It is the season of (some of) our discontent. The Dallas Cowboys have entered the now predictable process of churning the roster prior to the draft by letting free agents walk when they get offers that don’t fit the budget and the overall cap plan. The few additions from outside are once again reasonably priced pieces that are more serviceable than star-quality. The most important signings are select free agents of their own. And just as predictably, the worry about how the front office is letting the Cowboys fall behind other, more free-spending teams abounds in both social and traditional media.
A superficial reading of some of the concerns voiced would lead you to think that the roster has been gutted, leaving a pale shadow of the team that surprised everyone with the 13-3 regular season record. Obviously, with months to go before the final roster is set and the draft still weeks away, we don’t really know what the team will look like to start the season. But the players currently under contract will be the basis for constructing that initial 53 man team.
To get a better feel for just where things stand, let’s take a look at the starting roster the Cowboys had at the end of last year, and see just how much of it is left, along with a quick rundown of the depth across the team.
For a better look, this will use the week 16 starting lineup as given by NFL.com, since several starters sat out the final, meaningless game of the season.
Offense (lost starters in all caps)
WR Dez Bryant
LT Tyron Smith
LG RONALD LEARY
C Travis Frederick
RG Zack Martin
RT DOUG FREE
TE Jason Witten
WR Terrance Williams
QB Dak Prescott
RB Ezekiel Elliott
WR Cole Beasley
Obviously, it is not a good thing to lose two members of what is considered by many to be the best offensive line in the league, but Leary’s replacement is already on the team in La’el Collins, who was the starter before he was injured last season. Free is a bigger question mark. Chaz Green was drafted with a plan for him to become Free’s eventual replacement, but Green has been hampered by injury. If he can stay healthy, then that will also take care of the replacement. But right tackle is the one position on offense that will bear close watching this year.
The depth on offense has many more question marks.
Tight end has become an issue, since Geoff Swaim is now going to be unable to participate in OTAs after injuring himself during an offseason workout. James Hanna is coming off IR, but with the dreaded “bone bruise”, his future is uncertain. Rico Gathers is a real unknown at this time, despite the persistent reports of how he was very effective in practice.
Prescott is the only quarterback on the roster at this time, and the market for backups is not exactly overflowing with quality. There was a visit from Josh McCown, but he is visiting other teams, and the Cowboys are not going to get into any bidding wars for a player they hope never takes any meaningful snaps. One thing to note is that Kellen Moore is still a free agent. He knows the system and is a long-time favorite of offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. The plan last season, before Moore’s freak injury in practice, was for him to be the QB2. That may be something the team could return to if no better option presents itself.
Darren McFadden has returned to shore up the running back position, and there will likely be a rookie or two added to the mix. Jonathan Cooper now has a chance to become the backup for the guard and center position, and Emmett Cleary is for the moment the swing tackle.
Wide receiver may be the strongest position on the team at the moment, with the top five from last season all back. Any changes there would be because the team finds someone it thinks could be an upgrade over Brice Butler or Lucky Whitehead.
DE David Irving
DT TERRELL MCCLAIN
DT Maliek Collins
DE Benson Mayowa
SLB Anthony Hitchens
WLB Sean Lee
CB BRANDON CARR
CB Anthony Brown
CB Orlando Scandrick
FS Byron Jones
SS BARRY CHURCH
A lot has been made of the Cowboys losing four defensive backs in free agency, but it is interesting to note that only two of them were starting late in the season. Nolan Carroll is a subject of some debate, but it is not unrealistic to see him as basically equivalent to Carr. Jeff Heath would be the starter in place of Church - and he is not the struggling player he was as a rookie, when his reputation as easily burned was established. Morris Claiborne, of course, is no longer with Dallas because of his recurrent injury problems, while J.J. Wilcox, although much improved last year, was still more a depth player than anything.
McClain’s spot is, for now, filled by Stephen Paea, who is absolutely delighted to be working under Rod Marinelli in a 4-3 defense again.
So there are starters in place for all positions. The lineup showed the nickle defense, and it is anticipated that Jaylon Smith will be the starter over Anthony Hitchens, unless we are being badly misled about his recovery.
The defensive end position is still seen as a priority for the draft, but the team is also getting Charles Tapper back after the odd situation that cost him his rookie season. The congenital back condition that was uncovered in training camp is reportedly healed and he is cleared to play. His performance will be a storyline that should be closely watched. With the numbers already under contract, there may be more to work with than you might think. There are now injury concerns about both Tyrone Crawford and DeMarcus Lawrence for the coming season, but this is a good year to be looking for defensive line talent in the draft.
And it may be even better for defensive backs. In terms of need, that is now the number one priority for the Cowboys. After years of difficulty in finding good players for the secondary, the staff found a real gem in Brown. The hope is that they can find another player or two like him.
But the big thing from looking at all this is that the Cowboys are not going to be drafting any players with the intention of making them immediate starters at any position, the way they did with Elliott last year. That is why the concern some have brought up about Dallas being towards the back of the draft order instead of at the fourth spot are likely very overblown. Initially at least, any rookies brought in will be for depth, with the obvious hope that at least some of them will grow into starters over time.
The big takeaway from all this is that the Cowboys have most of the team that tied the all-time franchise record for wins in a regular season last year coming back. And that includes the stellar backfield and all three of the Pro Bowl offensive linemen.
This team has not been gutted by free agency. They’ve only lost five starters from 2016, and pretty much have all those holes filled well before the draft. It is not really noticeably worse, and as has been argued by Michael Sisemore here at BTB, may actually be better due to the departures. Worry if you must. But don’t expect to see a drastic decline from this team when the season begins after all the acquisitions have been made.