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The real Cowboys roster battles: Fighting to find room on the 53-man roster

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It’s not a series of man vs. man matchups. It is all about the math.

Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Rams
Keeping Rico Gathers means losing someone else.
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

With two preseason games in the books for the Dallas Cowboys, the roster battles are really starting to heat up. Cooper Rush is generating a lot of interest from the fans as a possible replacement for Kellen Moore. Can Noah Brown or Andy Jones find a spot in the wide receiver room? Will Rico Gathers move ahead of James Hanna and/or Geoff Swaim?

But there is a flaw in that way of looking at things. The real battle for the last few spots on the roster is not as much about how one player looks against another. It is driven a lot more by the numbers. Particularly the number 53. That is where the hard decisions are likely to come. It is not who can make the team as the sixth wide receiver. It is whether the team needs four tight ends more than six wideouts.

There are certain minimums the Cowboys have to have to make their systems work on offense and defense. One Cool Customer put together a chart for a recent roster projection of how many players were carried at each position the past four years, and that gives us the minimums involved:

Years QB RB WR TE FB OL DL LB CB S Specialists
2016 3 4 5 3 2 8 8 7 5 5 3
2015 2 4 5 4 1 9 10 6 5 4 3
2014 3 3 5 3 1 9 11 7 4 4 3
2013 2 4 5 4 - - 10 10 6 4 5 3

QB: 2

RB/FB: 4 (the team has gone with no fullback in the past, and can use a player like Rod Smith in both roles)

WR: 5 (it is noteworthy that Dallas has not exceeded this in four years)

TE: 3

OL: 8

DL: 8 (position flex is big for defensive players on the Cowboys, so there are really only three groups to deal with)

LB: 6

DB: 8

Specialists: 3

If you take out the specialists, leaving 50 roster spots, that works out to 22 for offense and defense alike. The Cowboys also have gone with 25 on offense and defense each of the past four years, so that is almost certainly how they will allocate their players.

That leaves three open spots each on offense and defense that can be filled with a mix of the positions. And the team has used a different combination of those last spots each year. This is driven by how all of the positions fit together and the talent available.

One other factor that weighs heavily on the final numbers is special teams, which make some positions more valuable for “going heavy” than others. QB, OL, and DL are not resources for kick and punt packages. The other positions will be used to make those units up, which gives them a premium value.

So with the data we have on the players on Dallas’ roster so far, what does this indicate about the final allocation of those six variable positions?

OFFENSE

Two players have had an excellent start to the preseason: Rico Gathers and Cooper Rush. Gathers simply looks too good as a receiver to be put at risk by trying for another year on the practice squad. His ability to catch the ball despite the coverage far outweighs his underdeveloped ability as a blocker or a route runner. And most NFL teams put a lot less weight on those latter considerations than the Cowboys, particularly the blocking. So many teams utilize tight ends as big wide receivers or slot players to really care about that. His chance of clearing waivers is small, and getting smaller each week. Assuming Hanna and Swaim both stay healthy (which is not a given, but let’s stick with hoping for the best), the Cowboys are all but forced into carrying four tight ends.

Rush is a different case. No matter how much we may rail against the idea, all indications are that Kellen Moore will be the QB2 for the start of the season. If Rush is to make the team, that means another position gets shorted. There is more chance of Rush making it through waivers to get to the practice squad than Gathers. We have seen other quarterbacks become darlings in preseason only to disappear afterwards. With only two games played, the body of work is just too small to know what the team really has. But reports are that the staff really like what they have seen from him. This is going to be a tough call to make. If he does not regress over the rest of the preseason, he is likely to get notice from other teams with questions at QB, and could be claimed off waivers. The practice squad is no guarantee under those conditions. If the team really sees a future for Rush (most likely as a QB2 and maybe future trade bait in the New England Patriots mode), he is perhaps the most difficult call to make.

That leaves the rest of the offense. Given the history, it is probably wise to forget the idea of carrying a sixth wide receiver. There, the team has an excellent chance of getting one or two WRs to the practice squad, where they can be a ready reserve. Offensive line may be a place where the team sticks with only eight players. Left guard is still to be determined, but whoever they wind up with there (Chaz Green and Jonathan Cooper look to be the likely suspects after Byron Bell had a bad outing against the Los Angeles Rams), the team may be scrambling just to come up with three quality backups.

And that brings us to running back, complicated by the Ezekiel Elliott suspension. The running game is crucial to the Cowboys. The team may be able to delay Elliott’s suspension, but assuming it doesn’t, they still need some bodies. And both Rod Smith and Keith Smith are big special teams players. RB4 (with a FB also) looks to be a good bet, which could keep Ronnie Hillman around. And the team has gone as deep as six at RB/FB. That is just how important the position is in Dallas.

DEFENSE

The big problem on defense is that the known and possible suspensions make things very much a moving target here. We know David Irving and Damontre Moore will miss games, with both being out the first two. Additionally, Damien Wilson and Nolan Carroll may face suspensions. That means that at least two and possibly four “temporary” roster spots will be open on that side of the ball.

Given Irving and Moore, the team may not want to load up too much on the defensive line. Look for no more than nine players to be there to start the season, with eight also being a possibility as they know reinforcements are coming later. But they could take the other route and keep ten or even eleven defensive linemen (which is the way they have leaned in the past) just to swap them out for the returning players.

Linebacker may be a good spot to load up, given both some early good showings by young players and the value they have on teams. They can also carry an extra defensive back or two. This would serve as a way to have players to cut when Irving and Moore come back while keeping any promising linemen from the early games. It is really hard to figure out how things will shake out on the defensive side of the ball because of the suspension situation.

But some names that you might keep your eye on are Thomas Duke, Joseph Jones, Lewis Neal, Lenny Jones, and the two seventh round DL picks, Joey Ivie and Jordan Carrell. All have had moments, and it may be more of a short-term rental job than anything, but remember that the positions have the interchangeable nature. Look for the staff to go heavy based on talent here more than how many they have at each position.

If you were expecting some solid predictions here about who would and wouldn’t make the team, sorry to disappoint. The idea was to look at how we think about roster battles. A player is not just competing within his own position group. He is fighting to fit into the breakdown of those six roster spots, three on each side of the ball, that the Cowboys really have to work with.