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What Cowboys’ first-team preseason snap count could mean for looming 53-man roster decisions

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Trying to read the tea leaves of roster-building.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

It looks like Dak Prescott will not be playing against the Cardinals tonight, and he’s certainly not going to play in the final preseason game next week. Which means the 39 snaps Prescott played in the first two preseason games are all we have to draw any type of conclusions from.

And that got me wondering about who else got snaps while Prescott was on the field, the working assumption being that those other players would be likely considered first-teamers (or borderline first-teamers) and should see the bulk of the regular season action.

But we look into total snap counts, let’s first take a look at the personnel groupings the Cowboys deployed with Prescott on the field:

Cowboys first-team personnel groupings, 2018 preseason
Personnel Total Pass Run
00 (0 RB, 0 TE) - - - - - -
10 (1 RB, 0 TE) - - - - - -
20 (2 RB, 0 TE) - - - - - -
01 (0 RB, 1 TE) - - - - - -
11 (1 RB, 1 TE) 15 6 9
21 (2 RB, 1 TE) 5 2 3
02 (0 RB, 2 TE) - - - - - -
12 (1 RB, 2 TE) 15 11 4
22 (2 RB, 2 TE) 1 - - 1
13 (1 RB, 3 TE) 3 1 2
23 (2 RB, 3 TE) - - - - - -
Total 39 20 19

Over the last three years, the Cowboys have run about 75% of their plays out of either 11 or 12 personnel, and they continue that approach in the 2018 preseason, with 30/39 snaps (77%) coming in those two personnel groups.

Total snaps are evenly split by run and pass, even if 11 personnel is (surprisingly) a bit run-heavy, while 12 personnel is pass-heavy.

Starting with 11 personnel, here’s who took the most snaps on those 15 plays:

The are a few things that stand out here, the most interesting (at least for me) being the distribution of snaps for the wide receivers. Allen Hurns and Michael Gallup were on the field for every snap in 11 personnel, which makes them the No. 1 and No. 2 receivers (in whatever order).

The graph above seems to suggest that Gallup and Hurns lined up as the X and Z receivers exclusively, but that’s not the case. I simply chose to put the two guys with the most snaps outside, and then “slot” the other receivers as the Y receivers. From the data I have, here’s how the top three receivers lined up:

  • Allen Hurns: X:0, Y:11, Z: 4
  • Michael Gallup: X: 13, Y: 2, Z: 0
  • Terrance Williams: X: 0, Y: 0: Z: 11

Other thoughts:

  • Geoff Swaim is the No. 1 tight end, and it’s not even close, Blake Jarwin only comes in as the second tight end in 12 personnel, as we’ll see below.
  • For all the hype about Tavon Austin in camp, he didn’t get a lot of action with the first team. Is the team hiding him, or will he be a player who just comes in on occasion as the third wide receiver?
  • Rod Smith hogged all the RB snaps. Are Darius Jackson and Bo Scarbrough perhaps more No. 4-type running backs, and the Cowboys are still looking for the No. 3 guy behind Smith?

On to 12-personnel:

On 12 personnel, Blake Jarwin comes in as the second tight end. No sign of Dalton Schultz or Rico Gathers. Again, like at RB, the Cowboys may have two No. 4 guys at TE in Schultz and Gathers, but they may not yet have a No. 3 guy who could come in and spell Swaim or Jarwin. Worth keeping an eye on.

At WR, this is basically a repeat of 11 personnel, with Hurns and Gallup as the top two guys, and Williams completing the top three. Austin and Lenoir are merely afterthoughts. Note that Cole Beasley didn’t take a single snap in either of the first two games, so it’ll be interesting to see how his return will shake up the WR depth chart.

Looking at all 39 snaps, here’s who got the most snaps at each position.

Cowboys first-team snaps, 2018 preseason
QB/RB/FB WR TE OL
Dak Prescott (39) Michael Gallup (31) Geoff Swaim (39) Tyron Smith (39)
Rod Smith (39) Allen Hurns (28) Blake Jarwin (19) Connor Williams (39)
Jamize Olawale (6) Terrance Williams (20) Dalton Schultz (3) La'el Collins (39)
Lance Lenoir (6) Zack Martin (35)
Tavon Austin (4) Joe Looney (29)
Travis Frederick (10)
Kadeem Edwards (4)

So there you have it. Rod Smith and Geoff Swaim, along with three moderately healthy linemen (Smith, Williams, Collins) got the most first-team snaps with Dak Prescott.

The Cowboys play about 60 offensive snaps every game, which is 50% more than the 39 snaps we looked at in detail above. If we simply extrapolate from those snaps, the fifth wide receiver might get six snaps per game. But the Cowboys are thinking about keeping seven guys? What are those extra guys going to do all game?

Similarly, the third tight end might see five snaps per game. What would the role of a potential fourth tight end be during games?

Jerry Jones said that part of the Cowboys’ reaction to the “Burning of Atlanta” was to make sure they have sufficient depth. Perhaps that’ll be the rationale for keeping more players at some positions. Or perhaps that’ll be the rationale for getting guys onto the roster over the next few days who warrant a bigger role during the game.

Now let’s see how and if all of the above translates into the regular season, when Cole Beasley and Ezekiel Elliott grab their share of snaps, leaving even less snaps for the other offensive skill positions.