So let’s get this in up front. It is very premature to try and figure out exactly who will make the 53-man roster for the Dallas Cowboys to start the season. This year, the team looks to have very good depth at a lot of positions. The last man in at many spots will be totally dependent on how the players perform in camp and preseason.
But how many players will be kept in each group is a different question. The Cowboys have some historical trends that can indicate how this might shape up. Besides, we all love to play general manager and make our predictions. So here is a breakdown of how things could turn out. Of course, unforeseen injuries, such as happened with Kellen Moore last year, can radically change things, but we will speak no more of such things for now.
Let’s start out with the easiest one to call. We all know that Dan Bailey, Chris Jones, and L.P. Ladouceur are just about bulletproof, and the number is fixed.
It looks like the team is going to roll with Dak Prescott and Moore as the starter and backup. They will almost certainly carry a practice squad QB as both an emergency fallback and a scout team player. There is always a chance that they may sign someone who is released late by another team, but after the disappointing job done by Mark Sanchez late last season, that may not be nearly as attractive this year.
Running backs/fullback: 4
There was one report a while back that the team was having Rod Smith focus on RB more than FB this year, which may indicate that the team is going to move away from the little used full-time FB this season. Smith would allow them to have a player who could come in occasionally as a lead blocker while also providing some depth. Ezekiel Elliott and Darren McFadden are the proven runners for the team, and there is likely going to be a heated battle between Alfred Morris and UDFA Jahad Thomas for the final spot. Given the importance of the running game, it is hard to imagine the team going with less than four backs. This is also a place where the team may be watching the waiver wire closely as the season draws near. Especially if Darius Jackson (sigh) winds up getting cut loose by the Cleveland Browns.
Tight ends: 3
This is a hard call, because the TE is another key part of the team. But this is where the team seems to be really looking to make Rico Gathers a big part of the team as the TE2 behind iron man Jason Witten. James Hanna still is recovering from the dreaded bone bruise, and while it would be great for him to come back, the history of players with that particular injury points to Geoff Swaim being the third member of this group. If Hanna does not make a full recovery and Swaim stumbles, this could open a door for UDFA Blake Jarwin to challenge, but the practice squad seems his most likely destination.
Wide receivers: 6
The WR group looks to have some good talent. Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, and Cole Beasley are locks, and based on both his draft position and what he has already shown in the rookie minicamp, Ryan Switzer is just about as certain. That leaves a fierce battle between Brice Butler, Lucky Whitehead, Andy Jones, and rookie Noah Brown. And wide receiver is where we so often see an unexpected name get into the mix. It just looks like the talent on hand will make carrying an extra body here too valuable for the team - and more valuable than a fourth tight end.
Offensive line: 8
The foundation of the Dallas offense is the O line, built on the three pillars of Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin. The team seems to be putting a lot of hope in La’el Collins moving out to RT to replace Doug Free, and Jonathan Cooper resurrecting his NFL career to backfill Collins at LG.
This is one place where past trends give us an idea of how many players the team will carry, and position flexibility is always a premium here. The Cowboys don’t like to go heavier along the O line than they have to. That makes the battles for the backup jobs really fascinating this year.
Swing tackle appears to be a likely fight between the often-injured Chaz Green and Byron Bell, with Emmitt Cleary perhaps forcing his way into the conversation. Joe Looney is the likely choice for one of the interior backups because he is the best option at center, and can fill in at guard as well. That leaves one more spot, and the names that are most intriguing are UDFAs Nate Theaker and the towering Dan Skipper. If any undrafted player is likely to make the team, this may be where it will happen. This is how that 6’10” height may give Skipper a real shot, because he could become a real asset on special teams. Imagine lining up to kick a long field goal, and having to get the ball over Skipper and David Irving lined up in the middle. Heck, throw Gathers in there as well and have them all go up to try and get a hand on the ball.
Total offense: 23
This number may seem a little light, but this is where the interplay of the entire roster comes into effect. The Cowboys invested heavily in defense during the draft, and they need some extra spots on that side of the roster to put that fully into play.
Defensive line: 10
Rod Marinelli likes to send his rushmen in waves. And the team has to have seven players inactive each week. This looks like one place to have a couple of those while having lots of bodies to pick your actives from each week.
The certain names right now, based on both performance and contract numbers, look to be Irving, Benson Mayowa, Tyrone Crawford, Maliek Collins, DeMarcus Lawrence, Cedric Thornton, Charles Tapper, and Taco Charlton. That leaves two more places, and those will likely come from among free agents Stephen Paea (the most likely to stick) and Damontre Moore, and seventh-round picks Jordan Carroll and Joey Ivie. This might also be a hint as to who the defensive coordinator is hoping to hang onto.
So much depends on how well Jaylon Smith is able to play, but for now, let’s assume he is able to claim the starting MIKE position alongside Sean Lee as the WILL. Since the nickel package is the real base defense now, there is no real reason to carry more than six linebackers overall outside of their utility on special teams, and the Cowboys can offset that some with the defensive back group (that interplay again). Look for Anthony Hitchens, Kyle Wilber, Damien Wilson and Mark Nzeocha to round out the group and cover the SAM position when needed, with UDFAs Joseph Jones and Lucas Wacha waiting on the practice squad if they are needed.
Defensive backs: 11
Yeah, that is a lot, but when you use four draft picks to fortify the secondary, you don’t want to see that go to waste. The veteran core will be Orlando Scandrick, Anthony Brown, Byron Jones, Kavon Frazier, and the GOAT Jeff Heath. Rookies Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Xavier Woods are all pretty much assured of making the roster, and the team is going to want to try and find a place for Marquez White as well. That still leaves room to hang onto Nolan Carroll and Robert Blanton as experienced players, something of value when you have so many rookies in the mix. And if someone like a Leon McFadden, Sammy Seamster, or Thomas Duke catches fire in camp, Blanton is easy to part ways with to open up one more spot.
There is another factor that makes carrying so many defensive backs logical. The Cowboys never use more than four linemen, and last season frequently rushed only three. That means you need a LOT of good DBs to cover, with as many as six on the field at one time. The more talent you have to draw from, the better the chances for a good outcome.
Total defense: 27
That’s seems like a bunch. But with so many rookies in the mix, the team needs to go heavy here. That lets the Cowboys make sure they have competent players on the field, helps fill out the special teams, and also will provide the bulk of the inactives each week.
There it is, a look at the quantities if not the definitive names we could see. Now, this is just one opinion, and there is a lot that can happen. So take your shots and poke some holes in this in the comments. Just be gentle.