It may be early in the yearly ritual known as training camp, but it's never too early analyze and formulate roster projections. It's what makes camp exciting. Everything from ranking the battles, the competition, the sleepers, the long-shots and, of course, the superstars.
The depth charts are far from completion, and with several positions still carrying question marks, there will definitely be plenty of shuffling as things intensify. But for now, in this early stage of camp and preseason, let's take a snapshot with reasonable predictability of the 53-man roster.
Quarterback: Tony Romo, Kyle Orton, Rudy Carpenter
Romo and Orton are no-brainers here and are not up for debate. Romo has established himself as a top-flight quarterback and Orton could easily be considered as the top backup in the league. I gave the third spot to Carpenter based on his solid play in camp and the recent scrimmage.
It's possible that the Stephen McGee era has come to an end. If there were reason to believe otherwise, management wouldn't have brought in Orton. A solid preseason could change his status, but it's unlikely.
Running Back: DeMarco Murray, Felix Jones, Phillip Tanner
Murray is healthy and looking to pick up where he left off last season before breaking his ankle. Although Jones is the backup, he is still a vital cog to this offense with a lot to prove. He's playing for his next contract, whether it's in Dallas or not. The key for both is to stay healthy.
Tanner, recovering from hand surgery, needs to get integrated into the offense in the event of either Murray or Jones succumbing to injury. He's a powerful runner that could be effective as a situational runner.
Fullback: Lawrence Vickers
Wide Receiver: Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, Danny Coale, Andre Holmes, Cole Beasley
The wide receiver position carries the most uncertainty at this point. There is not a clear-cut, legitimate No. 3 receiver on the roster, and the uncertainty surrounding bringing in a veteran (Burress?) remains to be seen. For now I'm going with five receivers to start the season, even though six would be more ideal for initial flexibility.
With the Beasley situation now in focus, I gave him the nod over Dwayne Harris and Ogletree. He can add such a new dimension to this offense that unless he really falters, he should be given the opportunity. Players like Ogletree, Harris and Radway aren't out of the mix by any stretch, but they all have common elements to their game and must separate themselves.
I do believe this position will continue to remain in flux right up until the final cut-down day. I think bringing in a veteran is the logical solution that could bring some stability. Monday night's game will probably alter this configuration, and it will be interesting to see who steps up and who steps down.
Tight End: Jason, Witten, John Phillips, James Hanna
Hanna, who could be a sleeper weapon for this offense, is gaining valuable reps while Phillips nurses an ankle sprain. The key for him will be maintaining his blocks and making plays when his number is called. Witten is the mainstay and consummate professional and Phillips will finally get his chance as the primary backup. Will he seize his opportunity? We'll find out soon enough.
Offensive Linemen: Tyron Smith, Doug Free, Mackenzy Bernadeau, Nate Livings, Jeremy Parnell, Phil Costa, Ronald Leary, David Arkin, Kevin Kowalski, Pat McQuistan
The concern is obviously at the center position. Bernadeau, recovered from hip surgery, has been taking snaps at center and could give Costa competition, unless management looks outside the organization.
Free and Smith are the bookends, and Livings was another free agent signing the Cowboys will be counting on. At this point, keeping Nagy is more of a liability than an asset.
Overall, this unit is still a work-in-progress. Any major changes beyond this group outside of Bill Nagy or Derrick Dockery are doubtful.
Defensive Linemen: Jay Ratliff, Jason Hatcher, Sean Lissemore, Tyrone Crawford, Josh Brent, Clifton Geathers, Marcus Spears
This will be an improved unit from 2011 because of the impact Lissemore and Crawford will make. Geathers could be a wildcard in this group, and if he can fully utilize his size, strength and his solid play, this group could provide the push up front this defense has been missing.
Ratliff, the perennial pro-bowler, and Hatcher, are solid up front. For Brent, it's simply time to show up. He needs to be able to spell Ratliff and keep him fresh.
Outside Linebacker: DeMarcus Ware, Victor Butler, Anthony Spencer, Kyle Wilber, Alex Albright
This is the year that Ware has to have some support if this defense is going to flourish.
Spencer has returned and is working on a one-year deal, Butler is entering a critical year in his development, and Wilber and Albright will round out this group. Albright is a versatile performer and valued special-team member, which currently gives him the nod over Adrian Hamilton.
But if the Cowboys need to shift gears and go heavier at receiver, offensive line or cornerback, Albright could be a victim of the numbers game.
Inside Linebacker: Sean Lee, Dan Connor, Bruce Carter, Caleb McSurdy
Lee is the leader of this defense and the scary part is that he will only get better.
Carter and Connor serve as younger, faster and better options than the Keith Brooking/Bradie James tandem from 2011.
McSurdy gets the nod right now based on draft status but Orie Lemon will push him hard. Don't be surprised if Lemon outright wins the spot, but preseason will dictate that.
It will all depend on how well they hold up in coverage, anticipate plays and perform on special-teams.
Cornerbacks: Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Orlando Scandrick, Mike Jenkins, Mario Butler
This is arguably the strength of this team. After last season's debacle, this group has had tremendous upgrading and it will show. Carr was the big free-agent acquisition this team was angling for and got, and Claiborne, although a rookie, was the sixth pick in the draft that will be counted on for years to come.
Jenkins, still rehabbing his injured shoulder, and Scandrick, return as vital third and slot corners. Butler, who is versatile enough to play the slot and outside, could even play safety if needed. That versatility will earn him a roster spot.
This group will need to show cohesiveness and chemistry but that will come. Finally, the Cowboys have equipped themselves with a group of players who can now stand tall and do battle against any group of receivers in the league.
Safeties: Gerald Sensabaugh, Barry Church, Matt Johnson, Danny McCray
Going heavy here might be a stretch but Rob Ryan's scheme utilizes a lot of defensive backs. McCray is a standout special-teams player but he'll get pushed by Justin Taplin-Ross, who is an interesting prospect at this point.
Sensabaugh and newly anointed starter Church will patrol the back-end while McCray and Johnson serve as the primary backups.
It was disappointing to see Brodney Pool get released, but after a failed conditioning test, Church grabbed hold of the positiion. This area needs to be monitored due to youth and inexperience, but the Cowboys liked Johnson enough to select him in the fourth-round.
This group won't strike fear into the hearts of offensive coordinators but as long as they can be effective in coverage, provide run support and tackle, it will suffice.
Specialists: Dan Bailey, L.P. Ladoceur, Chris Jones
Bailey had an eventful rookie season and he's quickly established himself as an excellent kicker. Ladoceur has been a rock of consistency for this team and underrated as well. Don't expect Jones to be better than McBriar yet, but he needs to be effective.
With much work left to do as camp rolls on and preseason action commences, the Cowboys will probably assess the 53-man roster on a daily basis.
The unpredictable nature of injuries always adds a twist to these scenarios, but hopefully that won't be the case. The hope is, however, that the normal course of competition and live game action will rectify the roster on its own and provide total clarity.
It should be fun to watch.
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