The first depth chart of 2015 has been released for the Dallas Cowboys, as covered by One Cool Customer earlier. This may be more just an indication of the pecking order for the first preseason game against the Chargers in San Diego than anything, but it does get us all to thinking a little more about the eventual 53-man roster that Dallas will take into the regular season.
About two months ago, I took a look at the roster from the perspective of who were locks and near-locks to make the team. This led to the idea that there were close to thirty-five players that were not really in a competition for their spot on the roster, leaving about 20 spots open for competition. But now, after a week and a half in training camp, I think the picture is already firming up, and there are not as many spots that are open for competition. Here is a revisit to the idea of who is pretty safe already, with thoughts as to who else may break onto the roster in one of those remaining jobs to be filled later. (The order for positions is the same as in the June article if you want to go back and compare, or just find reasons to belittle my acumen.) The number next to the position is how many roster spots this group is expected to account for after the final cutdown.
Lock: Tony Romo
The situation for the backups may be the weirdest one in camp. Brandon Weeden and Dustin Vaughan have both failed to show any real improvement or development, something that is really scary in Weeden's case given what happened against the Arizona Cardinals last season. Meanwhile the team is experimenting with Jameill Showers as a special teams contributor. This is one situation that will likely not clear up any until after we see a preseason game or two - and it may go down to the last quarter of the game against the Houston Texans. I do expect three quarterbacks to make the roster this season, but any combination of Weeden, Vaughan and Showers behind Romo would not surprise me in the slightest.
Running backs/fullback (4)
Locks: Joe Randle, Lance Dunbar, Tyler Clutts
Randle has been the RB1 by default with Darren McFadden out. Dunbar has seen the level of usage as a COP back that we have all been longing for. And forget the wishes to see the team go without a fullback. With the ["I" word redacted] to McFadden and Dunbar, Clutts was brought in to take snaps at running back in practice, and showed some nice hands as a receiver. Jason Garrett loves him some fullback, if even for only a handful of snaps, and it sure looks like "Cluttsy" has that sewn up.
The ["H" word redacted] problem that has kept McFadden off the field has opened up an interesting opportunity for Gus Johnson to make an argument that he should be considered for the RB2 spot. The eventual winner here may be determined by how well McFadden recovers, but if he continues to struggle, I just have a feeling that the team would rather go with the guy they know rather than bring someone in from outside. Johnson has looked very good in the early going. And if McFadden does get healthy and claim the job, then the team will probably be hoping to sneak Johnson onto the practice squad for possible emergency use.
Tight ends (3)
Locks: Jason Witten, Gavin Escobar
He is Jason By Damn Witten. Any questions? Meanwhile, Escobar is involved in his traditional preseason display of good hands and fighting for contested balls, which means we will almost certainly be asking ourselves when he will ever be used much in games that matter again this year.
The team is almost certainly not going to carry a fourth TE due to Clutts being on the roster. This leaves what could be an interesting battle between James Hanna and Geoff Swaim for that third spot. Swaim has been a pleasant surprise as a receiver, and he was acquired because of his blocking skills and position flexibility. This has led to some speculation, most recently by Babe Laufenberg, that the Cowboys might look to deal Hanna or Swaim before the season starts - and given what he has shown so far, they may be more inclined to keep Swaim with his rookie deal.
Wide receivers (5)
Locks: Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams, Lucky Whitehead
Bryant is of course a given. Beasley is now the second most important receiver on the roster, but Williams still is quite safe since Beas is going to be working mostly out of the slot. Whitehead may be a surprise on this list, but he has looked very good as a receiver in addition to being a return man. The name you may notice is left out here is Devin Street, who just has not shown the progression the pre-camp comments from the coaching staff led us to expect. He is now in a real battle with A.J. Jenkins, Reggie Dunn, and the bevy of other UDFA wideouts. Dunn may be one to watch here. There will also likely be at least a couple of the PS eligible players signed there after they clear waivers.
Offensive line (9)
Locks: Tyron Smith, Ronald Leary, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Doug Free, La'el Collins, Mackenzy Bernadeau, Darrion Weems
The foundation for the offense is very solid. The ninth spot is probably going to go to a tackle, with Laurence Gibson and John Wetzel the ones that probably have a leg up. Chaz Green is looking like an "injury redshirt" for this year.
Defensive line (8)
Locks: DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Nick Hayden, Jeremy Mincey, Randy Gregory, Jack Crawford
Suspended until game five: Greg Hardy
The last two spots look to be most likely to go to Ben Gardner (who is right on the edge of being a lock based on his performance so far), Terrell McClain, Davon Coleman or Ryan Russell. Coleman has not had the up and down trend he showed last season, and will be a player to watch closely to see if he keeps it up. McClain is also highly regarded, so this is going to be hard - if they stick with just eight here. They might and just add Hardy after he is done appeasing the NFL commissioner.
Locks: Sean Lee, Anthony Hitchens, Kyle Wilber, Damien Wilson, Jasper Brinkley, Andrew Gachkar
Suspended until game five: Rolando McClain
Wilber is something of a surprise, having gotten all the first team reps at SAM while McClain is out. The rest seem on a different level from the other linebackers currently in camp.
Defensive backs (10)
Locks: Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick, Byron Jones, Morris Claiborne, Tyler Patmon, Corey White, Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox, Jeff Heath, Danny McCray
This group has been pretty solid since day one. Jones and White have demonstrated the position flex that was being speculated about before camp begun. Although they have limitations as safeties, Heath and McCray are going to be core special teams players. Look for others like Robert Steeples to be brought back for the practice squad if they clear waivers.
Locks: Dan Bailey, Chris Jones, L.P. Ladouceur
You don't mess with success. With the longer extra point try, Jones, as the holder for Bailey, would have to absolutely fall apart punting for the team to even think about replacing him.
That is the list of locks. But you may notice a bit of a discrepancy here. When you add up the numbers, there are only 51 spots for the final roster accounted for. This, as it works out, allows the team to have the two "placeholder" players to account for Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain coming off suspension after four weeks. The team has a variety of ways to use these. A fourth running back, seventh linebacker, sixth wide receiver, fourth tight end, ninth rushman, or one extra defensive back are all options for who could be carried through the first four weeks to give those players a chance to develop. They might then be candidates for the PS, or perhaps even used in trades if some team is needy.
Even counting those two, this leaves us with only fourteen spots that are open for competition. And some of those, like the backup quarterback, third tight end and RB2 spots, involve very specific options. The picture is getting a little clearer regarding the 53 man roster to start the season. The preseason games may add more clarity - or throw us a curve. The biggest issue will be ["I" word redacted]. Let us hope that is kept to an absolute minimum.