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Evaluating The Cowboys: Who Returns, Where Do Decisions Lie, And Where Are The Holes?

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For the Dallas staff, it is back to the interrupted task of reviewing their roster from 2015 and deciding who stays and who goes.

The Pro Bowlers, at least, know their jobs are secure.
The Pro Bowlers, at least, know their jobs are secure.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Senior Bowl and Pro Bowl are both done. For the Dallas Cowboys, the chance to coach so many top draft prospects in Mobile was a real advantage. But as several mentioned, including Jason Garrett, it interruptted a yearly process that is very important. After the season is done, the first order of business for all teams is to go back and review their roster. It is the first step in building next year's team.

But, as in all things, there is evaluation, and there is evaluation. Some players are absolutely certain to be on the roster. Others are nearly as likely to be gone. This is a look at what the Cowboys currently have that they can depend on, and which players from last season they have to make some hard decisions about. From that, it should give us some idea of just how many holes the Cowboys have to fill through free agency and the draft.

For the purposes of this discussion, the players are grouped into tiers. While it is of course certain that the team will see some of these players differently, this is the best evaluation one writer can come up with through careful examination of the facts and a lot of dart throwing, plus extensive reference to the Magic 8 Ball.

Also, this is limited to players currently under contract with the Cowboys. It does not include the free agents. For a rundown of those players, you can go here to read up on the decisions to be made about pursuing another contract with them or not. The players discussed here are all under contract, which could lead to most of them being with the team at least to start training camp. This is designed to sort out which ones are most likely to not only get to camp but also to make the 2016 roster, as well as sort out where the biggest needs are for the team.

The solid locks.

Some players, through a combination of their contributions on the field and, for some, the money tied up in their contracts, are simply a given. These are the current and future stars that form the core of the team.

Quarterback Tony Romo

Wide receiver Dez Bryant

Tight end Jason Witten

Offensive linemen Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, and La'el Collins.

Defensive linemen DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford and Randy Gregory

Linebacker Sean Lee

Defensive backs Orlando Scandrick and Byron Jones

Specialists Dan Bailey, Chris Jones, and L.P. Ladouceur.

The near locks.

This is a group of players that were solid contributors, although not standouts. An argument can be made for a couple of them to be included in the first tier, but there are some fairly plausible scenarios, including trades, that might make them expendable. Additionally, they do not have prohibitive dead money costs. Also, some are recent, fairly high draft picks that were just a little short of the first group. But all are at least 75% likely to be with the team, and most are rather higher than that.

Running back Darren McFadden

Wide receivers Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley

Offensive linemen Doug Free and Chaz Green

Defensive lineman Terrell McClain, David Irving, and Ryan Russell.

Linebackers Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson

It is a judgment call, of course, but right now those are the player that are all but certain to be on the roster to start training camp this summer. There are a lot of other players that will be discussed later, but first it is helpful to put this into a table format.

"Locks" To Make The Roster
Position QB RB/FB WR/TE OL DL LB DB SP Total
Number 1 1 4 6 6 3 2 3 26

That is not a lot. Outside of the specialists, which are the very definition of not fixing what ain't broken, only the offensive line could be said to be in decent shape, and running back and defensive back are particularly scant. And we all know how crucial finding the right backup for Romo will be. But that is not to say that there are not a lot of other players that will be in camp from the 2015 roster. It is just that there are some things to be resolved about them. These names are grouped differently.

Possible cap casualties.

There are a couple of veteran players that might not be worth keeping as much for possible cap savings as for what they bring to the field..

Cornerback Brandon Carr

Safety Barry Church

The problem is that there is such a need for defensive backs already. The team may be forced to at least wait until after the draft to make a final decision on either of them, or even go into camp with both of them to see if something else develops. But neither should be confident in his roster spot, although Church is respected as a locker room leader. That may work in his favor with the staff.

Could go either way.

These are players that will probably require the most study by the staff. All have a good chance of making the roster, some because of the lack of many other options, but all have a real risk of losing their jobs at some point.

Quarterback Kellen Moore

Wide receiver Lucky Whitehead (special teams usage a plus for him)

Tight end Gavin Escobar

Linebacker Andrew Gachkar

Cornerback Deji Olatoye

Safety J.J. Wilcox

Hanging by a thread.

Finally, we have marginal players who, despite being under contract, may well be given their release to free up space to bring in hopefully better talent. In some cases, as with the wide receivers, they may be in an either/or situation where one will survive at the cost of the others. Some are also still practice squad candidates.

Quarterback Jameill Showers

Running backs Rod Smith and Robert Turbin

Offensive lineman Charles Brown

Wide receivers Brice Butler, Devin Street, Vince Mayle and Rodney Smith

Tight end Geoff Swaim

Defensive linemen Chris Whaley and Casey Walker

Linebacker Mark Nzeocha

Cornerbacks Terrance Mitchell and Josh Thomas

I have not included players recently signed to futures contracts, all of whom by default fall into the last category. This is the players who were on the actve roster or injured reserve at the end of the season and who still have at least one more year on their contracts.

It is a bit of a sobering list. While most of these names may be on the 90-man offseason roster, at least to begin with, there are not as many as you would like to see as sure bets for the 53-man one to start the season. It is a good starting point to keep in mind as you are looking at those free agents and draft prospects you would like to see the Cowboys go after.

It must be said that some of the players who are in the last group are largely unknown at the moment, and some of them may wind up being significant parts of the puzzle by September. That is why the current evaluation period is so crucial. But for now, there is a lot of cupboard stocking ahead for Dallas.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB