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Cowboys hot topic: Roster depth facing first test

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We knew it was coming. Now we find out just how deep this team truly is.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Washington Redskins
He is one of the league’s leaders in receiving yardage, but has to sit for a while.
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

It is inevitable. Every NFL team has to have a plan when starters get injured, because it will happen. The Dallas Cowboys are now facing their first notable missing players, with wide receiver Michael Gallup and Xavier Woods both out for what are hoped to be short times. They also have day-to-day situations with defensive linemen Antwaun Woods, Tyrone Crawford, and Robert Quinn. The latter has just come off his suspension to start the season, but he is also recovering from a hand injury that would probably have kept him off the field for the initial two games. Now Dallas is going to find out if a widely held assumption before the season is true: This is believed to be one of the deepest rosters ever for the Cowboys, and it should be able to take minor injuries like this in stride.

You need look no further than the last sentence if you want a silver lining, because these are indeed minor issues compared to what is going on around the league. Ben Roethlisberger is now out for the year, with what appeared to be a non-contact injury to his throwing arm. He claims he is coming back, but he is 37, and does not possess the magical portrait that protects him like Tom Brady has. It is always a challenge to overcome a serious injury at that age. Drew Brees is going to miss at least several weeks with ligament damage to his throwing hand, which will severely threaten what was seen as the best chance to make a run for the New Orleans Saints since their Super Bowl win. (We should never hope to prosper off another’s misfortune, but it is pertinent to note that one of the games Brees is expected to miss is in week 4, against the Dallas Cowboys.) And before the season even started, Andrew Luck retired after years of being beaten up. Another really bad situation is plaguing the New York Jets. Starting quarterback Sam Darnold is out for an extended time due to contracting mononucleosis, and Trevor Siemian was lost in his first game, leaving them with Luke Falk to fill in.

However, both Gallup and Xavier Woods were off to good starts and filling key roles on the roster. Gallup is fifth in yards receiving in the NFL, leading the Cowboys. Woods has been a key part of the secondary and nearly had a pick six against Washington, falling prey to the old issue of looking at where he wanted to go rather than securing the ball. Now, the old “next man up” thing comes into play.

So how do the Cowboys fill the spots temporarily vacated by Gallup and Woods? This is where quality depth becomes a difference maker in the long, brutal grind of the NFL season.

With Gallup, there was a bit of serendipity. Free agent pickup Devin Smith had something of a breakout game against Washington. The oft-injured former New York Jets receiver caught three passes and lead all receivers in the game with 74 yards, including the longest play for either team on the 51-yard touchdown to start the Cowboys’ scoring. Notably, he had no drops, either. It is always good to have a player that can step in with some recent experience and productivity when a starter is out. The Cowboys also called up Cedrick Wilson last Sunday. He was used sparingly, but had a good camp and preseason after missing his entire rookie year on IR. He becomes a nice little insurance policy.

Having competent backups to fill a roster hole is not the only way depth works. The Cowboys also have some other ways to make up for one of the top three WRs being out. So far this season, they have been running most of their offensive plays out of 11 personnel (one back, one tight end, three wide receivers on the field). Given the start to the season Gallup, Amari Cooper, and Randall Cobb have had, that is the logical path. But now, they can use some of the other offensive talent to compensate. Jason Witten has been his old self as a possession and red zone receiver, already catching two touchdown passes. And Blake Jarwin has a touchdown and is averaging 15.3 yards per catch. That means 12 personnel packages are not automatic running downs. Jarwin especially can provide some deep threat capability. And back Tony Pollard was used in a wide receiver role at times in college. That is an aspect of his game that was expected to be a part of his repertoire when he was drafted. It hasn’t been tapped into yet, but this might open the door there. Even fullback Jamize Olawale was targeted deep in the first game. There are clearly ways to work around a missing wideout. And Kellen Moore has already proven he is creative enough to do that very well.

On defense, the team will likely go with either Darian Thompson or Kavon Frazier to fill in for Woods. Both are probably a significant step down from the starter, but in situations like these, you are looking for adequacy, not superior performance. Thompson earned his spot on the roster in camp, and Frazier has successfully defended his own. And this could be when we finally see if Donovan Wilson can fulfill the ballhawking promise he showed in preseason. He is still coming back from his own injury, and has yet to be active. But if he is ready to go physically, he will probably get his first chance to show what he can do.

Just like at receiver, there is another way to plug the hole in the secondary. Byron Jones has experience playing safety. He is much better at cornerback, but the depth at that position means that Jourdan Lewis can help handle the duties to allow Jones to switch for a while if it is necessary.

The team also has to keep options open for the three defensive linemen mentioned above. If Antwaun Woods is not able to go, it could mean second-round pick Trysten Hill could get his first action. Kerry Hyder is also an option to work inside if needed. Problems getting Crawford and Quinn ready to go will put more of the load on Dorance Armstrong and rookie Joe Jackson, and the team could even give the disgruntled Taco Charlton a chance to prove himself. Given that Charlton apparently wants to go somewhere else for a fresh start, he might want to treat such an opportunity as a way to put some good video out there for prospective landing spots. He is probably a very unlikely way for the team to go, however.

They do have Daniel Wise stashed on the practice squad, and he is an option if problems linger for the nicked up defensive linemen. In any case, Rod Marinelli is good at wringing the best out of his available players.

The Cowboys are also bringing in safeties and receivers for workouts. That looks more like due diligence at this point. It is still wise to prepare for all contingencies.

As far as timing goes, you hate to see the team having to shuffle things this early, but that is just how football goes. There could hardly be a better week to try and survive things. Sunday sees the Miami Dolphins coming to town, and they have gone so far in the tank that there are reports of a rash of their current players asking to be traded to teams that are actually making an effort to win. It should be a Dallas victory even with backups.

This is the first real test of the roster depth, and honestly, it is not a severe one. If the analysis that this is indeed a deep group is at all correct, the Cowboys should not be slowed much.