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How 2016 snap counts can explain the final roster decisions the Cowboys will make

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On September 3rd, the Cowboys need to cut their roster to 53 or fewer players. What do 2016 snap counts tell us about this process?

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

As fans, we all like to play general manager for a day and opine about who the Cowboys should keep on their 53-man roster. I’ve posted on this subject twice on my own, and once as part of a group Blogging The Boys effort.

Usually, a large number of those decisions are rather easy. It’s only the last six to eight slots that force the Cowboys to make serious choices.

Over the last five years, these are the numbers the Cowboys have kept for each position group.

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 0 10 10 6 4 5 3

The baseline minimum for each position group has been two QB, three RB, five WR, three TE, and eight OL, for 21 on offense. On defense, the Cowboys have kept at least eight DL, six LB, and eight DBs, for 22 on defense. The three specialists round out the group.

In our recent group 53-man roster post, we agreed on 48 of the top 53 slots (2 QB, 4 RB, 5 WR, 4 TE, 7 OL, 10 DL, 4 LB, 5 CB, 4 S, and 3 specialists). So there isn’t much of a disagreement at this stage among the front page writers on this site, with two more pre-season games left to play.

What we want to do here is look at the snap counts from last year to see how many players are needed to cover the offense and defense, with the leftovers likely to be special teams guys.

We also want to see how many players the Cowboys might need over the course of the season. Due to injuries and other factors, it’s always more than 53 men. For example, this year, the Cowboys are facing three player suspensions - Ezekiel Elliott for six games, David Irving for four games, and Damontre Moore for two games. To replace them, it will boost the Cowboys numbers to 56 players.

In 2016, the Cowboys needed only 59 players to get through the year. DeMarcus Lawrence was suspended for four games, and had to be covered for. Emmett Cleary was added to the offensive line because of injuries to Tyron Smith and Chaz Green. Darren McFadden was hurt most of the year but returned at the end. Darius Jackson, who was never active, was cut to make room. Vincent Mayle came up after Geoff Swaim was hurt, reducing Dallas to two tight ends. Leon McFadden was added to the secondary due to injuries to Orlando Scandrick and Mo Claiborne. Randy Gregory played a few games once his suspension was lifted. Richard Ash was added to the defensive line at the end of the year. Ryan Davis was picked up off waivers for defensive line depth, and ended up playing a bit. Rod Smith was on the opening roster, but was cut to make room for another position player. The only one of these additional players to play more than 10% of the snaps was Ryan Davis, who played 15%.

If you look at our snap count articles from the end of 2016, one for offense, and one for defense, you will find all of the 2016 Cowboys players except Darius Jackson, who made the original 53-man roster, but was never active and didn’t play a snap.

How many players played more than 10% of the snaps in 2016, by position?

QB RB WR TE FB OL DL LB CB S Specialists
1 of 3 3 of 5 5 of 6 3 of 3 1 of 2 8 of 9 9 of 11 4 of 7 4 of 5 4 of 5 3

If you add these numbers up, you find 21 players on offense, 21 on defense who played more than 10% of the snaps. All but DeMarcus Lawrence and Ryan Davis among these were on the original 53-man roster. Let’s call this the Cowboys’ core. To these you add the three specialists. These are the players who are going to make a difference on the offense and defense.

The other 12 players who got in for at least some offensive and defensive plays (Jackson was on the roster, but never played; Rod Smith played special teams, but didn’t have an offensive snap) totaled 527 snaps, but 315 of them were in the last game against Philadelphia. So the Cowboys needed only 212 snaps over 15 games from players outside of their core, or 14 snaps a game. These are essentially emergency or perhaps developmental players on offense and defense.

Where these extra players matter is on special teams. I didn’t keep a special teams snap count chart for the season, though I did list the snaps of the key teams players on a weekly basis. In addition to the three specialists - LP Ladouceur, Dan Bailey, and Chris Jones - that’s where most of the active players who didn’t get into the game on offense or defense will show up. This is where Kavon Frazier and Andrew Gachkar and many others made a difference.

This affects the roster decisions. If 2016 were the guide, the Cowboys will need about 42 players to run their offense and defense, and the three specialists. We could all probably name those players right now.

The other eight players who make up the 53-man roster, plus those needed as injury or suspension replacements, will hopefully not have much impact on offense or defense, but could on special teams. That’s where the cut-down decisions will likely be focused.

It’s worth noting that only one of the players who played less than 10% of the snaps in 2016 is potentially up for a significant increase this year - Kavon Frazier. The bigger impact this year will come from redshirt players Jaylon Smith, Charles Tapper, and Rico Gathers who didn’t play at all. Rod Smith, who was on the roster but didn’t have a carry before he was cut, may also play a bigger role.

The Cowboys have several developmental players this year. For example, their three seventh-round picks - Noah Brown, Joey Ivie, and Jordan Carrell - and UDFA fan favorite Cooper Rush. Will any of them make the roster? We all hope Rush does, and then hope he never plays a down.