One topic that gets a lot of discussion among Cowboys fans, here on BTB, on Twitter, and throughout the interwebs, especially during this time after the offseason talent acquisition period has all but concluded but before the teams roster is finalized and we turn our attention to regular season games in September, is special teams.
Conversations about the likely candidates to earn spots on the regular season roster at almost every position (quarterback, and the offensive and interior defensive lines notwithstanding), wind up being qualified with the statement “they need the back up guys to play special teams”.
Considering the Cowboys have retained their special teams coach, John “Bones” Fassel, for the 2023 season, and the Cowboys finished 10th in special teams DVOA in 2022, it’s likely safe to assume many of their personnel tendencies will remain the same.
So let’s use the Cowboys 2022 Special teams snap counts as a guide for our assumptions.
This table includes everyone who played at least 100 special teams snaps for the 2022 Cowboys. The number 100 is obviously an arbitrary cut off, but much below this and you start to include all the starting linemen who are on the field goal team, and players only active for a game or two, so it felt appropriate. In total, this group accounted for a total of 72% of the available special teams snaps.
The positional breakdown for the list looks like this:
- Linebackers - Luke Gifford, Jabril Cox, Damone Clark
- Defensive backs - C.J. Goodwin, Kelvin Joseph, Israel Mukuamu, DaRon Bland, Nahshon Wright
- Defensive line - Sam Williams, Chauncey Golston, Quinton Bohanna
- Tight ends - Peyton Hendershot, Sean McKeon, Jake Ferguson
- Running backs - Malik Davis
- Wide receivers - KaVontae Turpin
- Specialists - Brett Maher, Bryan Anger, Matt Overton
To my surprise, this list doesn’t include former Cowboys special teams staples like defensive end Dorance Armstrong (97 special teams snaps), or wide receiver Noah Brown (68 special teams snaps), and only one non-specialist, Luke Gifford, played over 100 special teams snaps in 2022, and is not currently on the Cowboys 2023 roster.
What can our primary takeaways and questions for the Cowboys 2023 roster construction be?
Offensive players will not be major participants
If we exclude snaps played by KaVontae Turpin, who participated exclusively as a returner, offensive players on our list totaled only 759 special teams snaps, and of those, 583 were played by tight ends.
So if we are building the depth charts for wide receivers and running backs, special teams doesn’t need to be a major consideration, and at tight end, all of the returning players have shown the capacity.
How many “core special teamers” will they have?
We hear a lot about “core special teamers” when we talk roster construction, and if you’re building your 53-man roster projections for this season, you need to look at the Cowboys defensive back and linebacker depth charts for those options.
Four of the five most used special teamers in 2022 were linebackers or defensive backs, but with further examination, only a few players seemed to make the Cowboys roster exclusively as special teamers.
Consider that going into the 2022 season, players like Joseph, Mukuamu, Cox, and Wright were only second-year players with a lot of promise as defenders, and Malik Davis was the primary backup running back behind Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. While those guys wound up being core teams players who played little on offense or defense, that certainly wasn’t the deciding factor in securing their roster spots.
This really leaves Gifford, Goodwin, and McKeon as players who made the team purely due to special teams considerations. If we assume the Cowboys will hold this trend, leaning on young players primarily at defensive back and linebacker, you likely see two or three players make the team exclusively as coverage players.
Atleast one of those spots will certainly be occupied by Goodwin, one of the best special teamers in the league, but the other two might be up for grabs. Kelvin Joseph is having his best off-season yet on defense, but if he doesn’t provide some value on defense, it will be tough to keep two “cornerbacks” who are pure special teamers, meaning that more likely, a safety like Marquese Bell or Tyler Coyle, and a linebacker like Devin Harper or Jabril Cox, and maybe even a tight end like McKeon, would fill out those ranks.