Roster churn is an inevitable part of NFL team construction. Every year, players retire, are released, leave in free agency, or are traded away. One of the main tasks of the offseason is to find players to replace them. Some, like fringe players, are not much of an issue. But when you lose a lot of starters and key role players, you have a much bigger task facing you. Those heavily used personnel represent a bunch of snaps that you have to find someone to not just fill a hole, but hopefully keep the talent level up, if not elevate it. And the Dallas Cowboys are one team that has a large challenge in this area.
These tms are returning the lowest number of snaps played in ‘20 & will be at a disadvantage due to the limited offseason/no preseason— Mike Tannenbaum (@RealTannenbaum) July 23, 2020
It will be crucial to see if these tms can find chemistry before the season https://t.co/aBDmESo9oP
That is based on ESPN’s accounting, which includes special teams work. Over the Cap just uses offense and defense, which actually drops Dallas one spot to next-to-last.
Our order is slightly different (just off/def snaps) with Buff, Pit, KC, and Ind the top 4 but the bottom 5 are the Panthers (just 46.9%), Cowboys (66.3%), Seahawks (68.5%), Pats (69.5%), and Lions (69.9%). I have the Jets at 18 with 74.1%.— Jason_OTC (@Jason_OTC) July 23, 2020
So not only do the Cowboys have a new head coach in Mike McCarthy and a largely revamped staff, they also have a boatload of snaps to replace. Really complicating things, they had no offseason, will see no preseason games, and will have a very different and limited training camp.
However, this may not be quite as dire as it first appears. Obviously they added many new faces to the roster, and also had a couple of ready replacements on the depth chart.
Key to the season is how well these new players will work out. Here is a rundown of the biggest contributors from last season, and who is now set to step in. Like OTC, we will focus on just offensive and defensive plays from last year.
Travis Frederick, C, retired, 1117 plays (99.64% of all offensive plays)
Expected replacement: Joe Looney
Losing an All-Pro in the middle of the offensive line is never going to be welcomed. Frederick was on the field for almost all of the offensive plays. (All stats used here are from Pro Football Refernce.) But this is one situation that may work out okay for the Cowboys. First, 2019 Frederick was not the same as he was before he contracted and had to recover from Guillain-Barre syndrome. He was still effective last season, but a noticeable step down from his peak years. Second, Looney is not exactly untried. In 2018, while Frederick was sitting out and getting rehab work in, Looney took a full 100% of the offensive snaps. He didn’t exactly suck at it, either. Now, with Connor Williams hopefully improved after playing another season, the line may be able to take a step forward from its performance last year, which was just not up to the standards they have set for themselves in years past.
Some might wonder why Tyler Biadasz is not mentioned as an alternative, but expect him to be a year away from challenging for the starting role.
Randall Cobb, WR, departed in free agency, 720 plays (64.23%)
Expected replacement: CeeDee Lamb
Cobb was an effective WR3, contributing 55 receptions, 828 yards, and three touchdowns. He also had more than his share of drops. Still, given that both Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup exceeded 1,100 yards and also had cases of the dropsies during the year, he was worth his one-year contract.
Lamb is a rookie. But he is also one of the most exciting first-round investments by the Cowboys in years. His college stats are stellar, and his ability to add yards after the catch impressive. He was a steal at 17, being seen by most analysts as a top ten pick (Dallas reportedly had him at six on their board) and many argue he is the best receiver to come out of his class.
Now it is on Kellen Moore and Dak Prescott to cash in on his talent. He has to learn fast, but fast happens to be part of his DNA.
Jason Witten, TE, departed in free agency, 845 plays (75.38%)
Expected replacement: Blake Jarwin
Remember all the talk about how Witten was going to have a reduced role in the offense? Yeah, that didn’t turn out quite how we expected. While he wasn’t quite as hard to get off the field as he had been before his one-year foray into Monday Night Football work, he still ate up a lot of snaps. Slowly, for the most part.
Jarwin got a good bit of work last season, on the field for 38.72% of the plays. He was also more effective than Witten on a per-catch basis, averaging 11.8 yards to Witten’s 8.4. Under McCarthy, and with Moore calling plays, he might be an upgrade, at least as far as catching the ball. In today’s NFL, that is way more important than his blocking skills.
Cameron Fleming, OT, departed in free agency, 259 plays (23.10%)
Expected replacement: TBD
Fleming was the swing tackle, and given the recent history of Tryon Smith, that is an important backup position for the team. He was serviceable but apparently the team is looking for more. This is one place where no preseason games and very limited practice time will make identifying the best option very difficult. Candidates on the current roster include Brandon Knight, Mitch Hyatt, and Cameron Erving, with Knight thought to be a favorite. But we will probably have little to go on before the regular season roster is announced.
Jeff Heath, S, departed in free agency, 719 plays, (66.64%)
Expected replacement: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Donovan Wilson
Heath was not only a starter at safety, he was a real ace on special teams, so he is a bit of a double hit. Clinton-Dix may not take care of the ST work, but as a defensive back, the team hopes he still has enough left in the tank to make the loss of Heath manageable. Wilson is a bit of an insurance policy here, but he is also getting a lot of mention as a breakout player this year. Hopefully they can combine with Xavier Woods to hold down the fort.
Byron Jones, CB, departed in free agency, 917 plays (84.99%)
Expected replacements: Trevon Diggs, Reggie Robinson II, Daryl Worley, Maurice Canady
It still hurts to discuss Jones’ departure. And it says a lot when you have to look at four names to try and fill the void he left. Normally, Diggs would be the name to focus on, although no one should expect him to come in and completely carry that load. But with the lack of time and opportunity to evaluate rookies, this is unfortunately going to likely be a by-committee situation, at least early in the season. The veteran experience of Worley and Canady will be important and the team may be forced to rely on them while Diggs or perhaps Robinson adjust to the pro game and the Mike Nolan defense.
This is perhaps the most dicey situation the Cowboys face. It may be crucial that they get some pressure up front. Speaking of that . . .
Robert Quinn, DE, departed in free agency, 647 plays ((59.96%)
Kerry Hyder, DE, departed in free agency, 439 plays (40.69%)
Michael Bennett, DE, retired, 428 plays, (39.67%)
Expected replacements: Aldon Smith, Tyrone Crawford, Bradlee Anae, Dorance Armstrong
Defensive ends were used in a rotation by Rod Marinelli, so they are considered as a group here, as well as the players who will take those snaps this year. Just to illustrate the rotational nature of the pass rush last season, DeMarcus Lawrence played just 61.91% of the downs as Marinelli stuck to his idea of keeping fresh bodies coming in waves.
Smith brings an impressive background, except for that whole “out of football” thing. The team really doesn’t know just what they have in him. That means that Crawford, who missed most of last season due to injury, may be the most important DE, at least to start the season. We don’t know if Jim Tomsula will want to keep a heavy rotation, or stick more with his starters. It would seem likely that he will lean more to the latter.
Maliek Collins, DT, departed in free agency, 763 plays (70.71%)
Christian Covington, DT, departed in free agency, 481 plays (44.58%)
Expected replacements: Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe, Neville Garrimore
Frankly, the new members of the roster look to bring a lot more to the table, and with a genuine nose tackle in Poe, the interior of the defensive line should be used a bit differently than we are used to. McCoy is the key here as he has the potential to upgrade the position significantly.
If the Cowboys had gone through a normal offseason with OTAs and minicamps and still had a normal preseason and training camp ahead of them, this would not be a bad situation at all. Lacking all those, this is much more difficult, but the infusion of free agents, some experienced players to promote, and a really good looking draft group means that all hope is not lost. All teams are likely to have some issues getting their feet under them.
Don’t downplay the challenges for Dallas, however. This is going to require a tremendous job from McCarthy and his staff to make the season successful. But it does look like the restocking of the cupboard went well.