There is no exact blueprint for a NFL roster. Every year, teams are put together with different circumstances and philosophies that change the numbers at each position. The Dallas Cowboys are no exception, and 2017 is likely to have different math from last season.
Earlier today we considered some of the changes you can expect in the roster numbers on offense. Now we'll look at the defense to see some other potential shifts.
The Cowboys have several guys in Irving, Tyrone Crawford, DeMarcus Lawrence, and even rookie Taco Charlton who can play end or tackle in their scheme. This makes it hard to talk about DE and DT separately, so we won't try to.
Last year Dallas started thin on the defense line. They had just eight players and one of them, Charles Tapper, was inactive with injuries. DeMarcus Lawrence was serving a four-game suspension to start the season.
In 2017 it will be David Irving who faces a suspension. Still, Dallas has a lot of bodies left with Lawrence, Charlton, Tapper, Benson Mayowa, and free agent Damontre Moore at defensive end. At tackle they have Crawford, Maliek Collins, Cedric Thornton, and free agent Stephen Paea all expected to make the team, not to mention other young prospects at both positions.
The nine names I just gave you are who I expect to make the Week One roster. We might see Moore get released to make room for Irving in Week 5, but injuries and other developments could open up the roster spot some other way. That means Dallas could be using up one more roster spot on the defensive line than they did in Week One last year.
Assuming health at linebacker is a risky proposition given the Cowboys recent history. However, that's what we have to do for now. If everyone is indeed ready to play in Week One, it could open up that roster spot the defensive line needs.
Last year's team started with seven linebackers. One of those was veteran Justin Durant, who was having to be slowly worked back in as a last-minute signing. The other was Mark Nzeocha, who was battling injuries for much of the year. Dallas had to go long for cover for these issues.
The 2017 Cowboys could easily go with just six guys. Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith will have the two key starting spots. Damien Wilson is likely to retain his role as the SAM linebacker. That means Anthony Hitchens will become a versatile backup who has experience at all three spots. That would leave the last two spots for Nzeocha and veteran Kyle Wilber.
The chatter around former Pro Bowler Daryl Washington probably won't change the math. If he's signed, Washington would likely take a roster spot from Nzeocha or Wilber rather than causing the Cowboys to keep a seventh linebacker.
We may not see much change here. Dallas started and finished 2016 with ten defensive backs and could easily do the same now. The question is how they'll balance between cornerbacks and safeties.
We can safely assume that cornerbacks Orlando Scandrick, Anthony Brown, and Nolan Carroll will be making the team along with rookies Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis. Earlier this week I did consider the possibility of Carroll being released, but this isn't what I expect to happen.
At safety, Byron Jones and Jeff Heath should be joined by second-year man Kavon Frazier and rookie Xavier Woods. That gives you nine guys already and, potentially, the only nine you absolutely need. Dallas might be able to run with just these players and free up a spot elsewhere.
If they do keep ten, it likely comes down to veteran safety Robert Blanton or rookie corner Marquez White. That will depend heavily on if Blanton's experience is needed or if Frazier and Woods can inspire enough confidence as the only safety depth.
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Jaguars Waive Barry Church; Could Cowboys Bring Him Back?
Veteran safety Barry Church was released today by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Could he return home to the Dallas Cowboys, where he spent his first seven seasons?
Despite his leadership and consistency on defense, Dallas allowed Church to leave in free agency when Jacksonville gave him a lucrative deal. But if he clears waivers, could the Cowboys consider bring him back for depth and support during their likely playoff run?
Jane Slater of the NFL Network reported on this potential reunion:
Cowboys haven't reached out to S Barry Church but I'm told they are discussing the possibility of bringing him back to Dallas according to a source informed. Church, 30, was released by the Jags today and is familiar with the system having played there from 2010-2016.
The Cowboys have had solid play from their current starting safeties, Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods. Neither is a star, but the duo has not been a liability during the team's current five-game winning streak.
Church was a similar player, reliable if never exceptional, during his time in Dallas. He could be a nice insurance policy for the playoffs if something happened to one of the starters.
Barry knows the system. He never played for Kris Richard, but he was with Rod Marinelli for three seasons before leaving in free agency.
According to reports out of Jacksonville, Church is being released because the team wants to go with younger, cheaper players now that their season is over. There is no known injury keeping Barry from playing.
Of course, Dallas would have to make room on the roster to pick Church up. They could third-year prospect Darian Thompson, who is the current fourth man at safety.
Barry Church must now go through the 24-hour waiver process. A team may claim him, including the Cowboys. We'll see what the future holds.
How the Dallas Cowboys Can Win the NFC East This Week
It's only Week 15, but the Dallas Cowboys could become the 2018 NFC East Champions this week through a couple of scenarios. I thought we'd take a moment today to break down how the Boys can win their division and assure their spot in the playoffs.
With three weeks left in the regular season, most of the divisional games have already been played. The only two left to play are the Week 17 finales; Cowboys at Giants and Eagles at Redskins.
Here are the current standings:
- Dallas Cowboys 8-5 (4-1 in division)
- Philadelphia Eagles 6-7 (3-2 in division)
- Washington Redskins 6-7 (2-3 in division)
- New York Giants 5-8 (1-4 in division)
The Giants have been scrappy lately, winning four of their last five, but it's too late for them to try to win the division. Even if the Cowboys were to fall to 8-8, the best New York could do is tie them in overall record. They would have also split their head-to-head series, negating that tiebreaker.
At that point, it would come down to the record within the division. New York would improve to 2-4 with a win over Dallas in Week 17, but the Cowboys would still be 4-2 against the NFC East. Dallas would still be the division champion.
So, that knocks out New York. Technically, the Eagles and Redskins are still alive. But their margin is about as slim as it gets.
Both Philadelphia and Washington need the Cowboys to lose their last three games, and then to also win out themselves, to steal the NFC East crown.
For the Redskins, it's about their record against division opponents. The best they can finish is 3-3, assuming they'd win their last game against the Eagles. With the head-to-head series against Dallas split this year, they would have to finish 9-7 overall and have the Cowboys drop to 8-8 to become NFC East Champions.
The Eagles also need to finish one game ahead of Dallas, but for a different reason. Philadelphia lost both their games with the Cowboys this year, so Dallas has the head-to-head tiebreaker.
So that really makes thing simple for Dallas; win just one of your last three games and you're the division champion.
Not only that, but even if Dallas were to fall this week against the Indianapolis Colts, they could still clinch the division with losses by the Eagles (@ Rams) and Redskins (@ Jaguars).
It would certainly behoove the Cowboys to get the division locked up now. They could then use the last two weeks of the season to get ready for the playoffs.
Dallas would have the freedom rest banged up players like Ezekiel Elliott and Zack Martin. It would also allow them to work in returning players such as Sean Lee and Tavon Austin and figure out their new rotations without pressure to win.
Beating the Colts on Sunday isn't a given; they're at home and desperate to stay alive in the AFC playoff picture. They are the toughest opponent Dallas has left until January.
But despite that, with the Eagles facing a juggernaut team and Washington trying to play football without a quarterback, there's a great chance that the Cowboys will be the NFC East Champions by Sunday night.
#INDvsDAL: How The Game May Be Decided In The Red Zone
In many ways the Dallas Cowboys offense has found their stride in recent weeks. Over this five game win streak they have "found their identity" playing ball control offense and trusting their quarterback to make big throws when needed most. Of course the defense has been the star most weeks, but this offense should not be slept on either.
This doesn't mean the offense has been without their fair share of struggles, however, particularly in the red zone. Struggles that the numbers say could cost the Cowboys this weeks' game in Indianapolis if they don't get it cleaned up.
In terms of red zone offensive efficiency the Cowboys have been downright horrendous. In fact, they are dead-last in the league in success rate inside the 10 yard line, last in first-and-goal success rate, and 21st in success rate between the 11 and 20 yard lines.
There's no sugar-coating those numbers, they are bad. Especially when you consider that this team has arguably the league's best running back and a quarterback with the size and athleticism you might expect from a linebacker.
For as bad as the Cowboys are inside the red zone, the Colts are equally as good. Indianapolis is top 10 in terms of success rate inside the 10, at the goal line, and in first-and-goal success rate. They are also 11th in success rate between the 11 and 20 yard lines.
Despite not having the individual running back the Cowboys have, the Colts offensive line and skill players as a whole set them up a bit better when the field is shortened. Tight end Eric Ebron has been rather incredible in terms of production this season, catching 12 touchdowns on 58 receptions. Andrew Luck is also a more accurate quarterback than Dak Prescott, though Prescott should be a much more dangerous red zone threat than he currently is.
I am working on the Cowboys 32nd ranked Goal-to-Go offensive numbers. They have run 35 of their 59 total plays out of Shotgun-11 Personnel. In those 35 plays, the average gain per snap is....12 INCHES. I am not kidding. They could out-gain that by running QB sneaks. I am amazed.
Of course, some of the Cowboys red zone struggles can be pinned on offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. Linehan has failed to scheme open the "easy" red zone touchdowns we see so often around the league. As pointed out by Bob Sturm on Twitter this week, the Cowboys' personnel groupings and play calls when in goal-to-go situations have been questionable to say the least. But while blame does fall on the coaches' shoulders, the players need to execute better as well.
Games in the NFL often come down to just a handful of plays, and red zone efficiency plays a key role in deciding the outcome of close games every week. If this is once again the case on Sunday, based on past performance, the Dallas Cowboys could be in trouble against the efficient Colts.
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