The OTAs for the Dallas Cowboys start on Tuesday, and that is the first real step in the process of figuring out which players will make the 53-man roster. Although the team has already had the rookie minicamp, that was more about getting the new players started on learning the playbook and refining the 90-man preseason group. Now the coaches will start making some preliminary depth decisions. They will also be evaluating whether they need to look further in the free agent market before camp starts on or about July 30th.
Between now and the first game of the season, we as fans will be watching and making our own projections of how the roster might look. Chances are that there will be some major surprises, as OCC pointed out in his recent post on who might get cut. But the decisions are not just a simple binary problem of whether the team will keep player A and cut player B at a given position. It also involves how the roster is structured.
To illustrate this, let's take a look at perhaps the most scrutinized position for the Cowboys, running back. As a starting point, consider the roster last year. The team carried three running backs, with DeMarco Murray as the starter and bellcow, Joseph Randle as his backup, and Lance Dunbar as the change of pace back. They also had fullback Tyler Clutts. And the team carried three tight ends, which is gong to be a part of the equation, as will be explained later.
This year, there are currently five candidates at running back in Randle, Dunbar, Ryan Williams, Darren McFadden, and Synjyn Days. Clutts has been brought back to compete with Ray Agnew at fullback. But the team may not use a fullback this year. They drafted tight end Geoff Swaim, trading a 2016 sixth-round pick to get one more selection in the seventh round to take him. One thing that is interesting about his resume is that he also has experience playing fullback and H-back. Take all that into account, and these are some of the questions the team now faces:
- How many of each of the three positions, RB, FB and TE, does the team keep on the roster? The total was seven last year, but they might want to carry eight (which would probably come at the cost of a spot on the defensive side, opening another can of worms we will ignore for now).
- Who are the leading candidates for each? Oddly, Dunbar may be the safest bet at the moment, since he looks to be the only COP back on the roster. The coaches feel this is an important tool to have. The remaining four backs are then competing for two or three positions. Until we see them in action, we really don't know how Rancle, Williams, and McFadden will stack up, and of course we aren't the coaching staff, who have to make the actual call. Days may also be a bit of a wild card, as 5blings pointed out in a comment thread that he may be a better candidate for a short yardage banger than any of the veterans.
- If you keep Swaim as a blocker that can be used as a fullback, do you then go with three or four TEs? If you stick with three, that would probably mean James Hanna gets released rather than former second-round pick Gavin Escobar (if anyone thinks Jason Witten is in any way a consideration to not make the team, slap yourself and go sit in a corner).
As you can see, each part of this affects the others. At this point, we are merely guessing, but let's just throw out a possible solution here. This is highly speculative and makes a lot of totally unwarranted assumptions.
The team keeps Swaim and releases Hanna, which allows them to still use a lead blocker in selected situations without devoting a roster spot for a fullback. It also allows them to disguise the play by lining Swaim up as an inline blocker and then motioning him into the fullback position.
Keeping with the emphasis on running the ball, the team winds up keeping all five of the backs currently on the roster. Mcfadden, Randle and Williams are the traditional running backs, Dunbar is purely COP, and Days becomes the short-yardage specialist who can still break a run if he gets through the line into the secondary. McFadden might also be used some as a third down back in certain down and distance situations since he is good if the team can get him in space, but would make the play call a little harder for the defense to anticipate than Dunbar's presence might.
It costs the defense a roster spot compared to last season, but the team is able to do that because it has much better depth along the defensive line and at linebacker.
Having said that, I don't think this is at all the most likely way things will play out, but it certainly is one possible outcome. It is proposed more as an example of how the Cowboys may do things we don't really see coming. Obviously the team could stick with tradition and use the same three RB, one FB, three TE group they did last year, but they are not at all handcuffed to that. They also still have to worry about whether Randle has gotten over his penchant for doing abysmally stupid things or even a possible suspension from the incident in Wichita he was involved in. The NFL has not addressed whether they are going to take any action on that, to my knowledge, and who knows what they might do? Consistency has not exactly been a hallmark for Roger Goodell this year.
That is the running back/tight end part of building the roster. There are a lot of other similar decisions to be made, although this is one of the more complex. Every player kept means someone else does not get a job and also can cost you a different position on the roster. At this time of year, we can look at some out-of-the-box ideas like my five running back concept, because of course we are just fans. And we all love to play head coach/GM.
Feel free to take your own shot at how to solve this or any other roster conundrum in the comments. We have a long way to go until real football finally gets here.