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Cowboys vs. Bengals: What special teams snap counts tell us about who makes the 53-man roster

A lot of the coming Cowboys personnel decisions, especially for the down-roster players, will likely be determined by a player’s value on special teams.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Jason Garrett likes to constantly remind players, fans and the media that the Cowboys must be good “in all three phases” of the game. In fact, “all three phases” is right up there in the coachspeak pantheon alongside “process,” “challenge,” and “competition.” But while it may be coachspeak, it is also relevant.

Football Outsiders tracks team efficiency over “all three phases”, and their numbers show that while the Cowboys declined on offense and defense in 2017 versus the year before, they actually improved a little on special teams - and that’s despite Dan Bailey missing a chunk of time and coming back without his usual accuracy.

Dallas Cowboys Team Efficency
NFL rank Offense Defense Special Teams
2017 10th 25th 7th
2016 3rd 18th 9th

These numbers may come as a surprise to some Cowboys fans whose gut feeling tells them that special teams just weren’t as good last year as they used to be. But so be it.

Given the relative success of special teams and the emphasis the Cowboys place on special teams play, you’ve got to wonder about the influence newly-promoted special teams coach Keith O’Quinn will have on personnel decisions this year.

Usually when talk turns to special teams it doesn’t go far beyond the kicker/punter or the kick/punt returners. Or when was the last time you read or heard an analysis about the special teams gunners, the jammers, or the up-backs? People stop reading that stuff faster than you can say Jack Robinson. The only articles most people want to read on the topic of special teams are about how awesome Dan Bailey, Chris Jones, or L.P. Ladouceur are.

Special teams may not necessarily be sexy, but they are a vital portion of the roster. And with just two weeks to go before the final roster cuts on September 1, now is a good time to take a look at how special teams considerations may drive roster decisions for the Cowboys.

Because even if we don’t spend a lot of time talking about the special teams players, the Cowboys are certainly talking about these guys. And that discussion may impact a lot of the more contentious roster decisions (at the bottom of the roster) the Cowboys will soon make.

In one of my posts from Cowboys camp last year, I wrote about how the first-team special teamers are often an early tell for who makes the 53-man roster and who doesn’t.

  • In 2016, I listed the first-team special teamers in my camp report. Every single one of them made the team (even if some ended the season on IR).
  • In 2017, all but one of the first-teamers made the team. The guy who didn’t make it was Mark Nzeocha, and I’ll happily admit to some bias there on my part for my fellow German.

The game against the Bengals gave us a good glimpse of who the Cowboys currently see as their first-teamers on special teams. I painstakingly plotted how the Cowboys lined up on their first three special teams plays of the first quarter, a kickoff return, a punt, and a punt return.

Let’s start with the kickoff return unit:

Jeff Heath, a special teams stalwart of previous seasons, wasn’t in on this play (and not on the punt return unit either), perhaps because the Cowboys wanted to be careful with his recently injured ankle.

Jourdan Lewis is listed on the official depth chart as the primary kickoff returner, so it’s not a surprise to see him here. Current fullback Jamize Olawale and former fullback Rod Smith are lined up as the wedge players, no surprise there either.

What is surprising is to see Tyree Robinson lining up as a second-level blocker alongside Blake Jarwin and Byron Jones. Whether this means Robinson has a leg up among the defensive backs competing for the final roster spot remains to be seen. Perhaps he’s just subbing for Jeff Heath.

On to the first punt of the game:

Heath is in on this play as the personal protector (or up-back) for Chris Jones, and it was the only special teams snap Heath took all night. Otherwise, this is a fairly standard lineup. Heath has some muscle on both sides in Rod Smith and Blake Jarwin; Xavier Woods and Kavon Frazier are the gunners on the outside. The rest of the unit is blocking up front.

What is noticeable is that both the kick return and the punt return unit only feature two linebackers in Joe Thomas and Damien Wilson. Last year during camp, they had three linebackers on both units.

On to the punt return unit.

Again, no major surprises here. Lance Lenoir is the No. 2 as a punt returner behind Duke Thomas, but he gets the nod on this play. Perhaps the coaches are looking for a way to keep him on the roster, and special teams could be such a way.

So now we know who many of the likely core special teams players are. But there were more than just three special teams plays yesterday. The next table shows the special teams snaps for the core special teamers we’ve identified in the three plays above, along with the special teams snaps for what we’ll call the non-special teamers.

Likely Core Special Teamers Non-core Special Teamers
POS Player ST Snaps Player (min. 3 snaps) ST Snaps
TE Blake Jarwin 11 Dalton Schultz 10
Geoff Swaim 7
RB/FB Jamize Olawale 12 Darius Jackson 9
Rod Smith 6 Bo Scarbrough 5
Trey Williams 4
DB Jourdan Lewis 15 Tyree Robinson 14
Anthony Brown 11 Jameill Showers 11
Byron Jones 7 Charvarius Ward 10
Chidobe Awuzie 6 Marquez White 8
Xavier Woods 6 Duke Tomas 3
Kavon Frazier 5 Donovan Olumba 3
LB Joe Thomas 13 Chris Covington 13
Damien Wilson 12 Justin March-Lillard 10
Eric Pinkins 8
Tre'von Johnson 5
WR Lance Lenoir 5 Mekale McKay 3

Here are my thoughts on what all of this could possibly mean, based in part on what we’re not seeing in the lineups and snap counts above.

  • Last year, the Cowboys kept seven linebackers (perhaps in part because Anthony Hitchens was out with an injury for the start of the season). I don’t see a special teams linebacker making a case for a roster spot, so I’d expect the Cowboys to go short at linebacker and only keep six guys, with the final spot down to Chris Covington or Justin March-Lillard.
  • Outside of possibly Lance Lenoir, not a single receiver has made a case for a roster spot via his special teams play. No way the Cowboys are keeping more than six wide receivers. And with Allen Hurns, Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams, Michael Gallup, and Tavon Austin as roster locks, that leaves only one open spot. In principle that’s Deonte Thompson’s spot but he’s been out with an Achilles for a while, an Achilles that already saw him miss time in OTAs. That makes Thompson a possible candidate for IR, and only then will there be a sixth spot up for grabs - unless Lenoir shines on teams.
  • An argument could be made that the Cowboys should keep a fourth running back, if for no other reason than that the position is always critical from a health point of view. But if there’s going to be a fourth RB, that guy had better be a strong contributor to special teams, otherwise you’re wasting a roster spot on a guy who’s not going to play (as long as the top three are healthy) and doesn’t contribute on special teams. Looks to me like the Cowboys are trying to find a way to keep four guys, with Darius Jackson getting nine special teams snaps, and pre-injury Bo Scarbrough getting five against the Bengals. Last week against the 49ers, Scarbrough got 12 and Jackson got six.
  • The Cowboys have shown a tendency to have a career special teamer on the roster - and have often brought in a free agent for that role. In 2014, they signed C.J Spillman for just such a role, a year later they brought Danny McCray back via free agency and signed Andrew Gachkar, both as special teams aces. For the last two years, they had Kyle Wilber as their special teams guy. Will they bring in somebody as this year’s special teams ace over the next few weeks?
  • At defensive back, Tyree Robinson looks to be in the lead for a roster spot. Not only did he get at least one snap with the core special teamers, he also got 14 special teams snaps in total. His competitor looks to be Charvarius Ward who got 10 snaps. Whatever happened to Duke Thomas?
  • Only two special teams snaps for Rico Gathers. Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.

As you wonder about roster depth and roster spots, it’s always helpful to keep in mind how previous Cowboys 53-man rosters were split by position. Here are the numbers from the opening-day rosters of the last five years as documented in the NFL game books.

Years QB RB WR TE FB OL DL LB CB S Specialists
2017 3 4 6 3 1 8 8 7 6 4 3
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

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