Every year I try this on the morning after the final preseason game. It is my best attempt at locking down the Cowboys final 53-man roster. We must be clear, here. This is not my pick for the 53, but rather my attempt to figure out who they select as their 53. There is a distinction that would affect a few players who I would not put on this team, but they disagree - and obviously, their opinion matters quite a bit more than mine.
Keep in mind, this requires an impossible task - crawling inside the head of the decision makers at Valley Ranch. It also requires us to understand the cap rules that may serve as a tie-breaker as it pertains to such things as full salary eligibility if you are on the roster in Week 1, practice squad eligibility, and veteran minimums. On top of all of that is the looming idea that there is significant dead money that could actually make the cap situation worse if they were to cut someone like Nate Livings (his number would grow from $2.4m to around $4.5 if you cut him).
Then, you need to detach your evaluations and consider how the Cowboys see a guy. Which guy might be claimed if we cut him versus which guy might be able to slide through to our practice squad? Which guy needs more developmental time because he can't help us now, but we don't want to throw him back in the ocean and let someone else catch him.
There are plenty of questions for every team, and our job gets tougher because we have to figure out what exactly Jerry Jones and Stephen Jones are thinking during this process, too. That requires a skill that we may not possess.
Anyway, all of these projections should be discussed with 2 major things in mind. 1) I don't think this is difficult enough. What that means is when you cut from 90 to 75 and then to 53, you hope that sooner or later you arrive at the conclusion that you have "too many NFL caliber players" and you can't keep them all. You then wrestle at your final cuts, knowing that someone is going to snap up your leavings. Unfortunately, because of a number of circumstances that have put the Cowboys in a dangerously shallow part of the depth pool, cutting to 53 is not hard. It is also one that doesn't seem to risk too many of your cast-offs going to other teams as a gem that was not properly identified.
And that leads us to 2) this 53 man that they get to on Saturday will not be the 53 man on Wednesday when they all start the practice week for the Giants. Because of the shallow depth and because of the needs on this team and the ease of the cuts, I fully expect the Cowboys to be looking carefully at several potential upgrades on their roster. Offensive and defensive lines, in particular, with linebacker and safety also candidates for fresh bodies over the weekend via the waiver wire. Some teams won't be shopping much. I expect Dallas to be pretty active in making sure they are fortified, knowing that another team's 55th best player may be better than your 52nd best player. You must fix that as soon as possible.
Now, using the chart that we printed for you on Wednesday, let's go through the positions and build this 53:
Quarterbacks (2): This is pretty straight-forward. Tony Romo and Kyle Orton make the team. I would like to see if Alex Tanney can be my practice squad QB, but I cannot carry 3 QBs at this point. I do want to make the point, though, that he does seem to possess some interesting skills that are worth working with if you can get him to the PS.
Running Backs (4): DeMarco Murray, Phillip Tanner, Joseph Randle were all automatics. I think Lance Dunbar makes my team as well as a weapon that needs to be used quite a bit for his elusiveness. I am pretty sure I will need special teams out of everyone, but Murray. But, I do like this group and will keep all 4.
Tight Ends (4): Jason Witten, James Hanna, Gavin Escobar, and Dante Rosario. I was wrestling with Andre Smith against Rosario, but the special teams coach Rich Bissacia has a relationship of familiarity with Rosario and vouches for him on teams. That is vital, because usually, 7-year vets don't play special teams as hard as 2-year vets. Rosario looks to be on all those special teams and can catch the ball a bit, so he makes the team out of camp.
Wide Receivers (6): Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Terrence Williams, Dwayne Harris, Cole Beasley, and Anthony Armstrong all make it. I am not crazy about Beasley taking a roster spot if I don't want to do much with him, so his ability to be active each week is certainly not a given. But, the Cowboys do like him and he does show something when they call his number. I just wish he could return like Harris and you could combine the two players. Armstrong is another special teams only guy, and so you can see here how the Cowboys could get by with 5.
Offensive Line (9) : Tyron Smith, Doug Free, Jermey Parnell, Nate Livings, Mackenzy Bernadeau, Ron Leary, Travis Frederick, Phil Costa, and Darion Weems. As you likely know, I am not crazy about this group at all. I think that they have to get to a point where they have reserves who are potential starters someday, and right now, they have no backups who are really pushing to ever be starters. Costa and David Arkin are/were fringe roster guys and this is why the waiver wire might allow me to finally cut ties with one of them. Weems has limited quality, but if Free is now a guard, then you need a 3rd tackle, but you can finally move on from Arkin. Also, because of Livings' contract, he gets a spot but can't likely help you for a while. Basically, you have a mess here that might be slightly better or slightly worse on the mess from 2012 and the mess from 2011.
So that is 25 for the offense.
Now, the defense:
Defensive Line (9): DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Jason Hatcher, Nick Hayden, George Selvie, Ben Bass, Sean Lissemore, Kyle Wilbur, Landon Cohen are my group. I think inside, they can actually build a pretty salty rotation here when Ratliff comes back to give them anything. I really have hopes for Bass, and Cohen is the type of guy you should try on run downs to eat that 1-technique double team. Where this team gets edge pressure is a little iffy, but maybe Selvie and Wilbur can be ok as reserves for now.
Linebackers (6): Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Justin Durant, Ernie Sims, DeVonte Holloman, Brandon McGee, I guess. There are literally no NFL linebackers in camp after the starters and Holloman. Sims has had a tough go and should be on the fence, but since backup linebackers are your special teams guys, I think I need to keep McGee or Thaddeus Gibson (purely for special teams, because he is pretty much a defensive end) until the Waiver Wire yield. This is really, really thin. I don't mind McGee, but if they keep him, it is purely until the wire gives them something and put him on the practice squad.
Cornerbacks (5): Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Orlando Scandrick, BW Webb, Sterling Moore makes up the best group on the team, potentially. Can't imagine having a better group of 5 in a Dallas secondary. Webb and Moore are both NFL players and cover you well in case of injury.
Safety (5) : Will Allen, Barry Church, Danny McCray, JJ Wilcox, Eric Frampton might be 1 too many. I keep McCray and Frampton for special teams help, but I might have to choose between the two and McCray does have a rather large number for just special teams at his level of play. I don't feel good about this position right now at all, but Church and Wilcox might be ok there in a bit. For now, Allen knows the defense and will stopgap until Wilcox can figure this out.
Specialty Players (3): Dan Bailey, Chris Jones, and LP Ladouceur - pretty simple, there. A very good kicker, a solid punter, and a very good deep snapper.
There is my 53.
As you can see, not on the squad are David Arkin, Matt Johnson, Danny Coale, and Caleb McSurdy. Perhaps cutting a 4th from 2011, and a 4th, 5th, an 7th from 2012 will change your perception of those drafts a bit, but this is about getting your best team for today - not trying to make people feel better about past drafts. All are practice squad eligible, but they just haven't done anything to move the needle to verify the faith that was put in them on draft day to this point and they have all had multiple camps now.
Don't forget, I think this 53 is only good for a day, so don't celebrate too hard. Then, on Sunday and Monday, I expect the Cowboys to keep sorting this roster - especially at LB, and OL/DL.
Last year, the Cowboys had a half-dozen disagreements with me, so let's see if I am any closer this year.