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Building The Cowboys Roster: It Isn't All About The Starters

With the draft drawing closer (as glacial as the pace may be), there is a lot of anticipation about what future stars may be acquired by Dallas. But for most of the picks, and for so many of the free agents signed this year, that is not what the team seeks.

So much anger over a solid signing.
So much anger over a solid signing.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

It was announced on Wednesday that the Cowboys had agreed to terms with backup safety and special teams ace Jeff Heath on a four-year contract. Heath, who was a restricted free agent, was tendered a $1.67 million offer, but now he is set for a longer term. Although details of the deal have not been announced as this is being written, it is almost certain that Stephen Jones has hammered out another team-friendly deal to keep one of the key role players for Dallas on the team.

But the reactions in social media were, for many, somewhere between appalled and horrified. Just to sum up some of the more fiery takes, the Cowboys front office continued to show its incompetence by wasting money signing a four-year deal with a no-good scrub who just gets burned in coverage, and why would anyone want to invest money that is going to prevent them from signing some of the star offensive linemen on a special teams guy?

There were a lot of cooler heads with a much better understanding of things that tried to calm the seething masses, but it was clear that quite a few people have, shall we say, an incomplete understanding of what it takes to build an NFL roster, not to mention how the Cowboys have been approaching free agency and the draft of late. And with the draft slowly getting near, it seemed a good idea to look at the construction of an entire 53-man NFL roster.

Yes, we would prefer that Heath make most of his contributions as a special team player and not as a safety, but last season showed that he has certainly improved from his rookie season, when he got thrown in because of injuries and was often abused, most notably by Calvin Johnson back when he was still Megatron. He has become the definition of a depth player. He carries the load on special teams, when you don't want your top players out there getting beat up, and he is not that much of a drop off if he is called to fill in for a starter. As such, he is just the kind of player you want for about half of your roster.

The value of quality backups should be blatantly obvious to even the most casual Cowboys fan after the Great Debacle of 2015. Orlando Scandrick was lost for the season. Tony Romo only played in four games. Dez Bryant was out or very limited in every game. DeMarcus Lawrence fought back problems. Tyrone Crawford basically played most of the year with one arm. The results are evident. Romo's loss was the worse, but all were impacted by not enough depth behind them.

With the exceptions of Rolando McClain, Morris Claiborne, and perhaps Cedric Thornton and Alfred Morris, all of the free agent signings for Dallas this year were about depth. There is a clear logic behind it. At most positions, especially on offense, the team has a clear starter already in place. Look at the most common offensive package, 11 personnel:

QB: Tony Romo

RB: Darren McFadden (with Morris definitely capable of challenging for that job)

LT: Tyron Smith

LG: La'el Collins

C: Travis Frederick

RG: Zack Martin

RT: Doug Free

WR1: Dez Bryant

WR2: Terrance Williams

Slot: Cole Beasley

TE: Jason Witten

Going into the draft, there is not much room for significant upgrade. RB is probably the clearest opportunity, but this is one of the major arguments against taking Ezekiel Elliott at four. With two capable veterans, the team may be much better served waiting a round or more to look for a rookie back. WR remains attractive in the draft since Williams did not do well in relief of Bryant as the featured receiver, but that may have had something to do with the quarterbacks involved. Doug Free is seen as the weakest link on the offensive line, but unless you want to grab a tackle in the first round, there is almost no chance of a rookie seriously challenging the wily veteran.

And honestly, defense is not all that much worse, although there are some clearer opportunities to upgrade. Again, consider the most common personnel package, the nickel.

LDE: DeMarcus Lawrence

1-Tech DT: Cedric Thornton/Terrell McClain

3-Tech DT: Tyrone Crawford

RDE: TBD, but Ryan Russell or Benson Mayowa may be penciled in here.

MIKE: Rolando McClain

WILL: Sean Lee

Corner: Orlando Scandrick

Corner: Brandon Carr

Corner: Morris Claiborne

SS: Barry Church

FS: Byron Jones

Outside of the glaring need at defensive end, the Cowboys are not in terrible shape anywhere in this lineup. There are certainly places where upgrades are very possible, but even on the line, the team is looking more at using waves than rolling with the starters for 80% of the snaps. Church is possibly the next place to look to upgrade, which is why so many have a draft crush on Jalen Ramsey.

So depth was addressed in free agency, and most of the draft picks will as well. That is really how it is expected to fall out. The first round should get you a player who can start (although as with Jones, not always right out of the gate). The second round should also get you a starter, perhaps more by midseason or in his second year. After that, you are looking at players who will provide immediate depth, with some of them growing into starters. Because Dallas picks are so near the start of the third round, they should look at that player as more of a second-round value, especially this season when the draft is seen as deepest in talent in the second and third rounds. But the remaining six picks for the Cowboys should be players that can come in and fight for one of the 25 or so positions on the roster that are primarily for depth and special teams.

This is a roster situation that has characterized the Cowboys for the past few seasons. They are reasonably strong across the board at starter, with some obvious stars like Romo, Bryant, Scandrick, Lee, and most of the offensive line. There are other very solid players elsewhere, with some of them, such as Jones, Tyrone Crawford, and Rolando McClain, who can easily be stars if they play up to their potential. (Witten is almost in a class by himself, as is kicker Dan Bailey.) Now the team needs to keep as many of the starters healthy as they can and use the draft primarily to make some serious upgrades in depth/players with growth potential.

Heath was just a matter of cementing one depth position, one his play last year showed he is quite capable of handling in spot duty. He will never be a star safety, but he is not going to be a hole wearing a uniform. It can easily be argued he is more valuable than J.J. Wilcox, one player who might need to fear the Turk or Reaper in camp.

Building the 53-man roster is about so much more than "splash" acquisitions in either free agency or the draft. If you take a step back, the Cowboys have done a good job so far in free agency everywhere except the backup quarterback job, defensive end and cornerback. True, they didn't get surefire stars, but they already had a good number of those. The draft will hopefully get one or, on the outside, two rookies that look like that, but most of the picks will be less spectacular. They just need to be solid players who are among the best talents available for the Dallas scheme at each spot. At least we will find out who they are in a little over two weeks.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB

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