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Cowboys Mid-Preseason Roster Assessment: Modeling a Cut-Down To 53

A step-by-step look at the - wait for it - process of whittling down the current list of 90 players to a 53-man opening day roster.

Ladies and germs: the 53rd player on the 2015 Cowboys' roster...
Ladies and germs: the 53rd player on the 2015 Cowboys' roster...
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

On my last day in Oxnard last year, I spent the afternoon at the house of a Cowboys-lovin' friend, a fellow training camp regular who I have previously referred to on these pages as Knowledgeable Cowboys Fan (KCF). The two of us hung out in his kitchen, ostensibly to have lunch. The real purpose of our get-together, however, was to engage in a thought experiment: using what we have learned at camp (both of us attended every practice) and the first two preseason games (each of us has reviewed the tape on both contests) to pare the roster down to a workable "53."

As this seemed a fitting way to end our respective Oxnard sojourns last year, we decided to re-enact the experiment this year as well. Given that Tuesday was the last time both KCF and I were to be at camp together,  we scheduled another lunch-cum-roster-assessment. This year, we added a third party, the great Dan Turner, our British compatriot who, as a writer for The Mothership, has also been at every training camp practice and, due to his proximity to Bryan Broaddus and Mickey Spagnola, has kept his ear close to the ground about what's happening in deep Cowboyland. So, we figured he'd be an invaluable addition to our little front office.

As befits the current iteration of the Cowboys, this was a process. We began by arranging the players by position and then selecting out those we considered "roster locks" - which meant that all three of us were in agreement that the player wold make the roster. If any of us hesitated, we put the player in the "bubble" pile. That list gave us a whopping 42 of the 53 players:

QB (2): Tony Romo, Brandon Weeden
RB/ FB (3): Joseph Randle, Lance Dunbar, Tyler Clutts
OC/ OG (5): Ronald Leary, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Mackenzy Bernadeau, La'el Collins
OT (2): Tyron Smith, Doug Free
TE (3): Jason Witten, Gavin Escobar, James Hanna
WR (4): Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, Devin Street
DE (3): DeMarcus Lawrence, Jeremy Mincey, Randy Gregory
DT (4): Nick Hayden, Tyrone Crawford, Terrell McClain, Jack Crawford
LB (5): Kyle Wilber, Sean Lee, Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson, Andrew Gachkar,
CB (5): Olrando Scandrick, Brandon Carr, Mo Claiborne, Byron Jones, Corey White
S (3): Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox, Jeff Heath
Specialists (3): Dan Bailey, L.P. Ladouceur, Chris Jones

Notes: as you can see, Greg Hardy, Rolando McClain, Chaz Green, and Mark Nzeocha are not on this list. Obviously, the first two are suspended, so they don't count against the 53 (a fact that made this exercise vastly easier). In addition, we felt that the two injured rookies would be placed on PUP or IR, depending on the severity and/ or progress of their injuries.

A quick perusal of the list shows that it's composed mostly of starters and key role players. A week ago, I might not have included Devin Street as a lock, but his performance of late has changed that opinion. And, while we might not have yet warmed to Jack Crawford, the coaching staff has, to the point where their affection is on simmer. He is on the Tyrone Crawford trajectory, but about thirteen months behind (in other words, he's about where T. Crawford was as OTAs concluded last year). And, finally, we felt that Gachkar does too many things well not to be considered a lock.


The next step was to determine the roster's middle class, what I'll term the "valuable pieces." To do this, we arranged the cards by position and selected out the remaining players who we thought offered critical depth at still-thin positions such as offensive tackle, running back, defensive end, linebacker, and safety (Weems, McFadden, Russell, Brinkley, McCray) or might make notable special teams contributions (Whitehead, McCray, again). In addition, we looked ahead to the next offseason, selecting two players (Swaim, Patmon) who we thought had performed well at positions where the Cowboys expect to lose veteran players next year; it's good policy to have well-schooled replacements at the ready.

This step yielded the following eight players:

Darren McFadden, RB
Darrion Weems, OT
Geoff Swaim, TE
Lucky Whitehead, WR
Ryan Russell, DE
Jasper Brinkley, LB
Tyler Patmon, CB
Danny McCray, S

This gives us four more players each on offense and defense. With the end-roster players still to be decided, we now have a total of 50 out of the final 53, with 23 on offense, 24 defensive guys, and three specialists.


Thus far, the choices were fairly easy, rarely occasioning debate. The next step, selecting the final three players, proved to be the most difficult. We winnowed the field by choosing anybody we thought might be a candidate for the practice squad, figuring that the three remaining keepers would surely fit that description, but might well be at positions or have skillsets that would make them less likely to clear waivers. Here's the larger practice squad pool we came up with; it contained twenty names:

QB: Dustin Vaughan, Jameill Showers
RB: Gus Johnson, Ben Malena
OC/ OG: Shane McDermott, Ronald Patrick
OT: Laurence Gibson, John Wetzel
WR: Nick Harwell, David Porter
DE: Ben Gardner, Lavar Edwards, Efe Obada
DT: Davon Coleman, Ken Bishop
LB: Keith Smith
CB: Joel Ross, Brandon Smith
S: Tim Scott

Notes, part II: Although he would certainly be a strong candidate for this list, Ken Boatright doesn't make it, as we think his injury is too dicey to do anything other than place him on IR for the season. Had he not been injured, we believe Boatright would have been a legitimate contender for one of the final three roster spots.In addition, Reggie Dunn is not on this list despite his strong play in camp, because we didn't think he had a realistic shot at the 53 and he's no longer practice squad eligible.

To determine the final three, we looked at each of these players, asking: who had a sufficiently rare skillset that the team feared their being poaches by another franchise? One player fulfilled this criterion: Laurence Gibson, who is raw and needs developmental time, yet possesses rare athleticism for the position, such that other teams might be interested. He takes the 51st spot. Looking at the roster further, we were concerned that we hadn't included a one-tech defensive tackle to start should something happen to Nick Hayden (we love Terrell McClain as a rotational one-tech, but not as a starter and/ or on running downs). With that in mind, we had to choose between Davon Coleman and Ken Bishop, and went with the more athletic Coleman. If he can screw his head on straight, he could be a Booger McFarland-style one-tech.

That left one remaining roster spot. When we started this exercise, our collective assumption was that the quality depth at positions like tight end, guard, defensive line and cornerback would mean that keeping a third quarterback would mean kicking a more talented player off the roster. Arriving at the end of the exercise, we have managed to retain a fourth tight end (Swaim), a fifth defensive tackle (Coleman) and a sixth corner (Patmon), and - surprise, surprise - still have room on the roster for a third QB.

The first question was: should we keep a third quarterback or a player at another position such as defensive end (Lavar Edwards) or linebacker (Keith Smith) or safety (Tim Scott)? In determining our answer, KCF reasoned that a young QB with even a ten percent chance of becoming something was a better gamble than a defensive player with a 90 percent chance of becoming merely okay (we had no illusions that Edwards, Smith or Scott are future All Pros). With this in mind, we concluded that the 53rd spot should go to a quarterback.

The question then became which quarterback we should keep. We weighed the relative merits of Dustin Vaughan and Jameill Showers (Vaughan has an NFL body and arm, and processes information quickly; Showers is athletic and appears to be decisive). After a good deal of back and forth, we opted to keep Vaughan, for two reasons: we thought that the team sees something in him worth developing and it's unlikely other teams will try to poach Showers, so he can be stashed on the practice squad. To be honest, the vote was 2-1 for this measure; the honorable Mr. Turner voted for Showers, pointing out that he is currently running with the "ones" on all four special teams units.

Another reason for having a third person join our front office: with three, we can settle ties.


As we were making these final determinations, we were also formulating the practice squad. From the above list of candidates, we selected the following:

Jameill Showers, QB
Gus Johnson, RB
Nick Harwell, WR
Shane McDermott, OC
Ede Obada, DE
Ben Gardner, DE
Ken Bishop, DT
Keith Smith, LB
Joes Ross, CB
Tim Scott, FS

Here's a chart showing the complete 53, organized into the various "cut levels":

Pos. Roster Locks Valuable Pieces End-Roster
QB Tony Romo
Brandon Weeden
Dustin Vaughan
RB Joseph Randle
Lance Dunbar
Tyler Clutts
Darren McFadden
WR Dez Bryant
Terrance Williams
Cole Beasley
Devin Street
Lucky Whitehead
TE Jason Witten
Gavin Escobar
James Hanna
Geoff Swaim
Tyron Smith
Ron Leary
Travis Frederick
Zack Martin
Doug Free
Mackenzie Bernadeau
La'el Collins
Darrion Weems Laurence Gibson
DE DeMarcus Lawrence
Jeremy Mincey
Randy Gregory
Ryan Russell
DT Nick Hayden
Tyrone Crawford
Terrell McClain
Jack Crawford
Davon Coleman
LB Sean Lee
Kyle Wilber
Anthony Hitchens
Damien Wilson
Andrew Gachkar
Jasper Brinkley
CB Orlando Scandrick
Brandon Carr
Mo Claiborne
Byron Jones
Corey White
Tyler Patmon
S Barry Church
J.J. Wilcox
Jeff Heath

Danny McCray
K Dan Bailey
P Chris Jones
LS L.P. Ladoceur

For me, the takeaway form this exercise (and from the 1-90 roster ranking I did with my podcast partner, Landon McCool over the weekend) was that these exercises were considerably easier this summer than they were last year. One year ago, for example, we had only 35 locks, and considerably more players in the "end-roster" category. I see the change as further evidence that the roster is stabilizing thanks to good drafting and intelligent talent acquisition.

As I've asked many times in the last two weeks: how many positions in the starting 26" - offensive and defensive starters and key rotation players - are actually up for grabs? One, maybe? And it's not from a lack of competition; rather, it's a product of stability and continuity. Go Will McClay!

What think you of our process, BTBers? Like it? Loathe it? Go to the comments section and let 'er rip!

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