Any Cowboy fan who has been around more than a few years has to be very excited about this upcoming season. On paper, the Cowboys are as talented as any team in the league when you look at key, skill positions on both offense and defense. The season is full of promise and this team is looking like it is going to be competitive. How this season ultimately plays out will depend on how they play the games, whether or not they get the lucky bounces (or lucky calls in light of the potential for having “replacement officials”), and how much they are impacted
by injuries – an unavoidable aspect of a fast, violent NFL game. So, that’s the part that starts to make me very nervous about this team.
The current 90-man roster for the Cowboys is nowhere near a finished product and will likely see a few more changes before the start of training camp. And, of course the roster will ultimately be cut down to the league regular-season maximum of 53 players. But, here is where it stands today by major offensive and defensive positions:
If numbers mean anything, that equates to 44 offensive players, 42 defensive players, and the 4 special teams players to total to 90. “OL” includes all tackles, guards, and centers. “DB” includes all safeties and cornerbacks. “DL” includes all players listed as defensive tackles or defensive ends.
Of course, some positions are less of a concern. The Cowboys made a smart off season move and signed Kyle Orton. If Tony Romo misses any time, they have a capable, experienced back up to plug in. Orton is no Romo, but he is surrounded by enough talent that he could keep the Cowboys competitive while Romo heals. They’ll likely carry a third QB (McGee or Carpenter) but odds that player ever sees meaningful time is not high. Most teams would be finished if their top two quarterbacks went down and the Cowboys would be included in that group.
Running back is another position where the Cowboys are likely well positioned. DeMarco Murray is fully recovered from last season’s injury. He should be the starter with Felix Jones as his capable backup who can give him a rest when needed or step in if Murray goes down with injury and keep defenses honest against the run. Even Phillip Tanner, the likely 3rd string running back has shown flashes of brilliance that give fans some confidence that he could perform if called upon. The Cowboys kept 4 running backs last season but I think they start the season with just 3 on the roster this year.
Thanks to a ton of positive moves this off season, the defensive backfield is another position where the Cowboys have good depth. Including safeties, the team currently has 17 defensive backs on the roster including likely starters Morris Claiborne, Brandon Carr, Brodney Pool, and Gerald Sensabaugh with solid nickel corner Orlando Scandrick under contract as well as former starter Mike Jenkins (who will eventually stop pouting and come to camp). They’ll likely keep 9 defensive backs so they need to find the best 3 players out of the other 11 on the roster and get them ready to step in if called upon.
But, let’s take a look at some key positions that are thin. The Cowboys have stars at starting wide receiver. But, what happens if (when) Miles Austin or Dez Bryant go down? Based on history, the odds are good that one or both misses games – especially if Dez is seriously going to be used to return punts on a regular basis. There has been a lot of discussion about finding the “next Laurent Robinson” to play our 3rd receiver position. That is a valid question, but it is a bigger issue than just the #3. Among the 12 wide receiver bodies on the current roster, do
we have the player or players that can step in for Miles or Dez and keep Tony Romo and the offense rolling? I’m hopeful but not convinced. Other than Kevin Ogletree – a consistent under performer – there is not a lot of experience there. Nothing will stall our offense faster or turn it into a one-dimensional attack than losing one of our two stars. That’s not a statement unique to the Cowboys, but other successful teams seem to be able to call on the “next man up” and continue to perform as a unit at a high level. The Cowboys unfortunately don’t have that history in the Jerry Jones’ era. This is one position where I could see the Cowboys picking up one or two veteran free agents who could potentially step in if called upon (no, NOT Terrell Owens – he burned that bridge). They kept 6 receivers on the roster last year so there will be opportunities to make this team for the right players.
Tight end is another concern with the loss of Martellus Bennett (now eating most of New York apparently reporting to the Giants at nearly 300 pounds). There aren’t many players as good as Jason Witten at this position and he has always been a favorite target of his good friend Tony Romo. He also hasn’t missed much playing time in his career. But as he gets older, the odds of injury increase. John Phillips showed flashes of talent before going down with an injury two years ago. But, he just did not seem to be the same player when he returned – possibly because he was used a lot at fullback. Bennett was at least a good blocker even if he did tend to disappear on most passing plays. The Cowboys may only keep 3 tight ends this year now that they have a full time fullback in Lawrence Vickers. Let’s hope James Hanna delivers upon the high expectations surrounding him and can learn to block. If Witten goes down at some point, that position quickly goes from being a strength to a potential liability.
Lastly, the Cowboys have lots of bodies on the offensive line but we’ve seen the past couple of seasons that it takes more than just a large body to keep Romo upright and open holes for DeMarco Murray. Our starting tackles are solid and are interchangeable with one another if necessary in that both Tyron Smith and Doug Free have played both tackle positions. But, we don’t have that same situation in the interior line. Whether Phil Costa or Kevin Kowalski wins the center job, the loser can be a capable backup (both are good and improving but not great). Bernardeau and Livings are expected to anchor the guard positions, but what we have behind them feels like a bunch of journeyman. I’m hoping we can find a group that gels and can stay healthy all season. Having a great quarterback laying flat on his back or running for his life is not a winning recipe. We’ve made moves this off season on the offensive line but whether we got any better remains to be seen.
In the era of free agency and salary caps, the idea of stacking a team three players deep at every position who could all start for any other team just isn’t realistic. Injuries are unavoidable in today’s NFL but the teams that can plug a backup in and keep going – like the Giants did last year in their defensive backfield – are the ones that typically make it to the post season. The Cowboys have a ton of talent and potential but they appear to be very vulnerable to injury at some key positions. Let’s hope Jason Garrett and his coaching staff find a way to manage that part of the game or are lucky enough to avoid a devastating injury. And, let’s hope the scouting department continues to dig up diamonds in free agency. Go Cowboys!