The NFL is a war of attrition, and injuries are a part of the game that no team can avoid. Which is why roster depth is so important in the NFL. At the end of the season and in the playoffs, more often than not its roster depth that makes the difference between winning and losing. Sure, if your team's superstars all remain healthy, then depth isn't much of an issue, but for most teams, depth is a real issue.
At the end of the day, injuries are part of the game in the NFL. Every team is affected by injuries at some point in the season, and often it's a team's ability to compensate for those injuries with players down the depth chart that makes the difference.
Every year, Football Outsiders publish their statistical study of team health from the previous NFL season, and by FO's definition, the Cowboys finished the 2014 season with 76.1 Adjusted Games Lost, which ranks the Cowboys 19th in the league, meaning they suffered slightly more AGL than the average NFL team. The following table shows the Cowboys' injury stats over the last seven years compared to the league average.
|Adjusted Games Lost to Injury, 2007-2014|
What's important for Cowboys fans to understand is that only once in the last eight years have the Cowboys had an injury rate that was significantly above average. Think about that. For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth about the Cowboys injury situation, 2012 was the only recent year in which the Cowboys suffered from an unusually high injury rate.
The reason many fans feel the Cowboys have been hit harder by injuries than the average team is that you tend to notice injuries more when they are not evenly distributed. And this is especially true for the 2014 Cowboys. The 2014 offense, despite the constant headlines about Tony Romo's health situation, ranked as the second-healthiest offense in the league with an AGL of just 9.3. The 2014 Cowboys defense on the other hand had the fifth-highest injury rate in the league with 66.8 Adjusted Games Lost. Of that total, 23.0 AGL were on the defensive line (3rd highest), and 31.7 were at linebacker, the highest value in the league last year.
The Cowboys seem to have taken this lesson to heart this offseason. If you take a close look at the Cowboys' free agency activities this offseason, you'll see that outside of Greg Hardy, none of the free agents brought in are assured a starting spot - but a lot of them would make some pretty good backups, especially at linebacker. Add three players from the draft with first-round talent, mix in young players ready to break out like DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Terrance Williams, and Lance Dunbar and suddenly you've got real depth, something that hasn't gone unnoticed:
This is the best group of players on #Cowboys roster I have seen in a long time. Better depth at all positions.— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) June 23, 2015
Injuries will happen, there's no way around that. But if the Cowboys can avoid having them concentrate on a specific position group, their depth should allow them to compensate for that much better than in previous years.
But depth is about more than just having quality injury replacements on hand. It's also about having the option of subbing in quality players when needed during a game.
The Cowboys like to rotate their defensive linemen, both to give the nominal starters a breather and to get players on the field with fresh legs. But, like all other teams, they almost never take their offensive linemen off the field. In fact, the Cowboys have a very different approach to substitutions on offense and defense.
On offense, the Cowboys like to play their starting 11 as long and as much as possible, only occasionally subbing in a backup when a starter needs a breather, or when they put one of their few special packages on the field for a specific situation.
On defense, the entire front seven is in constant flux. The defensive line is all about rotation, the number of linebackers changes between the base and nickel formation, and most linebackers have gotten breathers for various reasons in the past as well. The only positions where there's some stability are the two starting outside corners and the two safeties, so it's no surprise that J.J. Wilcox (1,138 total defensive snaps in 2014), Brandon Carr (1,170), Orlando Scandrick (1,027), and Barry Church (1,026) led the defense in snaps last year. And with the addition of Byron Jones and Corey White, two players that can play both corner and safety, even the defensive backs may see more rotation than they have in the past.
In the 2014 regular season, the Cowboys fielded 458 different lineup combinations on defense, ranking them 31st in the league. For comparison, the Vikings had the fewest with 179 combinations. In stark contrast to the defense, the Cowboys offense had 158 different lineups on the field, the fourth lowest total in the league. And those numbers are not just a one-year fluke, they are consistent across coaching regimes and defensive schemes, as the table below shows:
|Cowboys lineup Combinations
||183 (6th)||148 (4th)
||445 (30th)||458 (31st)|
For the Cowboys, especially on defense, roster depth is not a luxury, it is an absolute necessity. It follows that if the Cowboys have improved their roster depth, they should see an improvement in their overall quality of play, again especially on defense. Which is why reading Gil Brandt's statement about the improved depth on the 2015 roster has to be very pleasing for Cowboys fans, particularly coming from Brandt, who may have a better perspective on the Cowboys roster depth than almost anybody else.
How do you feel about the Cowboys' depth this year?