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Building the Cowboys Roster: Assessing The 2015 Offseason

The Cowboys, in no small part due to the fact that they had 23 impending free agents, went into this offseason with a lot of questions to answer. Nevertheless, they spent wisely, managing to get excellent value for their dollars as well as their draft picks. As a result, the 2015 iteration of your Beloved 'Boys reflects the priorities of its head coach: youth, depth, athleticism.

Retaining Doug Free was one of the Cowboys' most important offseason moves.
Retaining Doug Free was one of the Cowboys' most important offseason moves.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Back in mid-February, I offered up a series of posts in which I looked at the offseason task facing our fave team. My starting point was to imagine I was a member of the Dallas braintrust, tasked to address a pair of questions: first, what positions need to be filled and/or replaced? and second, how might we best address those roster spots: via free agency? the draft? a combination of the two? The first step was to take a long, hard look at the Cowboys roster. As we waved goodbye to the 2014 campaign and to the legion of Cowboys whose contracts expired as the season did, a gander at the Cowboys' depth chart offered myriad questions:

How would they proceed in free agency? How would they prioritize their 23 free agents, sixteen of whom were of the unrestricted type? If forced to choose, which of their two offensive superstars would they retain, Dez Bryant or DeMarco Murray? What would they do at right tackle, where both players who logged serious snaps in 2014 were UFAs? Would they try to keep any of the eight front-seven players who would be going on the open market? If so, who would they prioritize? If not, how could they afford to fill all those positions so that their hand wasn't forced in the draft?

See? A lot of questions. The Cowboys had seven draft picks and a decent but not exorbitant amount of free agent money with which to try to answer them. For the most part, they used these limited resources efficiently, engineering a roster overhaul that, for the second consecutive year, was particularly impressive on the defensive side of the ball.

That said, I'd like to begin with the offense. Here's what the offensive depth chart looked like a couple of weeks into the offseason. Any roster spots previously manned by players who were no longer officially on the roster, such as Dez Bryant and Jermey Parnell, I marked with a "????"; restricted free agents have an asterisk next to their names.

Here's what the offensive depth chart looked like in mid-February:

Position Starter Backup Third String
QB Tony Romo Brandon Weeden Dustin Vaughan
FB ????

RB ???? Joseph Randle
*Lance Dunbar
SE ???? *Cole Beasley Devin Street
FL Terrance Williams ????
TE Jason Witten Gavin Escobar
James Hanna
LT Tyron Smith Darrion Weems
LG Ronald Leary Mackenzy Bernadeau
OC Travis Frederick
RG Zack Martin ????

RT ???? ???? Donald Hawkins

Although the offensive side of the ball is fairly secure, there were weak spots at wide receiver, running back/ fullback and on the right side of the O-line. Now, as the team prepares to embark upon OTAs, here's what the offensive depth chart looks like. For the updated charts, I've colored free-agents light blue; recent draftees are in light red. I've also included select UDFAs; they're in light green:

Position Starter Backup Third String
QB Tony Romo Brandon Weeden Dustin Vaughan
FB Jed Collins
Ray Agnew
RB Darren McFadden Joseph Randle
Lance Dunbar
SE Dez Bryant Cole Beasley Antwan Goodley
FL Terrance Williams Devin Street George Farmer
TE Jason Witten Gavin Escobar James Hanna
LT Tyron Smith Darrion Weems
Laurence Gibson
LG La'el Collins
Ronald Leary
OC Travis Frederick Shane McDermott
RG Zack Martin Mackenzy Bernadeau
RT Doug Free
Chaz Green

The Cowboys brought back two of the four starters who were UDFAs - and it was the correct two, given that WR and OL, even RT, are Positions of Great Import. That said, they waved goodbye to the starting backfield, and will have multiple options at each position. For me, the biggest takeaway here is depth. They are four-deep in starting quality WR, provided that the rumors claiming Devin Street is ready to battle Terrence Williams for snaps are true. And, as happened last year, when the selection of Zack Martin allowed a solid incumbent starter in Mackenzy Bernadeau to move to a key backup role, the La'el Collins windfall creates terrific depth along the interior O-line. When figuring in the two draft picks, Chaz Green and Laurence Gibson, as well as the depth at TE, we see significantly more - and better - overall depth on this side of the ball.

Does that apply to the defense? Here's what the defensive depth chart looked like around Valentine's Day (any young children might want to avert their eyes). As above, vacated roster spots received the much-feared "????"; free agents are marked with a single asterisk; aging veterans whose bloated contracts put them at risk are marked with the dreaded triple asterisk (***):

Position Starter Backup Third String
LDE ????
Ben Gardner
Terrell McClain
Josh Brent
Tyrone Crawford
Amobi Okoye
DeMarcus Lawrence
Jeremy Mincey
Ken Boatright
???? Kyle Wilber Dekoda Watson
Sean Lee ????
Keith Smith
???? Anthony Hitchens Cam Lawrence
LCB Brandon Carr Mo Claiborne
Tyler Patmon
SS Barry Church ????
FS J.J. Wilcox
Jeff Heath
RCB Orlando Scandrick
*Sterling Moore

For the second consecutive offseason, the secondary was the most solid unit, which is damning with faint praise, given that both the defensive line and linebacking units were a shambles. All three starting linebackers were UFAs, as were both strongside ends. When the club declined to pick up the option on Henry Melton's contract, the Cowboys were down two key contributors in their DT rotation. Plus, there were looming contract questions for both Brandon Carr and Sterling Moore. This seemed like a lot, especially for a unit that wasn't particularly talented to begin with...

And here's where the roster is now, after its offseason makeover. As before, FAs are in blue; draftees in red; UDFAs are in green:

Position Starter Backup Third String
LDE DeMarcus Lawrence
Jeremy Mincey Ben Gardner
Nick Hayden Terrell McClain
Tyrone Crawford
Ken Bishop
Chris Whaley
Greg Hardy
Randy Gregory
Ryan Russell
Anthony Hitchens Keith Rivers Kyle Wilber
Rolando McClain Jasper Brinkley
Damien Wilson
Sean Lee Andrew Gatchkar
Mark Nzeocha
LCB Brandon Carr Corey White
Tyler Patmon
SS Barry Church Ray Vinopal
FS J.J. Wilcox Jeff Heath Tim Scott
RCB Orlando Scandrick Byron Jones
Mo Claiborne

This is where the Cowboys' offseason work is most evident. The Dallas brass took a D-line that had perhaps five useful survivors and transformed it into one with respectable depth. More importantly, they injected some premium talent into defensive end, the Position of Great Import where they had no real difference makers. Consider: line item number one on Dallas' offseason plan was to improve the pass rush. They managed to secure the best pass rushing 4-3 defensive end available in free agency and to acquire the draft's best pass rushing 4-3 DE. That's some special sauce.

In addition, they have developed sufficient depth at linebacker either to knock the Cam Lawrences and Dakoda Watsons off the roster (indeed, Watson was released last week) or to ensure that they never have to log meaningful defensive snaps. Finally, they have quietly gathered together a five-deep stable of tall and/ or athletic corners capable of matching up with the league's big wideouts. If, as early reports suggest, Mo Claiborne will be ready for training camp, then Corey White (who I like quite a bit) might well be the team's fifth corner. That's not a bad problem to have.


Jason Garrett wants the Cowboys to have competition throughout the roster. And, as we know, competition for the final spot tends to push upward, as the third-stringers push the number two guys, who keep the burner on under the starters' backsides. On offense, I think we'll see this in particular at wide receiver and left guard, where there should be some serious offseason competition, with the loser providing starter-quality depth. On defense, there should be some serious jockeying at the back end of the defensive line, linebacker and cornerback lists, where they now have players capable of giving them legit NFL snaps. That cannot be anything other than good news.

The Cowboys have brought a lot of very good players into the fold of late; the past three drafts, I think, have been as productive as any since 2005, and the 2015 crop has the potential to be as impactful as any since 1992. In 2010, Garrett inherited an old, thin, and overpriced group and, in five seasons, has overseen the creation of a younger, deeper, more competitive, and less costly bunch (in past iterations of this exercise, I often have noted several veterans as potential cap casualties, giving them the dreaded triple asterisk; this year, we are down to one such candidate).

There is certainly still work to do. This offseason, the Cowboys will have to find a replacement for Dwayne Harris on special teams, and they will have to sort out the running back situation. Don't be surprised to see them add an experienced returner or a big (6'2", 220 pound) back before the opener. In addition, soft spots remain that must be addressed in future offseasons, foremost among them quarterback, running back, defensive tackle and, perhaps most importantly, free safety, where the Cowboys were secure enough to look elsewhere in 2015, addressing more obvious weaknesses.

And I guarantee we'll be saying the same thing about these or other position in one year's time. Roster building is a Sisyphean task; roll that boulder up the hill and then do it again...

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