excel at getting around the edge with pure speed and finesse. This especially holds true when he utilizes stunts that send the ends inside as the tackles loop to the outside.

I will certainly be considering and testing this hypothesis as I study how Marinelli utilizes his rushmen this season. It's tough to tell from last year, because DeMarcus Ware was so talented in getting around the edge while maintaining a sharp angle...when healthy. But the current roster, the use of the larger Jeremy Mincey as a weak-side end, and even the release of smaller and leaner ends like Martez Wilson and Ken Boatright may prove to be indicative. After all, Marinelli's best right-side defensive-end during his years of coaching proved to be the 270lb 'speed to power' Simeon Rice.

Guessing or Deducing

So, there you have it, my reactions and deductions derived from the initial 53-man Dallas Cowboys roster. What do you think? Are the Cowboys holding onto three quarterbacks to "plan for the worst," or are they actually trying to shop one of them in a trade? Will the Cowboys stay light with four corners all year, or are they testing the young safeties before releasing one of them to make room for Scandrick? Will the Cowboys target a more "pure speed" pass-rusher before the season starts, or does Marinelli want more power from all his rushmen?

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