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Dallas Cowboys 53-Man Roster Projection: The Final Version



Jonathan Bales

A lot has changed since my last 53-man roster projection.  Scott Sicko was released, Patrick Crayton trade rumors have again heated up, Sam Young got injured, and Cletis Gordon has come on strong.

The Cowboys’ final cuts are due tomorrow, and below is my best approximation of what will transpire.

Offense

QB
1. Tony Romo
2. Jon Kitna
3. Stephen McGee

McGee played lights out last night in what may have been a final audition for a roster spot.  He earned it.  The Cowboys learned to not place a promising quarterback on the practice squad with Matt Moore.

Overall Position Grade: A-

RB
1. Felix Jones
2. Marion Barber
3. Tashard Choice

I have Jones listed on top due to projected touch distribution, not his starting status (or lack thereof).  I’ve recently argued that Jones should indeed be starting, or at least receiving the bulk of the touches.  He is too talented for the Cowboys to not feed him the ball early and often.  Perhaps a running back rotation like this is just what the ‘Boys need.

Altogether, this may be the top running back trip in the NFL.  Check out my grades for their 2009 play.

Didn’t make the cut: Herb Donaldson ran tough last night but has shown little explosion throughout the preseason, and undrafted free agent Lonyae Miller has been just average.

Overall Position Grade:  A-

FB
1. Deon Anderson
2.  Chris Gronkowski

I’ve explained the importance of Anderson ad nauseam.  He’s limited in what he does well (basically just lead block), but he does that very well.

In my last projection, I had Gronkowski being cut but said he could make the team as an F-Back type player.  I thought the Cowboys liked Scott Sicko in that role, but he was released a few days ago.  Gronkowski’s versatility should earn him a roster spot.

Overall Position Grade: B-

TE
1. Jason Witten
2. Martellus Bennett

Didn’t make the cut: Sicko was already cut and I can’t see DajLeon Farr or Martin Rucker making the team.  Rucker has the best shot, but his blocking ability is sub-par and Dallas doesn’t really need another weapon in the passing game.  The presence of Gronkowski as a fullback/tight end hybrid makes retaining just two tight ends possible.

Overall Position Grade: B+

WR
1. Miles Austin
2. Roy Williams
3. Dez Bryant
4. Patrick Crayton
5. Kevin Ogletree
6. Sam Hurd

Will the Cowboys keep five receivers or six?  Could they trade or release Crayton or Hurd?  How about Ogletree?

Their decision has a rather large impact on a number of other positions.  I think the possible shift in offensive philosophy means six is the number, and since I don’t see a team giving up more than a late-round pick for Crayton or Hurd, I think they stay.

Here are five reasons trading or cutting Crayton would be a mistake.

Didn’t make the cut: Jesse Holley still has a shot at unseating Hurd, especially since Hurd is due $1.75 million–quite a bit of money for a special teams player.  In the end, I think Hurd gets one more year.

Overall Position Grade: A-

OT
1. Doug Free
2. Marc Colombo
3. Alex Barron
4. Robert Brewster

The play of this group will be crucial to the Cowboys’ 2010 fortunes.  Free has looked pretty comfortable at left tackle, but Colombo struggled at right tackle before going down with a knee injury.  Brewster played well enough in his absence to justify a roster spot, particularly with the Cowboys’ possibly placing rookie Sam Young on IR.

Didn’t make the cut: The key here will be if the Cowboys place Young on injured reserve.  He won’t be out for long and the team likes him a lot, but how much playing time will he really get this season?  Perhaps saving the roster spot and preparing him for next year is the way to go.

Overall Position Grade: C-

G
1. Kyle Kosier
2. Leonard Davis
3. Montrae Holland

Last time, I had Phil Costa as the fourth guard.  I’ve since moved Costa to the backup center position.  He’s done really well in the preseason (perhaps the best of any lineman on the team), and I think he deserves to be the backup center over Kyle Kosier.

Costa’s versatility might allow the Cowboys to keep just three guards.

Didn’t make the cut: It is tough to leave Travis Bright off of the roster.  I originally put him on this list, but then realized I had 54 players.  I’m pretty sure the league won’t let Dallas keep one extra player than the other teams, so Bright had to go.  It was between him and Sam Hurd.  Ultimately, the fact that Bright is still eligible for the practice squad (and should make it there) made me choose Hurd over him.

If Pat McQuistan makes this team, I’m trying out next season.

Overall Position Grade: B-

C
1. Andre Gurode
2.  Phil Costa

Like I said, Costa moves to backup center.  I think he has potential as Gurode’s long-term replacement.

Overall Position Grade: B (due to lack of depth)

Defense

NT
1. Jay Ratliff
2. Junior Siavii
3. Josh Brent

Surprised at three nose tackles?  Don’t be.  Brent has shown enough potential that the Cowboys will not be able to put him on their practice squad.  In fact, I’ve gone as far as to guarantee he makes the 53-man roster.

However, the Cowboys probably don’t want a supplemental seventh-rounder being the primary backup to Ratliff, so Siavii will likely make the team.  He’s shown enough (in the run game, anyway) this preseason to justify his stay.

Also, don’t forget Brent could be used at defensive end.  In reality, that’s from where this “extra” roster spot has come.

Didn’t make the cut: Sean Lissemore, the Cowboys seventh-round pick in the April draft, has just been injured too long to make an impact.  His versatility surely intrigues the Cowboys (he can also play defensive end), but his path became a lot more difficult once the Cowboys acquired Brent.

Overall Position Grade: B

DE
1. Marcus Spears
2. Igor Olshansky
3. Stephen Bowen
4. Jason Hatcher

Will Spears still be a starter when he returns?  Bowen and Hatcher have played pretty well in his absence, but the defense missed Spears’ presence against the run.  If the Cowboys do make a move, Hatcher is actually Spears’ backup, so he’d be the guy.

Could the Cowboys really only keep four players at a position that requires so many substitutions?  The addition of Josh Brent to the roster (at NT) makes me think it is possible.

Didn’t make the cut: As you can tell here, I love Marcus Dixon.  Unfortunately, he has yet to stand out in either preseason game.  He has the requisite skill set and I’m personally rooting for him, but he needs to step up in a hurry.

Overall Position Grade: B-

ILB
1. Bradie James
2. Keith Brooking
3. Sean Lee
4. Jason Williams

James and Brooking look like players in their mid-20s so far this preseason.  They are flying around to the ball and together they comprise the “heart” of the Dallas defense.

Didn’t make the cut: Leon Williams has been solid at times this preseason and he has a chance to make the team, but I am having trouble deciding whose spot he should take.  It would be tremendously difficult for the Cowboys to cut Jason Williams, and he would never clear waivers to make it to the practice squad.

I just can’t see the Cowboys keeping five inside linebackers.  From which position do they “take” a roster spot?  Leon Williams’ future, like that of a lot of players, could strangely be linked to that of Sam Hurd and Patrick Crayton.  Unfortunately, Williams isn’t practice squad eligible.

I’ve also seen a few projections with Stephen Hodge making the roster, but I just can’t see Dallas making room for him.

Overall Position Grade: B

OLB
1. DeMarcus Ware
2. Anthony Spencer
3. Victor Butler
4. Brandon Williams

I removed Steve Octavien from my last projection.  Keeping just eight total linebackers in a 3-4 system is risky, but I think the Cowboys like their depth at both spots, particularly this one.

Didn’t make the cut: I don’t think Curtis Johnson’s special teams ability is any better than that of Octavien, but Octavien has shown more pass-rush ability.  If the Cowboys keep a fifth man at OLB, it will probably be Octavien.

Overall Position Grade: A (almost A+)

CB
1. Mike Jenkins
2. Terence Newman
3. Orlando Scandrick
4. Cletis Gordon
5. Bryan McCann

I’ve loved McCann since the Cowboys signed him and, although he struggled a lot last night, I still think he’ll make the team.  He’s shown tremendous athleticism and coverage ability.  The versatility of the safeties (Akwasi Owusu-Ansah and Alan Ball) could allow the ‘Boys to keep just four CBs, however, in which case McCann would be gone.

Didn’t make the cut: Dallas suddenly has a “problem” of depth at cornerback.  I don’t think rookie Jamar Wall is an NFL-caliber player yet, but Dallas could try to place him or track star Teddy Williams on their practice squad.  I think both guys would make it, although Wall could get scooped up by a Cover 2 team.

Williams’ potential in particular is insane, but how do you use a roster spot on a player who hasn’t played football in five years?

Overall Position Grade: B+

S
1. Gerald Sensabaugh
2. Alan Ball
3. Akwasi Owusu-Ansah
4. Michael Hamlin
5. Barry Church

The big question is whether Dallas will retain six safeties.  If so, Danny McCray will make the team as well.  Of course, only the top three safeties are guaranteed a roster spot, so McCray could make it even if Dallas retains just five safeties.  Church has shown more promise on defense, though, so I don’t think McCray’s special teams ability will be enough to save him.

Didn’t make the cut: McCray will be on the practice squad if he doesn’t make the 53-man roster (assuming no one signs him).

Overall Position Grade: C-

Specialists

LS
1. L.P. Ladouceur

Overall Position Grade: A

K
1. David Buehler

Buehler has looked outstanding on field goals in the preseason.  The Cowboys saw just what they wanted from him last night, as he was four-for-four on field goals, including a 51-yarder and a game-winner.  He has locked up all kicking duties, at least to start the season.

Overall Position Grade: B- (A+ for kickoffs and still a question mark on field goals)

P
1. Mat McBriar

Overall Position Grade: A

KR
1. Akwasi Owusu-Ansah
2. Dez Bryant
3. Kevin Ogletree

PR
1. Dez Bryant
2. Akwasi Owusu-Ansah
3. Patrick Crayton

Overall Returner Grade:  B+ (Based on potential)

Additions since last projection
FB Chris Gronkowski
OT Robert Brewster
CB Cletis Gordon

Departures from last projection
Sam Young (IR?)
TE Scott Sicko (released)
OLB Steve Octavien

Practice Squad Projection
S Danny McCray
G Travis Bright
TE Scott Sicko
RB Lonyae Miller
WR Jesse Holley
DT/DE Sean Lissemore
LB Brandon Sharpe
CB Jamar Wall

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**UPDATE:  Obviously this list was formulated before the Cowboys traded Crayton.  I am now projecting the team to retain just five receivers, along with guard Travis Bright.  For me, it comes down to Bright and Danny McCray, but I just can’t see the team keeping six safeties.


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Mailbag, 8/28/10: Carrying Just Four Wide Receivers?

Today’s mailbag is a quick one-hitter.  I liked this question and wanted to address it before the Cowboys make their upcoming roster cuts.

Q:  What are the chances that we go with only four wide receivers on the roster (Austin/Williams/Bryant/Crayton) to free up one or two roster spots for other, less secure roster positions?  For example, we could keep nine linebackers (Ware/Brookings/James/Spencer/BWilliams/JWilliams/Lee/VButler/LWilliams) and six safeties (Ball/Sensabaugh/AOA/Hamlin/McCray/Church).

I think we’d have a better return on our investment if we kept more special team players and backups for injuries than we would having a wide receiver who never sees the field because we’re always running two tight-end sets.

What are your thoughts?

Dusty McGuire via Facebook

A: I like the idea of having depth at the “weaker” positions, but there’s no way Dallas will carry less than five wide receivers.  The offense did employ more two-tight end sets than anyone in the NFL last season, but that will change this year.  Dez Bryant and Patrick Crayton are too talented to be left off of the field in favor of Martellus Bennett or Deon Anderson.

Further, the injury to John Phillips is actually more debilitating than a lot of people realize.  His presence on the field was counted in the team’s total of two-tight end sets last year, but he frequently lined up as a fullback or F-Back (fullback/tight end hybrid).  Without him, the Cowboys don’t really have a true motion tight end.  Jason Witten is capable of it, but he thrives in his traditional tight end role and in the slot.  Martellus Bennett rarely motions and is not at all an F-Back.

Also, an injury to one of the four receivers would cripple the Cowboys.  What would the offense do if a receiver (or even two) got injured during a game in which the team was losing?  There are times when four-receiver sets are superior to two-tight end sets, but those would be an impossibility with any injury.

Dallas would also have to cut (or trade) two very good players in Kevin Ogletree and Sam Hurd.  Ogletree has struggled in the preseason and Hurd may very well end up getting dealt, but is either player truly less valuable than the “extra” player the Cowboys could retain, such as Leon Williams or Danny McCray?  No way.  You’d be adding depth to one position by stealing it from another.

On a side note, I can’t see the Cowboys keeping six safeties.  I have seen a lot of projections with just that scenario, but the ‘Boys would be leaving themselves awfully thin at another spot.  I think five is a possibility, particularly because Alan Ball and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah can be considered safeties/cornerbacks.  That means the final roster spot at safety is probably up for grabs between Barry Church and Danny McCray.  I personally like Church to win that battle.

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Preseason Week Three, Cowboys vs. Texans: 12 Things to Watch

Jonathan Bales

As the fourth game on their five-game preseason schedule, Saturday night’s match-up against Houston will be the closest to a “real game” that Dallas will encounter until September 12 in Washington.  The starters will get significant playing time and will be able to go into the game with nearly the same mentality as that of a regular season game.  In addition to watching if the team comes out with that same regular season-type fire, here are 12 other things to watch. . .

1.  Can Tony Romo get back on track?  Will he be able to play better against the blitz?

By my count, Romo has been off-target on 10 of 28 passes this preseason.  That rate of 35.7 percent is nearly double that of last season, as you can see in my 2009 breakdown of Romo’s off-target passes.

He’s also just three-for-nine against the blitz, with only 36 yards passing and an interception.  That’s a passer rating of 6.9.

Romo is one of the top quarterbacks in the league when facing pressure, though, so these numbers are simply the result of a small sample size.  Romo will be fine, starting this weekend against the Texans.

2.  Will any of the Cowboys’ quarterbacks throw the ball downfield?

With Robert Brewster and Montrae Holland starting on the offensive line against San Diego, it seemed as though the Cowboys made it a priority for the quarterbacks to unleash the ball quickly.  They threw just six passes over 10 yards all game, and only two traveled 15+ yards.  An incredible 18 of the passes were five yards or less.

With added confidence in both Brewster and Holland, the Cowboys may feel more comfortable taking some shots down the field.  That’s especially true against a weak Houston secondary.

3.  Who will start at right tackle, Robert Brewster or Alex Barron?  How will each player perform?

Barron took some reps at right tackle in practice this week and reportedly looked pretty shaky.  Brewster played well against San Diego and will probably get the nod to start.  Still, expect Barron to get some reps at right tackle.  The Cowboys want to see if he will be their swing tackle (once Marc Colombo returns) or just a backup left tackle.

4.  Will left tackle Doug Free hold his own against Mario Williams?

Doug Free has exceeded expectations thus far this preseason.  He played tremendously against the Bengals and Chargers and, although he yielded a sack, decently against the Raiders.

He hasn’t faced a pass-rusher of the quality of Mario Williams, though.  Williams will test Free like nobody he’s faced (outside of DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer in practice).  Let’s see if Free is up to the challenge.

5.  As always, will the offense keep running strong side dives out of “Double Tight Strong”?

Seven times lining up in the formation against San Diego, and seven strong side dives.  That raises the rate of strong side dives from “Double Tight Strong” to 85.7 percent–even more than that which I found in my analysis of the Cowboys’ 2009 usage of the formation.

It is only preseason, of course, so let’s hope Jason Garrett is simply setting up teams for the regular season.

6.  Will the offense continue to run weak side out of “Double Tight I”?

Last season, the Cowboys ran a strong side dive out of both the “Strong” and “I” variations of the “Double Tight Left or Right formation.

This preseason, they are running weak side out of the latter variation (I-formation).   The reason is simple: the weak side lead block for the fullback is easier if he lines up behind the center as compared to lining up between the strong side guard and tackle.  On Saturday night, they lined up in Double Tight Right I Right twice, running weak side both times and losing four total yards.


7.  How about a toss to the two-tight end side of “Double Tight Left Twins Right Ace?”

As I explained in my final film observations from the Chargers game, the Cowboys have lined up in a new formation this year called “Double Tight Left Twins Right Ace” (or vice versa).  The play-calling out of this formation is by no means as predictable as that from “Double Tight Strong,” but I’ve noticed that Dallas has frequently lined up in “Double Tight Right Ace” and motioned the receiver on the Double Tight side of the formation over into a twins set, running a toss to the two-tight end side.  The play, which I (and not the Cowboys) have titled “Double Tight Right Ace Liz 28 Toss” is shown to the left.

8.  Will newly-acquired tight end Martin Rucker get playing time, and can he make a case for a roster spot over the under-performing Chris Gronkowski and Scott Sicko?

Rucker is behind the curve mentally, so he will have to show he’s picked up the offense.  If he can do that, he’ll have a chance to make the 53-man roster, as his competition, Gronkowski and Sicko, haven’t been stellar.

Gronkowski is a fullback but, because I can’t see Dallas cutting starter Deon Anderson, he’ll probably have to take the spot of a tight end to make the roster.  I can’t see that happening, as he’s been absolutely awful as a blocker.

Sicko played well in the Hall of Fame game but, like Gronkowski, needs to improve his blocking.

9.  Will center/guard Phil Costa continue to outperform guard Travis Bright?

Costa holds a big-time advantage over Bright right now because, not only has he been superior on the football field, but he is also more versatile.  Costa will likely be Dallas’ backup center this season (even once Kyle Kosier returns), while Bright, unless he steps up in a hurry, will probably be relegated to the practice squad once again.

10.  Will rookie Sean Lee show why the Cowboys traded up to draft him in his first NFL start?

This may be the most interesting aspect of Saturday night’s game.  Lee had an up-and-down night last week, but showed that he is capable of learning (quickly) from his mistakes.  That’s an important characteristic for any football player.

With starter Keith Brooking nursing a sprained AC joint, Lee will have an opportunity to prove he’s the future for the Cowboys at inside linebacker.  Watch to see how Lee performs in coverage, in particular, as he will almost certainly be Dallas’ nickel linebacker this season.

11.  How will the Cowboys’ secondary match up against one of the league’s premiere passing attacks?

The starters will get significant playing time, so let’s see how Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins take on the challenge of the No. 1 WR on my 2010 All-Pro offense, Andre Johnson.  Jenkins got beat a few times last week, losing his leverage and failing to press receivers, while Newman played superbly.

As always, the success of the cornerbacks will be dependent on that of their teammates–a strong pass rush will allow the ‘Boys to provide safety help over the top, making Jenkins’ and Newman’s jobs much easier.

12.  Safeties Barry Church and Danny McCray may be fighting for the same roster spot.  Who will step up?

I’ve been really impressed with Church.  He’s been okay in coverage, but outstanding in run support.  I think he has the leg up on McCray and Pat Watkins for the final safety spot on the roster.

McCray’s saving grace has been his special teams play, but I don’t think it’s been enough so far.  He blew a coverage last week and hasn’t performed nearly as well on defense as Church to this point.

The battle is still up in the air, though, so a couple of strong performances from McCray in the final two preseason games could win him the job.

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