Football is a game of attrition. No team ends the season with the exact same players it started the season with, as injuries take their inevitable toll on the roster. Successfully managing that aspect of NFL reality can be the difference between a top 10 draft pick and a deep playoff run.
Last year, the Cowboys stormed out to a 6-1 start despite starting the season with WR Michael Gallup, DT Neville Gallimore, and CB Kelvin Joseph out on IR, and RT La’el Collins sitting out a five-game suspension. But injuries would take their toll down the stretch.
- Dak Prescott missed a game with a calf injury and it felt like it took him quite a while to get over that injury, despite only missing one game.
- Tyron Smith missed six games, and was perhaps rushed back a bit too early for the playoff game against the 49ers.
- Randy Gregory missed four games from Week 9-12 with a calf injury.
- DeMarcus Lawrence fractured his foot in the season opener and wouldn’t be back until Week 12.
- Amari Cooper missed two games due to Covid, and many more players had to sit out games for the same reason.
No team has enough depth to seamlessly replace all of their top stars, but if you have good enough depth, your team might be able to at least alleviate some of the injury hits.
Back in 2014, Pat Kirwan of CBSSports penned an article in which he looked at roster depth across the league. Kirwan proposed a list of 13 questions by which to assess roster depth, and we’ll use those 13 questions today to try and figure out how good the Cowboys’ roster depth is.
We’re still almost two months away from training camp, and 100 days from the start of the season, so not all of Kirwan’s questions can be answered with certainty. At the same time, questions for which the answers may not be obvious today, could be very obvious after training camp, and vice versa, so there’s a high degree of ambiguity inherent in answering these questions this far ahead of actual football being played.
But I tried to answer the 13 questions anyway. I chose to answer each question with “Yes,” “No,” or “Probably,” and provided a brief rationale for each answer below. If we assign two points for a “Yes,” one point for a “Probably,” and zero points for a “No,” I gave the Cowboys 14 points for the 13 questions below. As you go through the list, how many points would you award?
1. Does your team have a capable backup QB that can go at least 2-2 in a four-game stretch?
Cooper Rush is 1-0 in the NFL, Will Grier is 0-2, and Ben DiNucci is 0-1, but those stat lines mean nothing. The Cowboys do not have an NFL-quality backup on their roster. Verdict: No (0 points)
2. Does your team have a real swing offensive tackle, a guy that can play left or right tackle and has experience?
The Cowboys have Tyron Smith at left tackle, and just promoted their backup tackle, Terence Steele, to right tackle. They also invested a first-round pick in Tyler Smith with the intent of eventually moving him out to tackle. Beyond that, they have Josh Ball and Matt Waletzko as backups. So they do have some guys, but nobody with NFL experience. Verdict: Probably (1 point).
3. Does your team have a solid inside offensive lineman that can play guard or center?
This obviously depends on how you define “solid”, but the Cowboys do have Connor McGovern who could play all three spots in a pinch. Verdict: Yes (2 points)
4. Is there a quality second running back that can deliver a 100-yard rushing day if he had to start?
Many in Dallas think the number two guy may be better than the number one guy. Verdict: So much Yes (2 points)
5. Is there a good second tight end on the roster?
For now, it’s Dalton Schultz and that’s it. The Cowboys do have some promising young guys on the roster, so there is hope for some depth here, but for now, the verdict is clear. Verdict: No (0 points)
6. Can the third wide receiver step up and start in the two-WR packages if a starter went down?
The answer here is probably a bit complicated because the Cowboys' offense features Dalton Schultz so heavily (Schultz is effectively the No. 2 receiver on the team in terms of receptions). Cedric Wilson was last year’s depth guy, and he had 45 receptions, which translates to 2.7 receptions per game. That’s a level of production that anybody out of the trio of James Washington, Jalen Tolbert, and Noah Brown should be able to easily achieve if called upon - even if Michael Gallup is likely to miss a few games at the start of the season. Verdict: Yes (2 points)
7. Does your team have a designated pass-rush specialist who could play the early downs if need be?
This is a bit of a specialist role, and not every team has or needs a specialist pass rusher who is largely limited to passing downs. But if you add Micah Parsons to the plethora of pass rushers in Dallas, the Cowboys should be in good shape for this question. Verdict: Yes (2 points)
8. Is there a third defensive tackle that not only plays in a rotation but could play the whole game if need be?
How the depth chart at DT plays out will be one of the more interesting questions in camp, as the Cowboys have an abundance of players at the spot. Neville Gallimore, Osa Odighizuwa, and Trysten Hill will all compete for a starting spot, and all could play the whole game if need be. Verdict: Yes (2 points)
9. Is there a quality nickel corner on the roster, since most teams are at least 50 percent sub defenses?
Jourdan Lewis is that nickel corner. Verdict: Yes (2 points)
10. Is there a fourth corner for dime packages?
This is where it gets a bit complicated. Trevon Diggs and Anthony Brown are the presumptive starting corners, Kelvin Joseph is the third corner, and Jourdan Lewis is the nickel guy. But if Joseph gets suspended or perhaps even released for his involvement in a Dallas-area shooting earlier this year, that depth will be challenged. Verdict: Probably (1 point)
11. Is there a third safety for big nickel defenses?
The Cowboys don’t play in a big nickel defense, but the point is valid nevertheless. The Cowboys have a good safety duo in Malik Hooker and Jayron Kearse, but there are big question marks beyond those two, to a point where it currently seems feasible that UDFA Markquese Bell could make the team. Verdict: No (0 points)
12. Is there a return specialist that can either handle both punts and kick returns or contribute as a real position player?
We don’t want CeeDee Lamb in that role this year, so the answer is an emphatic NO. Verdict: No. (0 points)
13. Does your team have a special-teams linebacker that leads the specials and can play inside linebacker in a pinch?
Maybe Jabril Cox could be that guy, maybe Damone Clark could be that guy. Both are returning from injury, so who knows what they’ll be able to do? Verdict: No (0 points)
When Kirwan wrote his article, he identified the Seahawks and Bengals as the teams with the best depth in 2014. The Seahawks would end up with a 12-4 record and a Super Bowl appearance, and the Bengals went 10-5-1 with an early playoff exit in the wildcard round.
But he also listed five teams as honorable mentions for best roster depth. None of those five teams made the playoffs, and only one team even managed a winning record. The five honorable mentions: Eagles (10-6), Dolphins (8-8), 49ers (8-8), Commanders (4-12), and Buccaneers (2-14).
So depth isn’t everything in the NFL, though it sure can help.
As you go through the list of questions above, how do you evaluate the Cowboys’ roster depth, and how many points would you award?