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Cowboys 53-Man Roster: Special Teams Performance Will Be Tiebreaker For Final Spots

A lot of the coming Cowboys personnel decisions, especially for the down-roster players, will likely be determined by a player's value on special teams.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Jason Garrett likes to constantly remind players, fans and the media that the Cowboys must be good "in all three phases". In fact, "all three phases" is right up there in the coachspeak pantheon alongside "process," "challenge," and "competition." But while it may be coachspeak, it is also relevant.

Football Outsiders tracks team efficiency over "all three phases", and their numbers show that while the Cowboys improved on offense and defense in 2014 versus the year before, they actually regressed a little on special teams.

Dallas Cowboys Team Efficency
NFL rank Offense Defense Special Teams
2014
4th 22th 13th
2013
11th 30th 8th

These numbers probably confirm a gut feeling most Cowboys fans have, that special teams - and especially the return game - just weren't as good as we were hoping they would be. And with that in mind, you've got to wonder  about the influence special teams coach Rich Bisacchia will have on personnel decisions this year - or on the emphasis the Cowboys will place on the special teams play this year.

But when talk turns to special teams, it usually doesn't go far beyond the kicker/punter or the kick/punt returners. Or when was the last time you read or heard an analysis about the special teams gunners, the jammers, or the up-backs? Bob Sturm summarized the general attitude towards special teams nicely in a column for the Dallas Morning News this week:

I have noticed that talking about special teams is the perfect way to get people to stop reading what you are writing, because who wants to hear about special teams? How boring a topic can you possibly cover on a Cowboys blog?

Special teams is never given any love in the press unless someone is writing about how awesome Dan Bailey is as a kicker. Well, I will change that here in the few weeks until the season starts. I know some of you will not even consider reading about special teams and that is ok. But, if you have always been curious about this vital portion of the roster, then follow along and I will attempt to define how a NFL team tries to approach those 450 snaps a year.

Special teams may not necessarily be sexy, but as Sturm points out, they are a vital portion of the roster. And with little more than a week to go before the first roster cuts on September 1 when teams have to reduce their rosters to 75 players, now is a good time to take a look at how special teams considerations may drive roster decisions for the Cowboys.

Because even if we don't spend a lot of time talking about the special teams players, the Cowboys are certainly talking about these guys. And that discussion may impact a lot of the more contentious roster decisions (at the bottom of the roster) the Cowboys will soon make.

  • Last year, the Cowboys kept a seventh linebacker in Cameron Lawrence, not because they expected him to compete for playing time (unless bad stuff were to happen, which it did), but because they considered him "one of the Cowboys’ best special teamers." Who's the special teams linebacker this year?
  • Similarly, if the Cowboys decide to keep fullback Tyler Clutts, that decision may have as much to do with the Cowboys' plan to re-focus on the ground game as it does with Clutts' contributions on the first team special teams unit.
  • As rabblerousr reported from camp, QB Jameill Showers is currently running with the "ones" on all four special teams units. Conversely, outside of Lucky Whitehead, not a single receiver has made a case for a roster spot via his special teams play. Might the Cowboys opt to keep Showers over a potential sixth wide receiver?
  • Jeff Heath may not have a high standing among parts of the Cowboys fan base, but Heath was the de facto team leader on special teams last year, calling out the blocking schemes prior to the snap ("over right, over right"), and, when ready, calling out the snap ('hut, hut, go!"). Interestingly, Danny McCray is also a career special teams captain. The question is, are the Cowboys looking to keep just one of the two - and possibly enter the season with just three safeties on the roster - or did they bring in McCray as a straight replacement for last year's special teams stalwart C.J. Spillman, who notched 287 special teams snaps, third most on the team behind Kyle Wilber (324) and Dwayne Harris (298)?
  • An argument could be made that the Cowboys should keep a fourth running back, if for no other reason than that the top three guys are suspect from a health point of view. But if there's going to be a fourth RB, that guy had better be a strong contributor to special teams, otherwise you're wasting a roster spot on a guy who's not going to play (as long as the top three are healthy) and doesn't contribute on special teams. Not exactly a winning strategy.
  • Finally, the last roster spots spots will likely be decided between the seventh linebacker, the tenth defensive back, the fourth tight end. Chances are the tiebreaker for those last spots will be which player offers more on special teams. 

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As you wonder about roster depth and roster spots, it's always helpful to keep in mind how previous Cowboys 53-man rosters were split by position. Here are the numbers from the opening-day rosters of the last nine years as documented in the NFL game books.

Years 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006
Quarterback 3 2 2 3 3 3 2 2 2
Running Back 3
4 3 4 3 3 3 3 3
Wide Receiver 5
5 6 6 5 5 5 6 6
Tight End 3
4 4 4 2 3 3 3 3
Fullback 1
- - 1 - - 2 1 1 2 1
Offensive Line 9 10 9 9 10 10 11 10 9

Defensive Line 11 10 3-4 Defense
Linebackers 7 6
Defensive Backs 8 9 10 9 9 9 11 10 9
of which: CB 4 4 5 5 3 4 7 5 5
of which: S 4 5 5 4 6 5 4 5 4

Specialists 3 3 3 4 3 4 3 3 4

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