The first Dallas Cowboys 53-man roster is now set in jello. This is only the first iteration, and as we saw last year, it may change weekly until the end of the season. We already know that the team is going to sign Mark Sanchez as a backup quarterback, and something will have to give to put him on the roster. The most likely options are that either Tony Romo will have to go on IR, or Jameill Showers will be waived.
There were certainly a few surprises in the initial roster. Perhaps the biggest was that the staff elected to keep cornerback Dax Swanson instead of Deji Olatoye. Prior to the last preseason game, many, including me, had Olatoye as a lock to make the roster. He had allowed no completions in the first three games. But against the Houston Texans, he frequently broke down and looked almost nothing like he had previously. At the same time, Swanson had a very good showing. He was credited with one pass defended, but had at least one other that was nullified by a penalty away from the ball. Now he is on the roster, and Olatoye is waiting out waivers to see if he will be offered a job elsewhere or a practice squad position. Of course, Swanson is the fifth corner on the roster, since Anthony Brown represents a draft pick and is likely ranked ahead of him. He could lose his position at any time. But for now, he is a member of the team.
So did Swanson win the job in the fourth preseason game? He certainly didn’t hurt himself, but during and after the game, many were making the argument that one game against a bunch of other third- and fourth-stringers should not determine who is one of the 53 and who is not.
And it is probably a good deal more complicated than that.
One thing that we cannot know is how Swanson and Olatoye looked in practices since the Cowboys arrived back from Oxnard to take up residence in the Star. We had some decent looks at them in training camp, but once they got into the new facility, things went back under cover. We have no idea how the players were doing in practice, and there is certainly a good possibility that the eventual decision was based on how that was going. NFL coaches are generally a secretive and furtive lot, and Jason Garrett tries to maintain as tight a grip on information as he can. Admittedly, Jerry Jones does not help him there, but Jones talks more about the big things like the quarterback situation and how the team is struggling with finding a better pass rush. Swanson might well have won the job when no one was able to watch.
But there was one thing that stood out in that Texans game. This vine from our old friend Patrick Conn illustrates it well.
Swanson with another PBU, negated by illegal contact by Hepburn. https://t.co/mIHeLRiJow— Patrick Conn (@DraftCowboys) September 2, 2016
Notice how when the ball arrives, Swanson is turned to face the passer. This was not the only play he did that on, and it jumped out during the game. Too many times, even veteran defensive backs never get that head around, and when they fail to do so, they usually see laundry litter the field as they are called for defensive pass interference. But Swanson did not draw those penalties because he was looking at and playing the ball, not just running through the receiver. This is a trait that may have stood out in the coaches’ minds when they were making the decision on which corners to keep.
Probably even more important is that Swanson was also used for punt and kick returns. One thing that is often overlooked by many fans and media alike is that special teams have to have players, too. It is likely the only reason why the geometry-challenged J.J. Wilcox did not get waived, much to the disappointment of almost everyone. But Rich Bisaccia gets to advocate for special teams aces, and may get a few spots on the roster where he makes the call himself. Given that Swanson got a lot of work as a returner during the preseason, it is highly likely that he is a Bisaccia choice. That is why it is very important to see how many special teams the bubble players are getting. Those that do well on teams have a decided advantage when the final cuts come around. Swanson and Olatoye both were on the field a lot with teams, but Swanson had a slight advantage in snaps played, and his return abilities were probably seen as more valuable than Olatoye’s contributions. ST value probably also plays a role in the Cowboys carrying two fullbacks, at least for now.
Although it surprised most of us, those are the three facets of his play that the team probably based the decision to keep Swanson on the roster, at least for now. As was mentioned, that may or may not last until the first game. But for the moment, Swanson is a Dallas Cowboy. It is quite an achievement for a player who one of the real long-shots this year when training camp started.