With the reduction of the Greg Hardy suspension, the Cowboys can now tentatively start planning how to approach the 2015 season. Pending a possible legal appeal that may further reduce Hardy's time off the field, they know that both he and Rolando McClain will be gone for up to four games. The defense has to find a way to handle their absence until then, and should be markedly better once they are available.
This brings up something that is often overlooked. Those two roster spots will of course not be left vacant. But whoever takes those places is essentially a placeholder that will have to be waived once the team needs the spots to activate Hardy and McClain. There is a sometimes overused saying that organizations don't face problems, they see opportunities. Although what will essentially be the last two roster spots are not the most important ones to deal with during training camp and preseason, the Dallas staff is not going to just treat the players involved as disposable resources. In essence, those two spots give the team up to four weeks to extend a couple of camp battles. Further, the players involved may be of future value. Although they may find other jobs once released, they could be practice squad candidates if they clear waivers. Those players who are not PS eligible might be someone the team wants to bring back later in the season as injury replacements. It would be better than a street free agent since these players are already known quantities and are familiar with the playbook.
Although the obvious solution would be to keep a linebacker and a defensive end to fill in for the two suspended players, that may not be the best way to go. While the long-term plan may be to keep, for instance, seven linebackers and nine total defensive linemen, the team should be able to get through four weeks shorting those positions. The Cowboys can only have 46 players active on game day anyway, and Hardy might be back after only two weeks if there is a further appeal for him.
So if we look at all the roster spots as available, who are some bottom-of-the-roster types that may benefit from the absence of two suspended starters? These players will gain from getting game checks and gaining experience. It is something that can benefit all involved.
(SHAMELESS PLUG: The easiest and most fun way to play with rosters is with the Interactive Roster Builder. Kudos to OCC for keeping this great tool going!)
Linebackers. Two rookies that may get a temporary shot on the 53-man roster are Mark Nzeocha (health permitting) and UDFA Donnie Baggs. The team may also consider keeping Keith Rivers around if they decide to go try and go straight to the practice squad with the rookies.
Defensive linemen. Since Rod Marinelli values position flex, both ends and tackles are good candidates. Some names that may be part of this equation are Ryan Russell, Kenneth Boatright, Chris Whaley and Ken Bishop, but one that is intriguing here is Davon Coleman. He has a reputation for being very talented but not really applying himself. This might be a chance to see if he has learned anything, or if the team just needs to move on.
Defensive backs. There are four rookies and Ray Vinopal in play here, and any of them could build a case to get a longer look coming out of preseason. Special teams value may be a big part in making one of these guys attractive.
Wide receiver. If anybody on the team gave the slightest consideration to what I think, this is where I would be really encouraging them to use the extra spot. With the passel of UDFA receivers coming to camp, this could be a way to find out who really can help as a returner or depth receiver in real game situations. Take one or even two extra receivers for the initial 53-man roster, and use them on special teams. It might even give A.J. Jenkins some extra time to try and prove himself.
Running back. Right now, Ryan Williams is looking like he might have the steepest path to climb to make the team, and this could be a great way to find out what the team has with him. The team gave him that comparatively large bonus and this is an additional argument to give him a shot in games that count.
Fullback. This may not be about individual players as much as the viability of the position itself. Jason Garrett clearly likes the idea of a fullback, but the position is really not as valuable as it once was. Having a couple of extra spots to work with for a few games could let the team see how much use it really gets from the position and put off the final decision.
Tight end. Geoff Swaim could get a chance to prove his worth, and this could go hand in hand with the fullback question. If there is a chance of using Swaim in lieu of a fullback, how valuable is a real world test of the concept?
Offensive linemen. Reshod Fortenberry and Laurence Gibson might be worth a look this way.
Those are the main options. It is a relatively minor concern for the team, but given the situation, the team should turn it to its advantage. While everyone is anxious to see the defense once Hardy and McClain are back, there might be some interesting things to observe while we wait.