Who's the best?
It's a game I've played with my now two-year old son on almost a daily basis. From he was eight-months old, I taught him to respond to that question by patting himself proudly on his chest with both hands to signify "me, Me, ME!" That, of course, is accompanied by the biggest grin a kid could ever put forward.
I wish I could inspire such confidence in myself over the current state of the Cowboys.
Normally, this exercise would wait until we are getting close to cut down day to pen this list; but this season I'm doing things a little differently. Once a month, I will rank Cowboys players on the roster in an attempt to identify just how solid of a roster the Cowboys have assembled, and then track how they progress throughout the season.
It must be said, putting together this initial list has been a bit disheartening. I'm normally an extremely optimistic person when it comes to this team. I think it's imperative that when things are up in the air, you lean towards a positive outcome and I'll continue to do so. This team has so many question marks surrounding it though, it's difficult to project enough of them going right to achieve success. Success is now defined as simply reaching the playoffs for the Dallas Cowboys. Let that sink in for a minute.
Looking back on my projected Top 6 from last year lets one know immediately what has changed. The top defenders on my list from August 22nd, 2013? DeMarcus Ware (1st), Sean Lee (5), and Jason Hatcher (6). All gone. Anthony Spencer was seventh. Yikes.
This year's Cowboys team is filled with a great many question marks. It's not that I can't see a path to the playoffs for Dallas. It's just that it relies on so many situations that are legitimately toss-ups and can go in either direction. For this article, that's outlined by the fact you will see plenty of names towards the top of this list that have yet to prove much on the field.
I think Dallas has definitely done a good job improving the bottom of the roster; the churn as Bill Parcells used to call it. However looking over the 90 names I think Dallas is a middle-of-the-pack team. Under the right circumstances, that's good enough to make the playoffs some years. I think they still need one or two more draft cycles to reach the upper echelon of teams in the league.
So, keeping in mind that these are part accomplishment, part projection for 2014, here it is, the ranking of the 2014 Cowboys offseason roster.
A mixture of the team's young stars and it's aging veterans. Smith gets the nod as the top Cowboys player for a few reasons. After Week 7, Smith did not allow a single defender to get his hands on Tony Romo; not a single sack or hit assigned to him. Also, the Dallas running game was outstanding to Smith's side. I imagine he will end the year talked about as possibly the best left tackle in the game. The other name to raise eyebrows is surely No. 5 Dan Bailey. He's simply the best kicker in the game that comes through in the clutch (eight game-winners in three years). Not only is he accurate percentage wise, but almost all of his kicks are directly down the middle of the goal posts, which is why I nicknamed him "SPLIT'EM" three years ago. He hasn't disappointed me since.
It says a lot we don't see a defensive player until No. 7. Last year, I was able to identify a clear delineation after the Top 16 players. This year, no more. Instead, I've separated the list by who I project to be Dallas' starters. This isn't just the standard 11 guys on offense and 11 on defense. I expect Dallas's offensive sets to utilize 3 wideouts, a Change of Pace back or 2 tight ends much more than when they use a fullback. I expect them to line up in a nickel defense with no true 1-technique, a third corner and only two linebackers. If you include their two special teams aces of Bailey and returner Dwayne Harris, you basically have 26 starters.
There's a lot of contingencies in this group. A lot of players we hope progress or live up to their draft pedigree. Many players have recent and/or questionable injury histories. Some will scoff at Lance Dunbar's rank in the Top 15, but looking at what Linehan did with Joique Bell, and I have no doubt if healthy Lance will live up to this billing.
For everything the starters group are, this next tier is just as important. We know they will play, they need to ensure that they aren't the weak links for the team when they are put into the lineup, or else they will be the focus of the opposition.
You typically want this final tier to be chok full of youth, and that is the case here. Dallas will need a handful of these players to prove capable, but generally these guys are going to have to bust their tails on special teams. I'm also including an eighth lineman that isn't currently on the team. Joseph Randle gets the nod over Cam Lawrence here because Cam had a crazy amount of ST coverage penalties in 2013.
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The practice squad. More youth, and a handful of these players could have made the 53, but because they are eligible to be stashed on the eight-man squad while others weren't (I'm looking at you, BW Webb), here they are, including a fourth tight end I don't think is currently on the team.
Special Notes: Not included in this list is Anthony Spencer, who I have rated as 29th, and Chris Whaley, who I have as a practice squad candidate. I think Dallas will use PUP and IR respectively to give their injuries time to heal. Whaley is redshirting, Spencer should be available for the stretch run.