With the first preseason game in the books for the Dallas Cowboys, we now have a good bit of data to use while thinking about the eventual 53-man roster. While looking at the numbers from the game, a couple of new additions to the team raised the question of just what their chances were for making that roster. And it seems their eventual fates might be intertwined.
How the Cowboys allocate their 53 roster spots is an interesting subject. Things seem even more interesting this year, as several position groups may be more loaded than we are accustomed to. This is of course a good thing, but one result might be trying to carry an extra player in some of those groups. And one of the weakest parts of the team, the offensive line depth, may actually force the team to carry an extra lineman or two in hopes that someone can step up if needed while they really aren’t sure who it will be.
That means those extra spots will have to come from somewhere. A couple of places might be running back and tight end. There are some good arguments for carrying four of each with the players currently on the roster. But three is the absolute minimum. The RB group will have to include Tony Pollard, Deuce Vaughn, and one more still to be determined, likely either Malik Davis or Rico Dowdle. Jake Ferguson, Peyton Hendershot, and Luke Schoonmaker all seem certain to be on the team after the final cutdown.
Still, that seems awfully thin. I’d lay odds that they will add one more to at least one of those groups. The question is who.
Here’s a thought about that. If they go with four at one of the two positions, it could be a decision between two UDFAs, TE John Stephens or FB/RB Hunter Luepke.
The argument for Stephens is based on how good he has looked in both camp and the first preseason game. He stood out in practices, and was the team’s leading receiver against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Tight end can be a vital weapon in the new Texas Coast offense Mike McCarthy is installing, which requires good depth. Stephens has made a strong argument to be that depth, and could even be the player active on game days over either Hendershot or Schoonmaker if he keeps this up. He looks like a dangerous red zone asset as well as a strong possession receiver. The new look offense depends on a lot of quick releases and keeping the ball moving, and Stephens appears to be a very good fit. One important factor that is harder to judge is his skill at blocking. As a converted wide receiver, that needs to be carefully evaluated.
Luepke offers a very different rationale. Another important function for tight ends is to be an inline blocker in the running game. But that role can also be filled by what is termed an H back, which in simple terms is a meld of running back and tight end. Luepke got some good work against the Jags, and flashed his running talent, although he did not finish with many yards. Part of that was the struggles of the offensive line backups he was working with, as he got hit in the backfield more than once. Still, he could be another depth piece for the traditional running back role with his versatility. Adding to that, he also showed some legitimate pass-catching skills in college, and his fullback background should mean he is quite capable as a blocker. And as a pass protector, he could be a tremendous asset for the team, especially if there are any issues with the starting offensive line. Protecting Dak Prescott is always a top priority.
Barring getting poached after being waived, both those players should be priority practice squad signings if they don’t make the 53. But keeping one of them on the game day roster could be in the cards. It is not impossible they both make the team for the regular season, but as mentioned, there are a lot of other places those precious roster spots can be used. There likely isn’t room for both, although one of them will likely make it. It just depends on how much the staff values that blocking ability and the versatility Luepke provides, or the clear pass-catching skills Stephens continues to demonstrate.
It’s a fascinating thing to watch.