Amazingly, as we hit the final day of July, we've also arrived at our very first "game week" of the Cowboys' season. Now, I should confess that this feels really weird and premature. Not only is the game a week before all other games in the NFL, but in its unquestioned wisdom, the league actually took a game that is early enough as it is and moved it three nights earlier than usual, from a Sunday night festivity to Thursday night.
It's probably 10 days and maybe two full weeks before it needs to be played. But, I am sure they have their reasons and it isn't going to change. The arrangements have been made, and the plane will leave Oxnard, Calif., for Canton, Ohio, on Wednesday.
That means on some level -- likely a far lower level than you would prefer -- we can start to see some live action between the Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals. These two teams will actually meet again, in a game of pretty great consequence, on Sept. 25 (Week 3) in Arizona, the Cowboys' lone Monday Night appearance this season. But, that night and Thursday night won't have much else in common, as surely both teams will be trying to hide their top 25-30 players from the game, and injuries, as much as possible in the preseason opener.
So, this seems like a fine spot to cover some ground about roster construction and how we approach the preseason games with regards to building a team, and knowing when a job is really in jeopardy vs. details that won't amount to too much in six weeks time. The above team picture of the first version of a Cowboys roster will serve as a reminder of what is at stake for all of the men who are on the field every day here in Oxnard.
There are 90 players in camps for all NFL teams. You should know that this is the very first year when the league has no cutdown before cutdown day. Sept. 2 will be the only date for cuts and it should be amazing, as nearly 1,200 players will be released on the exact same day throughout the league. Then, teams will have 24 hours to submit their waiver claims of other teams' cuts and by Sept. 4, we will have an idea who is where.
Now, this thrill is lessened by the realities of these roster competitions. We have a hard time admitting this reality, but there aren't 90 guys who have a chance to make the Cowboys' roster in camp right now. Or 80. Or 70. Depending on who you ask, there may not even be 65. There are probably between 60-65 players who have even a slight chance to make the final 53. Contracts and investments make almost all of the decisions, and therefore teams are simply going to rely on those prior decisions in almost all cases on who to keep and who to expose/cut free to the rest of the football world.
That doesn't mean there's nothing at stake. There are plenty of players competing to make the practice squad or make themselves appealing to the rest of the league by putting good preseason tape out there, but I do think it is important to note that the Cowboys' front office could narrow down the roster to about 60 names right now. They don't need six weeks to do it. Heck, they don't even need six weeks to prepare their team for battle, but we do it because of tradition and because it is something we just do as football people. But, they could cut training camp in half and you would likely not see much difference by Week 1 in how the teams look or prepare themselves. The athletes are in top condition year-round now, so the only thing a longer camp seems to accomplish is expose athletes to injury more and collect consumer dollars with exhibition games at regular-season prices.
So, below, you will find your current Cowboys roster on my pre-folded Cowboys roster sheet:
So, as you watch the preseason games from your locations around the country (or world), you can begin to make alterations as we go. Like I said, you could probably start to cut guys right now and get down to 60-65 yourself. I liked Rudy, too, but there just aren't more than a couple of stories of guys making the team from out of nowhere like we want to believe. And those who do are almost always special teams guys, third-string quarterbacks, or someone they are scared to cut and slide through to the practice squad. Sometimes this happens, but most of the time, players who sneak onto the roster have no real role on the offense or defense in-season.
Now, take a look at this chart:
This will really help you on your path to figuring out who is going to be in the mix and who else will fall victim to the numbers game. As you can plainly see, we can really find the annual trends on how many players are carried from each grouping each year. Obviously, 2007 data won't be terribly useful -- league trends, scheme changes and different decision makers -- but 2014-16 data should be closely observed.
Once you know this team generally goes 25 offense, 25 defense and three specialists, you can start to jot on your legal pad the list of players who "have no chance of not making the final 53 barring a massive injury," players "who are legitimately on the bubble," and, finally, players "who have almost no chance of making the team." That final category is harshly named, but the truth is sometimes harsh, and I believe it is OK to write frankly in this space about what we know to be true.
Now, you can take a look at how the 25 and 25 broke down when the rosters were settled last season:
The offense has eight players gone from last year and must replace them -- including one starter in Doug Free (and another starter in Ron Leary, who was not that when camp broke last season). Clearly, they have some fine internal solutions, and between Leary and Free, they will have a couple of spots for the O-line's depth chart to change. Jonathan Cooper has one of those spots in his sights. The other has quite a few potential names.
Ryan Switzer replaces Lucky Whitehead, James Hanna returns, Rico Gathers has a real chance to step in for Gavin Escobar, Kellen Moore and Darren McFadden step back into their spots after injuries kept them out of the final 53 last season, and beyond that, there may be one or two other spots on the entire offense. There just aren't any vacancies, unless the team decides to go lighter on fullbacks (who really weren't fullbacks as much as they were special teams pillars) or move on from Chaz Green (which seems possible, but unlikely at this juncture).
To the defense:
We also have eight names to replace on defense.
So, this is a bit confusing because DeMarcus Lawrence wasn't listed last year (suspension) and David Irving and Damontre Moore won't be listed this year (suspensions), but Irving will definitely make the team and Moore very possibly will. Stephen Paea is in for Terrell McClain, Taco Charlton will be there, of course, and I expect Joey Ivie is very likely to make the team up front. Charles Tapper is back in from his injury, too.
I assume Justin Durant is merely Jaylon Smith insurance and there is a spot for a special teams ace to replace Andrew Gachkar. Damien Wilson is another suspension possibility (sigh) and everything else in the front seven seems pretty locked down.
Now, the secondary. Out go five players -- Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church, along with fringe special teams guy Dax Swanson from last year.
In comes Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis and Xavier Woods from the draft. Nolan Carroll has been signed and is going to start. That likely leaves one of Robert Blanton, Leon McFadden, sixth-round pick Marquez White and a few others to grab the final spot.
All of these projections go out the window if there is a big injury, but as you can see, otherwise, there just aren't any jobs available. Everyone else is hoping for a practice squad spot or some unforeseen opportunity that may spring up.
It is so hard to make an NFL roster, and even harder to do so for a team that won 13 games last year and has a young roster.
But hopefully this write-up gives you an idea of what we are looking at before the five preseason games introduce us to a handful of players who perform well and work their way onto the radar. We have seen countless players do this and still get cut in the end, but once in a while, they break all the way through to the other side of Labor Day with the big team.
Good luck to them, because they are going to need it.