Last year, a week before training camp kicked off for the Cowboys in Oxnard, we looked at six different 53-man roster projections here on BTB: One from Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News, who published his ranking of the 53-man roster in early July, 2014, one from Todd Archer published on ESPN Dallas, and four projections from the writers here at BTB.
Today, we’re going to look back at those six roster projections to see what the pitfalls in early roster projections are, something that should come in handy as we review the 2015 batch of roster projections that have already started hitting us.
The table below summarizes our six 53-man roster projections for the Cowboys from last year. Note that the players are not necessarily shown in the order in which they were originally ranked, as I reordered them where necessary to make the projections more transparent across the six sources. Green denotes starters on the opening day of the 2014 season, the other players on the season-opening 53-man roster are marked in yellow. Players who did not make the initial 53-man roster are marked in red.
||Ryle, BTB||Kegbearer, BTB||Rabble, BTB||OCC, BTB|
|W. Smith||W. Smith||W. Smith||W. Smith|
If you start summing up the green cells, you'll quickly notice that not a single prediction got all 22 starters right. While everybody had the 11 offensive starters on their list, the defensive front seven proved more difficult. Every one of us missed on at least one starter for the defensive line, and two more of us also whiffed on the starters at linebacker. Which brings us to our first learning about roster projections:
Projecting the top guys on the roster really isn't such a hard thing to do. Barring Injuries, suspensions, trades, retirements and other things of that nature, a pre-season roster projection should have the eventual starters on the roster. But where these projections get interesting are on players we individually and collectively missed on.
The bulk of the "red" players in the table above were either suspended (Scandrick, Hamilton), put on PUP/IR (Lawrence, Gardner, Holloman, Johnson), or even traded (Bass). Projecting these roster moves before camp is impossible, and they will naturally make any projection look weak in hindsight.
But there's more to watch out for than just the IR list. As we've tracked these early projections over the last few years, a handful of roster projection pitfalls have emerged which can be broadly classified in the following five categories:
The "Progress Stopper"
"Progress stopper" is a term Bill Parcells introduced to Cowboys Nation. The term has stuck around and is mostly used for veteran players with no upside who fans and media alike are convinced should leave to make room for an exciting young talent they believe has almost unlimited potential. But coaches don’t always think in terms of potential. Instead, they see reliability versus lack of experience, and will often take the former over the latter. It’s not sexy and it’s not what fans and the media are clamoring for, but it’s what coaches do.
Jon Machota and Kegbearer were the only two to include Nick Hayden on their projections, while others opted instead to go with younger players, possibly for no other reason than that the new is more exciting than the old. Hayden ended up playing more snaps than any other defensive tackle last year and started all 18 games.
As you look at roster projections, look closely at where there’s a trade off between a middle-of-the-pack veteran and a young (and unproven) player. The veteran may have the edge more often than you think.
The Former High Draft Pick
Draft pedigree can be a tricky proposition. The average NFL fan is quick to throw around the 'bust' label for former high draft picks, but can be just as quick to proclaim other former high draft picks as potential franchise saviors. There are Cowboys fans who will find something negative about Rolando McClain in every single piece of news about the player, just as as other Cowboys fans believe Ryan Williams will be the answer at running back despite having played just five games in four NFL seasons.
The Cowboys currently have 11 former first-round picks on their roster, only six of which were drafted by the Cowboys. Rolando McClain, Brandon Weeden, A.J. Jenkins, Keith Rivers, and Darren McFadden are all former first-round picks. Some of them may surprise and make the roster, some of them may surprise and get cut. Predicting which player ends up in which group isn't as easy as you may think it is.
Draft pedigree is much more important to fans and the media than it is to the coaches making the roster decisions.
The You-Can-Never-Have-Enough-Players-At-His-Position Guy
Last year, all six projections had the Cowboys going 'long' with five corners, and all but one projection had the Cowboys going 'long' with five safeties as well. The Cowboys ended up going short at both positions, keeping only four corners and four safeties.
Building the roster is not a color-by-numbers exercise. Beware of the guy who tells you that you can’t have enough corners, or that you can’t have enough linebackers, or that you can't have enough linemen. Of course you can have enough.
The System Guy
Two of last year's projections didn't have a fullback at all, and only two had Tyler Clutts on their roster. Turns out, the Cowboys thought a fullback would be an essential element in their resurrected ground game.
Who's going to be this year's system guy, an OTTO Linebacker, a short-yardage back, a space player, a two-point specialist, a receiver who can stretch the field vertically? The coaches probably already have a pretty good idea, we don't.
The Pet Cat and the Stray Dog
Everybody has a pet cat. And whether we do it knowingly or not, we all construct our projections to some way, some how fit in that one player we’ve taken a linking to. Similarly, we often try to construct a roster in the hopes of getting rid of that one player we don't like for some reason.
Like every year, there are bound to be countless pet cats available for your 53-man projection.
WR George Farmer is bound to show up on a few projections, RB Synjyn Days already has a cult following among the friends of the ground game, Mark Nzeocha could be the special teams freak, and Lucky Whitehead could emerge as a candidate for a spot as a kick returner.
From last year's rookie class, DT Chris Whaley is already being touted as the next great three-technique despite never having played an NFL snap, and your roster projection would probably get up and slap you in the face if you don't include Ben Gardner.
But to make room for your pet cats, you may have to cut some of the stray dogs on your roster, players who somehow found their way onto your roster, but now need to be put out of their misery. Do you really need Brandon Weeden, do you really want to risk Jeff Heath starting another game, was Wilberforce really ever all that, is Chris Jones so much better as a holder than as a punter, we're paying our longsnapper how much?