Last summer, Pat Kirwan of CBSSports penned an article in which he looked at roster depth across the league. Kirwan provided a list of 13 questions (actually it's 12 questions, he skipped the backup QB one) that have to get a positive answer for a team to qualify as having solid roster depth.
At the time, the questions sounded fairly well thought out, and I attempted to answer each depth question for the 2014 Cowboys as well as such questions can be answered in June. I chose to answer each question with "Yes," "No," or "Probably," and assigned two points for a "Yes," one point for a "Probably," and zero points for a "No." Last year, I gave the Cowboys 16 points for the 13 depth questions below, and we'll see later on how they fare this year.
When he put together the 13 questions last year, Kirwan also "combed through all the rosters looking for the teams with the best depth." That process ended with Kirwan identifying the Seahawks and Bengals as the teams with the best depth in 2014. The Seahawks would end up with a 12-4 record and a Super Bowl appearance, and the 10-5-1 Bengals would exit the playoffs in the wildcard round.
Kirwan also listed five teams as honorable mentions for best roster depth, and for an article titled "Roster depth key to championships" that honorable mentions list turned out to be anything but, with none of the five teams making the playoffs, and only one team even managing a winning record. The five honorable mentions: Eagles (10-6), Dolphins (8-8), 49ers (8-8), Redskins (4-12), and Buccaneers (2-14).
Do those results invalidate the entire 13 questions Kirwan originally asked? Perhaps they do, but I'm going to answer them anyway for the 2015 Cowboys.
|Depth Criteria||Cowboys Status|
|1. Does your team have a capable backup QB that can go at least 2-2 in a four-game stretch?||Probably|
|We don't yet know who the 2015 backup QB will be. But whether it turns out to be Weeden or Vaughan, I wouldn't trust either to win two out of four games for an average team. But I think both QBs could be serviceable enough that the Cowboys could win two out of four despite either of them at QB. Of course, Kirwan set the bar quite low with this question when he described Jason Campbell as good depth in Cincinnati (his fifth NFL team), just as he did Tarvaris Jackson in Seattle (his fourth NFL stop), so I'm going with a "Probably" here.
|2. Does your team have a real swing offensive tackle, a guy that can play left or right tackle and has experience?||Yes|
|The Cowboys have Tyron Smith and Doug Free, both of whom have played left and right tackle in the NFL. They also have Zack Martin, who played left tackle at Norte Dame, La'el Collins, who started 26 games at left tackle his junior and senior seasons for LSU, as well as Chaz Green, who played right tackle at Florida. As far as tackles go, the Cowboys are so stacked it's not even funny anymore.|
|3. Does your team have a solid inside offensive lineman that can play guard or center?||Yes|
|Mackenzy Bernadeau is the designated backup at center, Zack Martin has taken some snaps as the center, and having La'el Collins or Ronald Leary as backup guards is about as good as it can get on the depth chart.|
|4. Is there a quality second running back that can deliver a 100-yard rushing day if he had to start?||Probably|
|Outside of Darren McFadden, not one of the backs currently on the roster has had a 100-yard rushing game in the NFL. The Cowboys may have questions about who their lead back will be, but in terms of depth, I'd argue that whoever is the backup gets the benefit of the doubt because they'll be running behind a top offensive line, so any of the backups will probably be able to hit the 100-yard mark if needed.|
|5. Is there a good second tight end on the roster?||Probably|
|Gavin Escobar has six TDs on 18 receptions in the NFL. There's no question that he is a good red zone target. But as long as Jason Witten is on the team, the second tight end won't get a lot of chances. Another "probably" here.|
|6. Can the third wide receiver step up and start in the two-WR packages if a starter went down?||Yes|
|Jason Witten is effectively the No. 2 receiver on the team (90 targets last year). Because of that, the second wide receiver in the Cowboys' offense seldom gets more than 50 receptions per season (last year Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley each had only 37 receptions). 50 receptions per years is the equivalent of about 3.1 receptions per game. That's a level of production that Cole Beasley, Devin Street, and perhaps even a fifth wide receiver should be able to easily achieve if called upon.
|7. Does your team have a designated pass-rush specialist who could play the early downs if need be?||Yes|
|The Cowboys have enough edge rushers in Hardy, Gregory, Lawrence, Mincey, perhaps even Gardner and a bunch of other guys who might yet emerge at the position to make this a moot point.
|8. Is there a third defensive tackle that not only plays in a rotation but could play the whole game if need be?||Yes|
|Nobody plays DT for the whole game in the Cowboys' scheme. But the Cowboys have three veterans in Tyrone Crawford, Nick Hayden, and Terrell McClain as well as a bunch of young guys in Chris Whaley, Ken Bishop, and Davon Coleman to have effective depth at a spot where they are likely not going to carry more than four guys. Plus there's already been talk about possibly moving Hardy, Mincey, or Lawrence inside on passing downs.|
|9. Is there a quality nickel corner on the roster, since most teams are at least 50 percent sub defenses?||Yes|
|Let's assume that Brandon Carr and Orlando Scandrick are the starters in the base defense. In the nickel, Scandrick could move inside as the slot corner and Byron Jones could take the outside spot. Or Byron Jones could man the slot position spot. Or Corey White could man the inside spot. Or Morris Claiborne could be healthy enough at some point to also take up a spot somewhere. Regardless of how all of this eventually plays out, the Cowboys have enough quality nickel corners.
|10. Is there a fourth corner for dime packages?||Yes|
|The Cowboys opened last season with only four corners on the roster (Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Tyler Patmon, Sterling Moore). If they plan to go with four again, two out of the following six players may have to be released/traded/waived/PUP'd: Brandon Carr, Byron Jones, Orlando Scandrick, Morris Claiborne, Corey White, Tyler Patmon. That's a whole lot of depth at corner.|
|11. Is there a third safety for big nickel defenses?||No|
|The Cowboys don't play in a big nickel defense, but the point is valid nevertheless: The Cowboys do not have a third safety who is pushing the starters for playing time - unless you want to count Byron Jones here. Having Jones playing the free safety behind strong safeties J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church (their natural positions) might be a very interesting wrinkle that could easily turn this question "green." But moving Jones to safety would probably mean turning the previous question "red," so I'm leaving the safety spot "red."
|12. Is there a return specialist that can either handle both punt and kick returns or contribute as a real position player?||No|
|Replacing Dwayne Harris may turn out to be a bigger challenge than replacing DeMarco Murray. For now and until somebody emerges as a viable returner, the answer here is "no."
|13. Does your team have a special-teams linebacker that leads the specials and can play inside linebacker in a pinch?||Yes|
|Depth at linebacker is about more than just having a few linebackers penciled in on your depth chart. When you have a linebacker that leads special teams and can play inside linebacker in a pinch, that's when you have real depth. The Cowboys have brought in veteran Andrew Gachkar and rookies Damien Wilson and Mark Nzeocha for the express purpose of adding special teams talent and quality backups. And for the first time in a long while, it looks like the Cowboys will have quality depth behind their presumptive starters of Sean Lee, Rolando McClain, and Anthony Hitchens.|
By my reckoning, that gives the 2015 Cowboys 19 points, up from the 16 points I awarded them a year ago. They have better depth at linebacker and at corner, can probably squeak by with their backup QBs for a bit, but may have gotten worse at returner.
But that's just my take. As you go through the list of questions, how many points would you award?