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Cowboys’ Championship Quest: What Are The Strengths And Weaknesses Of The Roster? Part 1 - The Offense

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Now that the dust has settled on the Dallas Cowboys’ preseason roster moves, it’s time to take a deeper look into how the team has been assembled, and the resources that have been invested in the roster.

NFL: Preseason-Miami Dolphins at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

There are many ways to assemble an NFL roster. The NFL Draft consumes perhaps the most attention, and there are several reasons to build a team this way. Most significantly, every drafted player is locked up for either four or five years in a slotted rookie contract that is usually much cheaper than subsequent contracts for that same player.

Free agency is the other main way to acquire talent, whether the player is an undrafted free agent (UDFA) acquired right after the draft, or after their release by another team. Trades are the third area, but these are much less common.

In an age defined by a firm salary cap, the amount teams spend on each player is also critical, as money spent on one player reduces the amount available for his teammates.

Generally youth is a plus for teams, as long as players have enough experience to perform to their best abilities. This can vary widely by position, with running backs typically able to jump right in as rookies, and quarterbacks usually requiring much more seasoning.

With that in mind, how does the Dallas Cowboys 2016 roster match up? How young are they? Who came in through the draft versus free agency or trade? And how is Dallas allocating its salary cap among these players?

Let’s Start With the Offense

Here is the full list of offensive players on the 2016 roster along with some key data for each player. The table is sortable, just click on the blue column headers to sort.

Cowboys active roster overview 2016, Offense
Position Name Age Source Joined Controlled till 2016 Cap in M$
QB Romo, Tony 36 UDFA 2003 2019 20.8
QB Sanchez, Mark 29 FA 2016 2016 2.0
QB Prescott, Dak 23 4th Round 2016 2019 0.5
RB Elliott, Ezekiel 21 1st Round 2016 2019-20 4.5
RB Morris, Alfred 27 FA 2016 2017 1.3
RB Dunbar, Lance 26 UDFA 2012 2016 1.0
RB Jackson, Darius 22 6th Round 2016 2019 0.5
FB Smith, Keith 24 UDFA 2014 2017 0.6
FB Smith, Rod 24 FA 2015 2016 0.5
WR Bryant, Dez 27 1st Round 2010 2019 13.0
WR Beasley, Cole 27 UDFA 2012 2018 3.3
WR Williams, Terrance 26 3rd Round 2013 2016 1.8
WR Butler, Brice 26 Trade 2015 2016 0.7
WR Whitehead, Lucky 24 UDFA 2015 2017 0.5
TE Witten, Jason 34 3rd Round 2003 2017 8.6
TE Escobar, Gavin 25 2nd Round 2013 2016 1.3
TE Swaim, Geoff 22 7th Round 2015 2018 0.5
OL Smith, Tyron 25 1st Round 2011 2023 6.8
OL Free, Doug 32 4th Round 2007 2017 5.5
OL Leary, Ronald 27 UDFA 2012 2016 2.6
OL Martin, Zack 25 1st Round 2014 2017-18 2.5
OL Frederick, Travis 25 1st Round 2013 2023 2.2
OL/C Looney, Joe 26 FA 2016 2017 0.8
OL Green, Chaz 24 3rd Round 2015 2018 0.7
OL Collins, La'el 23 UDFA 2015 2017 0.5

Note: cap numbers are rounded. Source: spotrac.com.

What do we see looking at this side of the roster?

The Offensive Line Is Leading the Way

Off all the position groups on the Dallas Cowboys, there is no debate regarding which one has commanded the most resources — it’s the offensive line.

  • There are three first-round draft picks on the line. No other position group has more than two (preview from Part 2, it’s the defensive backs).
  • Four of the five starting offensive linemen are 25 years old or younger. Only Doug Free is older, and behind him, the Cowboys are developing 24-year-old Chaz Green, who might take over as early as next year.
  • The money allocated to this group in 2016 cap space is second only to the quarterback position on offense, $21.5 million versus $23.4 million, and this will change when the Travis Frederick contract moves into his second year. Indeed, projecting forward, keeping the offensive line together is going to take up massive cap resources.
  • Two members of the offensive line have already been extended into the next decade. No other player on the Cowboys is signed past 2020.

Is this a wise use of resources? That’s a question we’re going to have to see play out on the field. But certainly, an offensive line can help drive a dominant running game, protect the Cowboys’ quarterback, and punish opposing defenses. It worked pretty well in 2014, and the line is arguably better now with La’el Collins and more experience.

Injuries Have Piled Up On Offense

In addition to the injury to Tony Romo, who could be out up to half the season, or only a couple of games (see Tom Ryle’s post on how the Cowboys have been playing hide and seek on injury information), James Hanna remains on the PUP list, and Darren McFadden is out six more weeks on the NFI list. That’s your Pro Bowl quarterback, who has been essential to winning games at least since Jon Kitna was the backup, your second tight end whose blocking was vital to the running game in 2014, and your leading rusher in 2015.

But are these injuries going to cripple the offense? Can Dak Prescott, Geoff Swaim, and Ezekiel Elliott step in and keep the offense humming? It’s an intriguing possibility.

Depending on How Things Play Out, We May Soon Have a Raging Quarterback Controversy

Tony Romo has a cap hit in 2016 of almost $21 million (or 13% of the total Cowboys cap). The next-highest player is Dez Bryant at $13 million. But more critically, Dak Prescott’s cap hit is only $550,000.

The delta between Tony Romo’s contract and Dak Prescott’s of $20.3 million is greater than the 2016 cap hit for every group on the Cowboys roster except for the offensive line and the defensive backfield (which I will show in Part 2).

Of course, you can’t just cut Tony Romo, or have him retire, and redirect those cap dollars elsewhere. His accumulated bonus of almost $20 million would come due next year, although it could be split into two years to soften the blow.

As we sit here now, a healthy Tony Romo, like the one who dominated in 2014, would appear to be well worth that money. And one cannot expect Dak Prescott as a rookie to approach that performance level.

But by the end of this year, there will be a lot more information to plug into this equation. How good can Dak be? How healthy can Tony Romo stay? And can Romo continue to perform at his 2014 levels after having sustained three serious injuries since then?

If the difference in performance level between Dak Prescott and Tony Romo is not huge, would the Cowboys be better off directing those resources elsewhere? That could be one of the hottest topics in the NFL this year.

The Dallas Cowboys Offense is Young, But Has Experience

The average age of the 27 Cowboys offensive players (counting McFadden and Hanna, who don’t count on the roster yet) is 26 years old. Only three players are over 30 — Tony Romo, Jason Witten, and Doug Free. Mark Sanchez and Darren McFadden are 29, and neither may play significant roles. Everyone else is 27 or younger.

Yet this is not an inexperienced offense. Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott are the only rookies expected to play a major role on this side of the ball. So far, both have been amazing.

Turnover is Coming

Turnover is a fact of life in the NFL. Is Dallas in decent position to manage it? These are the offensive players signed only through the next two years.

  • 2016: Lance Dunbar, Darren McFadden, Rod Smith, Terrence Williams, Brice Butler, Gavin Escobar, Ron Leary, Mark Sanchez.
  • 2017: Alfred Morris, Keith Smith, Lucky Whitehead, Jason Witten, Doug Free, Joe Looney, La’el Collins.

It’s also very possible that Tony Romo will be gone after one or the other of these years.

We have the heir apparent for Tony Romo, though we need to see much much more to know for sure. Otherwise, the biggest issue appears to be at wide receiver, with three of the five wideouts on short-term deals, and tight end, where Jason Witten might finally be nearing the end.

Is This a Championship Offense?

So much of this is going to depend on the play of Dak Prescott and Tony Romo. The rest of the offensive roster seems to be in place.

  • Best offensive line in football, likely by a wide margin.
  • Potentially the best rushing attack in the NFL, with a lead back who can do it all, and score from anywhere on the field, and quality depth behind him. If Prescott is at quarterback, his running and scrambling could make a huge difference.
  • Skilled and deep receiving corps, at WR, TE, and the RBs.

These last three elements all look stronger than they did in 2014.

What do you think? Is the Cowboys offense good enough to carry the team into the postseason and win when it gets there? Can the team go beyond what it achieved in 2014?

Part II will look at the defensive side of the ball and the special teams specialists.