Having said that, here is an initial look at the 2014 Cowboys:
Vaughan, the undrafted free agent from West Texas A&M, surviving the cuts is a mild surprise. The Cowboys haven’t kept a third quarterback on the roster in recent years, but they saw enough potential in Vaughan to determine he was worth developing and didn’t want to expose him to waivers. They had a sixth-round draft grade on Vaughan.
RUNNING BACKS (4)
Ryan Williams was the best player to be cut by the Cowboys. The former second-round pick, whose three seasons in Arizona were ruined by injuries, proved that he is healthy and an NFL talent. He just got caught in a numbers game and couldn’t contribute as much on special teams as Randle, who also ran well during the preseason. There was some question about whether the Cowboys would keep a fullback, but head coach Jason Garrett believes Clutts can help enough in short-yardage and goal-line situations to justify the roster spot.
WIDE RECEIVERS (5)
If the Cowboys had the luxury of keeping six receivers, LaRon Byrd would probably be on the roster. The big receiver should end up on the practice squad if he clears waivers, but he never really had a chance to crack this top five, which features four proven playmakers and a fifth-round pick.
TIGHT ENDS (3)
It would be nice to have a better blocker among the backups. The coaches need to find ways to utilize Escobar’s receiving ability.
OFFENSIVE LINE (9)
It’s a curious decision to keep tackles Wetzel and Weems over guard Uche Nwaneri, who started 91 games over the past six seasons for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Nwaneri didn’t perform well in the preseason finale, but neither did Wetzel, and Weems didn’t play the whole preseason.
DEFENSIVE LINE (11)
The Cowboys traded a conditional seventh-round pick to get Edwards from the Tennessee Titans. This group is expected to be trimmed to 10 when the Cowboys place Lawrence, the second-round pick recovering from foot surgery, on the short-term injured reserve, meaning he will miss the first eight games. When Josh Brent is added, will it cost Hayden his job? The Cowboys should still search for pass-rushing help.
Seventh-rounder Will Smith was one of two draft picks who didn’t survive the cuts. The first five players listed in this group are still competing for starting jobs and will continue to, maybe for the whole season. Lawrence is one of the Cowboys’ best special teamers.
The Cowboys are taking a risk by only going with four cornerbacks while Orlando Scandrick is suspended, especially considering Claiborne’s durability issues. So it wouldn’t be a surprise if they added to this group. Seventh-rounder Terrance Mitchell had a golden opportunity to make the team after Scandrick’s suspension and 2013 fourth-round pick B.W. Webb’s release, but his lack of discipline led to his release. Mitchell could end up on the practice squad.
Jakar Hamilton is expected to have a spot on the team after finishing his four-game suspension. Without him, the Cowboys don’t have any center-fielder type safeties on the roster.
Never any questions here.
On Friday, coach Jason Garrett said he was not sure when Spencer would be able to practice. Spencer, who will play right defensive end, had microfracture surgery on his left knee last fall and has gone through a painstaking rehab process. In the last few weeks, the Cowboys have said Spencer is ahead of schedule on his comeback.
The Cowboys also have rookie defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence on the active roster despite a broken foot. He is likely to be placed on injured reserve with a designation to return. He needs to be on the 53-man roster through Tuesday in order to be placed on the short-term IR. With this designation, he would miss the first eight games of the season but be eligible to practice starting in Week 6.
See you in a month: Cornerback Orlando Scandrick and safety Jakar Hamilton cannot have contact with the Cowboys for the next month now that they are on the suspended list. Both players will miss four games with Scandrick violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy and Hamilton violating the substance abuse policy. They will be allowed back on Sept. 29 and eligible to play Oct. 5 against the Houston Texans. Despite losing Scandrick, the Cowboys opted only to keep four corners on the roster: Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Sterling Moore and Tyler Patmon.
Changes coming: The Cowboys kept 11 defensive linemen, but by Tuesday that number is expected to be 10 when rookie defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence is moved to short-term injured reserve as he returns from foot surgery. Lawrence will have to miss the first eight games, but can start practicing after six weeks. The Cowboys hope Lawrence will be able to be a designated pass rusher over the final eight weeks of the season. When he broke his foot in training camp, he was close to becoming the starting right defensive end. By putting Lawrence on short-term injured reserve, the Cowboys would not be able to use the designation on another player this season.
What’s next: A word to the wise for those on the bottom of the Cowboys’ roster: don’t celebrate. The Cowboys will be active in adding players either through trades, waivers or free agency. It’s not just about upgrading the bottom of the roster. The Cowboys need to upgrade starters and key backup roles at every level of their defense. Last year the Cowboys added four players after the final cuts before the season opener. They could potentially add more players this year, so dire is the state of the defense.
Cowboys moves: RB Ryan Williams, RB Phillip Tanner, RB D.J. Adams, WR LaRon Byrd, WR Jamar Newsome, WR Dezmon Briscoe, TE Asa Watson, T Josh Aladenoye, G Uche Nwaneri, G Stephen Goodin, C Ronald Patrick, DT Zach Minter, DE Kenneth Boatright, DE Caesar Rayford, DE Dartwan Bush, LB Will Smith, LB Orie Lemon, LB Keith Smith, LB Dontavis Sapp, CB Terrance Mitchell, S Keith Smith, Orlando Scandrick (suspended), Jakar Hamilton (suspended)
Edwards (6-foot-4, 277 pounds) was a fifth-round pick of the Titans last year. He had nine tackles in seven games as a rookie. He will have a chance to immediately contribute along the Cowboys’ defensive line.
Last year, the Cowboys picked up defensive linemen Edgar Jones (from Kansas City) and Caesar Rayford (from Indianapolis) on the final-cut weekend.
- Jerry Jones, the general manager
- Wondering about Michael Sam
- Predicting the record
- Josh Brent's production
@toddarcher: I don't think Michael Sam would fit on this defense even with the need for pass-rushing help. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli wants speed. That's the No. 1 trait. Sam is not a speed player. He plays faster than he is timed and he had an excellent college career, but the Cowboys were dubious about his pro chances entering the draft and nothing really changed their opinion in the preseason. At the time of this writing, Sam is still with the Rams, so it's a moot point. But the Cowboys' decision (should it come up) would have nothing to do with Sam's sexual preference and everything to do with the position he plays. He's a left defensive end and the Cowboys have enough of those.
@toddarcher: Can I get a do-over? I've predicted an 8-8 finish, which is always something of a copout, but at the time I made the prediction I though this team would be able to overcome enough of the defensive shortcomings to win half of their games for the fourth straight season. Now I'm not so sure. Let me use a baseball analogy: The Cowboys have a bunch of fourth and fifth pitchers in first- and second-pitcher roles. You like some of these guys as role players, but the Cowboys need them to play way above their heads and need almost all of them to do so. If I had to do it over again, I'd probably say 6-10.
@toddarcher: It's hard to imagine he would be anything but a bit player, a backup. He hasn't played since 2012. He hasn't been in a team's conditioning program in two years. He was a solid player in a 3-4 scheme, but hardly a star. He was functional. If he can do that again, then the Cowboys would be happy. But I don't think he would appreciably change the Cowboys' defense. If/when he is reinstated, he will face a suspension, so he would need even more time to get on the field. Once he is ready to play, then maybe he takes the spot of a Ken Bishop, but the rookie seventh-round pick has done nice things this summer to see what he can become.
If Josh Brent does make it back to the team, what would his role be and who would be the odd man out? #cowboysmail— Nate D (@NateDxxx) August 29, 2014
Orton spent most of the offseason hoping to retire, except the Cowboys would have come after $3.4 million in signing-bonus money he received in 2012 and ’13 had he decided to give up the game. He skipped the voluntary offseason program, skipped a physical before the mandatory minicamp and failed to report to the minicamp altogether. The moves would have cost Orton roughly $150,000 in fines form the Cowboys if he returned.
When he was facing fines of $30,000 a day if he skipped training camp, Orton told the Cowboys he would be in Oxnard, California. And then the Cowboys cut him, giving the backup job to Brandon Weeden.
Now he is with the Buffalo Bills and will start the season as E.J. Manuel's backup. Perhaps he starts if Manuel struggles. And he did not have to go through a day of training camp.
There is nothing the Cowboys can do to recoup Orton’s bonus money since they cut him. They decided they did not want a player who was not fully committed around the team and didn’t want risk him getting hurt after not doing a thing in the offseason.
My belief was that Orton wanted to retire. From all accounts, he was doing next to nothing to get ready for the season.
Be mad at Orton all you want, but teams rarely, if ever, show loyalty to players. Remember, we did see DeMarcus Ware at AT&T Stadium the other night in a Denver Broncos uniform. Players don’t need to be loyal to anybody but themselves.
In the stalemate between Jerry Jones and Orton, Orton won.
Lindley and Johnny Thomas have been cut. Tanner is a long shot. Jemea Thomas has the best chance to make the Cowboys’ final roster.
The Cowboys claimed Thomas off waivers from the New England Patriots on Wednesday and he had five tackles in Thursday’s loss to the Denver Broncos.
The Cowboys needed a defensive back to get through the game, but Jason Garrett said Thomas is more than a space-filler. He was a sixth-round pick of the Patriots. The Patriots played him at cornerback, but the Cowboys used him at safety and will not have Jakar Hamilton for the first four games because of an NFL suspension.
"We liked him a lot coming out of school, a versatile guy," Garrett said. "So we had our eyes on him when he got released and thought it could be a good opportunity to bring him in and see how he did."
The Cowboys also used undrafted rookie Tyler Patmon more in the slot against the Broncos with Sterling Moore playing outside. With Orlando Scandrick out the first four games because of a suspension, Moore will take over as the nickel corner, but the Cowboys wanted to get Patmon more game action Thursday.
"You feel like you have a lot of depth there because you have four or five cornerbacks, but if something happens, all of the sudden all those roles start to change," Garrett said. "Who is going where? What we feel good about each of those guys is that they have some position flex. They can play both outside and they can play inside. If things happen, they can address some issues, and that’s a really good trait for them to have."
When you rank dead last in the league in total defense, there’s only one way to go, he figured. Of course, it’s completely possible for the Cowboys to have the worst-ranked defense again and give up more yards than last season’s franchise record, but Jones would rather not view the situation that way.
“I think the defense is much improved, much improved,” Jones said after the preseason finale. “Awareness, the player we’re going to ask to do the job, I think we’re much improved from the team that was on the field the last four games when we ended the season. This is a better defense.”
Jones attempts to muster hope for a defense that lost arguably its three best players from last season with linebacker Sean Lee tearing up his knee, defensive tackle Jason Hatcher leaving in free agency and defensive end DeMarcus Ware being released. Plus, Orlando Scandrick will serve a four-game suspension to start the season after performing the best among the Cowboys cornerbacks last season.
The Cowboys certainly upgraded at defensive coordinator by demoting Monte Kiffin, who the game has clearly passed by and promoting Rod Marinelli. The Cowboys have recent evidence that Marinelli is a quality coordinator from his tenure with the Chicago Bears before coming to Dallas last year.
But Marinelli is no miracle worker. Just look at the Detroit Lions defensive rankings from his tenure as head coach: 28th, 32nd and 32nd in yards and 30th, 32nd and 32nd in scoring.
Marinelli needs playmakers to make his scheme work. Where are they on the Dallas defense?
The reality is this defense is in even worse shape than anticipated when training camp opened. They lost rookie defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, who they desperately needed to develop as an edge pass-rushing threat, for several weeks due to a broken foot. Defensive tackles Henry Melton and Terrell McClain didn’t play a down in the preseason due to injuries, with Melton still working to chip off rust after missing the last 13 games last season with a torn ACL. Defensive end George Selvie is dealing wth soreness in his surgically repaired right shoulder. Cornerback Morris Claiborne sat out the entire preseason -- again -- and will need to take pain-killing injections to play with a sprained AC joint in his shoulder. Scandrick is suspended four games.
“We know our limitations,” Jones said. “We know our scheme better, and we got players [who] can execute. We’ve got better players, healthier players to execute the scheme.”
That's the hope for the Dallas defense. But it’s definitely not the reality as they get ready for the regular season.
Dixon, the team's seventh-round pick in May, was fined by the league for a defenseless hit of a wide receiver late in the Cowboys’ 25-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins on Aug. 23.
After the game, Dixon was unapologetic for the hit and penalty, which eventually led to the Dolphins’ winning score, and said he would continue to play the same way he has always played. After talking with coach Jason Garrett, Dixon said he needed to go for the ball, not the hit.
Dixon will appeal the fine because it is more than 25 percent of his weekly salary, but the fine would be paid in installments.
In addition to Dixon, rookie linebacker Anthony Hitchens was fined $8,268 for a face-mask penalty in the game against the Dolphins.
Justin Durant is the only lock to start, but the question is whether he would play at middle linebacker or on the weak side. The Cowboys will have to find two starters among Bruce Carter, Kyle Wilber, Rolando McClain and Anthony Hitchens.
“We don’t anticipate putting this thing in stone and saying this is the way it’s going to be for 16 games,” Garrett said. “We’re going to continue that competition, and guys are going to fight for roles and spots. Each week, we’ll give them a chance to do what they can do to help our football team.”
It is possible Durant could be the only three-down linebacker with him taking over as the middle linebacker in the nickel defense if he is on the weak side in the base defense. McClain has not played in a regular-season game since 2012. Carter has moved between the strong and weak sides this summer. Wilber will have to play some defensive end. Hitchens has played middle linebacker and on the weak side.
“We’ll try to define some roles for them so that they can play the best they can in that opener against the 49ers,” Garrett said, “and let them play and see how they do and be willing to keep it exactly how it is or be willing to make the changes or adjustments we feel are necessary.”
Durant will likely wear the communication system in his helmet since he will be on the field the most.
The Cowboys have said several times that they will actively scour the cuts across the league in an attempt to improve the bottom and in some cases the middle of their roster.
“We’ve always said that the competition is among the guys who are on the team trying to make the roster but also with guys all around the league who may or may not be available to us,” coach Jason Garrett said. “This is a day when we’re cutting from 75 to 53 and 31 other teams are doing the same thing, so there will be a lot of good football players out there and our guys do a really good job finding out about these guys and knowing about them and seeing if they fit. That’s been something we’ve been able to do the last few years. I think it’s helped our team. So we’ll certainly go through that process once this day gets going.”
The Cowboys added four players after the final cuts last year and added a fifth the day before the season opener.
Earlier in the week executive vice president Stephen Jones said the Cowboys would not limit how many players they add through the waiver-wire or free-agent processes after the final cuts.
“I think you just have to be careful with that idea that you don’t want go too crazy with something like that,” Garrett said. “You’ll want to pick some guys that you think can play a particular role early on for your team. Again, we’ve been able to do that, whether it’s a special teams guy or maybe the guy’s played in the system before. Maybe you know the guy from the past. If there’s a good fit somewhere, we’re certainly open to that. We’ve done that before and it’s been good for us.”
In it we discuss:
- Who the Cowboys take with the No. 1 overall pick in 2015
- Going after James Harrison
- This year’s George Selvie
- Churning the roster
- Bringing the blitz
@toddarcher: Man, I thought we in the media were cynical. Are you ready to give up after that winless preseason? I understand the frustration. Is Kenny Hill available? Jameis Winston? Honestly with the state of the defense, I'd go with the best pass rusher available at this point. Southern Cal's Leonard Williams or Nebraska's Randy Gregory will be names to watch, I'm sure, and there will be other guys coming through the ranks. But, come on, have a little faith that they might win six games this year. @toddarcher: The easy answer is never say never, but honestly with Harrison, I would say never. The Cowboys are not looking for older players. They made their moves away from DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher and never really got in on Julius Peppers or Jared Allen. All of those guys are better than Harrison at this point. The Cowboys want young, fast players. That's not Harrison. He's not the guy you remember in Pittsburgh. Here he would be a designated pass rusher probably, and they'll have those guys in Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Lawrence once they get healthy. @toddarcher: Can I stick with the same position and go with Kenneth Boatright? Would Rolando McClain be that kind of guy? The Cowboys aren't even sure George Selvie can be this year's George Selvie. He played great and had seven sacks, but was that his blue-moon season? Does he go back to what he was before joining the Cowboys? I don't know. Nobody knows. I think he's a solid player made better than he is seventh or eighth in a rotation. Here he has to play too much. Boatright might have a chance -- provided he makes the team -- to be a guy who can get after the passer. I'm not sure what he did the other night was a product of playing against bad competition or him playing well. I'm hesitant to put McClain in this group because of his pedigree, but the Cowboys went from not really knowing what he could be to possibly using him a ton. Again, I think part of that reasoning is because of what is around McClain. He looks better, perhaps, than he is, because he is not surrounded by a ton of talent. @toddarcher: I don't think any of the bottom of the roster players should feel comfortable even if they make the initial cut to 53. The Cowboys will look here, there and everywhere for players. They need to. As I wrote this morning, it's a struggle to find 53 players worth keeping right now. Guys like Terrance Mitchell, Jemea Thomas, Ryan Smith, Cam Lawrence, Boatright, Dartwan Bush, they should not go buy a place until after the first week provided they even make the team. Last year the Cowboys added four guys during the first week of the season to the 53. I can see them adding more this year.
Who will the cowboys draft with the number one overall pick in 2015? #cowboysmail— Andrew C (@tweetdrewc) August 28, 2014
@toddarcher: They'll have to do something to get pressure on the quarterback because I don't see how they can rely on the front four to get home consistently. But defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has never been a big blitz guy. The blitz exposes so much that the defense can give up the big plays. Plus, I'm not sure the Cowboys have great blitzers. Orlando Scandrick might be their best guy off the slot. But Rolando McClain might have some juice up the middle. Bruce Carter took some pass-rush turns in Oxnard, California.
#cowboysmail do you see the 'boys using more blitz packages in order to create pressure during the season?— Billy Ray (@Brp57chevy) August 27, 2014
The fact of the matter is McClain, the twice-retired eighth overall pick of the 2010 draft, might not be ready for such a prominent role as he continues to chip off the rust and work his way into football shape.
Owner and general manager Jerry Jones has heaped praise on McClain throughout training camp and the preseason, but Jones dialed down the hype after the preseason finale, which McClain started and played two series.
“You’re a little excited when you see some of the things he does physically, but he hasn’t played for a year and a half. Let’s let him just come in here and when he gets in a game, he may be the fifth guy in or he may be coming in after we’ve had a couple of series, but let’s watch him come in here and let us play. I say that because I don’t want him or anybody else to think that we think he’s the savior of our defense. That’s not the way it is.”
Justin Durant, fourth-round pick Anthony Hitchens and McClain have all taken first-team reps at middle linebacker this summer as the Cowboys attempt to replace Lee, who will miss the season with a knee injury. Bruce Carter, Kyle Wilber, Durant and Hitchens have worked with the starters at the outside linebacker spots, with Carter seeing time at both the strong side and weak side.
Asked which linebacker combination will start Week 1, coach Jason Garrett said, “We haven’t made that decision yet.” Jones is braced for it not to include McClain.