We are now in the lull between the OTAs and mini-camp and the start of training camp in Oxnard, and it might be the longest, most agonizing part of the year for football fans. To me, it’s even worse than the lull from the end of the previous season to the beginning of the offseason. After all, when the season is done, you can look ahead to free agency, the scouting combine, and the draft. When the draft is over, you can look forward to mini-camp and OTAs. When they are done, though, the next event is training camp, and it seems a LONG way off. Any free agency signings made are likely to be stopgap, low-level veteran signings to fill needs not filled in the draft, and even then they are not guaranteed to make the roster. We are left with questions about new schemes, new players, and new coaches, and can’t expect to get any answers until training camp is under way. So how do we fill that void, you ask? Simple—we start making 53-man roster projections, no matter how inane or uninformed they may be. And what’s worse, we then debate them, as if any one of us has a better clue than the rest about what the Cowboys are thinking or what the players will bring to the field. It is pure speculation, no matter how well-informed our information may be, and pure speculation is kind of like an opinion: everybody has one. So why do we bother? Because we’ve got nothing better to do to fill the time, and it keeps our minds focused ahead on the next event on the football calendar. With that mindset, then, I wanted to take a look at the different ways people look at roster projections, and give you an example of one that you may want to consider for the upcoming training camp. Everyone has a different way of coming up with a projected 53-man roster. Some people go by position group, determining that teams will keep a certain number of players at any given position, based on their schemes. Others go with a starters, back-ups, and special teams model, where they identify a depth chart for every position, then fill in the remainder based on special teams play. Bill Parcells was an advocate of the gameday model, using a 20-20-10-3 method. This meant to focus first on the 45-man (now 46-man) gameday roster, and set your roster accordingly. So you would take the twenty players on offense who were most needed to be active on gameday, the top twenty players on defense for gameday, the three necessary special teams guys, and then your three next best special teams players. The remaining guys on the 53-man roster were for positional depth or developmental purposes. I have used all of these at one time or another, and have used hybrid versions, as well. But the one I wanted to talk about is what I call the “Likelihood” method. In this method, you base roster decisions on not only player talent, but on contract size, positional depth, and draft status. It is, essentially, answering this question: If all other things were equal, how likely is it that this specific player will make the final 53-man roster? Now, this method is not necessarily the best for trying to determine who the final 53 players will be, although it can be used for that purpose. It is, however, ideal for developing an idea of what positions and players you need to pay extra attention to in training camp, and where the most crucial camp battles might be. So with that said, here’s how I used the “Likelihood” method to take a look at the Cowboys’ roster just under a month away from training camp. The Definite The names listed here will make the roster without a doubt, barring a significant injury. QB – Tony Romo, Kyle Orton: No surprises here. RB – DeMarco Murray, Joseph Randle: Starter and primary back-up. TE – Jason Witten, Gavin Escobar, James Hanna: The first two are easy, and I think they want to do more of the 12-personnel and have seen too much development from Hanna to let him go now. WR – Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Terrance Williams: I almost added Dwayne Harris here as well, but these guys are all slam dunks to make the roster. OL – Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Phil Costa, Doug Free, Jermey Parnell: That’s right, I don’t think there’s a single pure guard that is on this list, just as I’m not sure a fourth OT will crack the line-up. Costa is here only because they need someone with experience behind Frederick, and because one of them may have to play G at some point. DL – Anthony Spencer, Demarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff, Jason Hatcher, Tyrone Crawford, Sean Lissemore: I almost didn’t include Lissemore, but I think they have to have that guy who can rotate in for Ratliff on a regular basis to spell the aging veteran. Crawford is just coming into his own. LB – Justin Durant, Bruce Carter, Sean Lee: The three starters, in all likelihood. I almost put Alex Albright here as well, simply because I can’t see a scenario where he’s not on the team. But I didn’t do so because of the slight chance, based on his use. See the next category for more. CB – Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Orlando Scandrick, B. W. Webb: The two starters are easy, and Webb is a high enough draft pick at a position in need of depth that I don’t think there’s any question he makes the roster. As for Scandrick, even if they wanted to release him, I don’t think they could, financially. His most recent contract restructure means that the Cowboys would take a $5 mil cap hit over the next two years if they released him, and I can’t see them doing so with the other players they need to extend. S – Barry Church, Will Allen, Matt Johnson, J. J. Wilcox: The starters were less than a given here, at least in the case of Will Allen. But his special teams ability and veteran experience should guarantee him a roster spot, regardless. Matt Johnson essentially had a red-shirt year, and now the Cowboys will give him every chance to show they were right in taking him in last year’s draft. Wilcox is a high enough draft pick at a position the Cowboys have been trying to develop for years, and has a nose for the ball. ST – L. P. Ladouceur, Chris Jones, Dan Bailey: The easiest position aside from QB. Total roster spots used thus far: 35 The Very Likely The players listed here are most likely going to be on the roster, either because of their potential, past draft status, or recent contributions. To see any of these guys released at the end of camp would likely be a surprise result of a younger player suddenly and unexpectedly rising up to take a position away from the incumbent. WR – Dwayne Harris: His contributions last season, both on the offense and on special teams, almost put him in the previous category. He is the back-up slot receiver and punt returner that the Cowboys have been looking for, and I see very little chance that he’s not on the roster. OL – Mackenzy Bernadeau, Ron Leary: These two guys are on here for opposite reasons. Bernadeau didn’t play well last year, but restructured his contract in the offseason, making him an unlikely cut. He does have position versatility, but I think the Cowboys would prefer for him to just play better at G and be done with it. As for Leary, his potential puts him on the squad, in all likelihood. He hit a bit of a rookie wall last year on the practice squad, but by the end of the season, he was throwing people around, and that has continued into the offseason. Has a chance to be a starter at some point this year. I almost put Nate Livings in this category, but didn’t because I am, quite frankly, unsure at this point whether or not his contract restructure was turned in to the league. See the next section for more. DL – Kyle Wilber: They need someone to back-up Ware on the weak side of the line, and it needs to be someone who can get up the field and disrupt things. Wilber was a man without a position for a while, but has added some good weight, and has flashed in the mini-camp and OTAs. As a draft pick from last year at a position in need of depth, I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t make the roster. LB – Alex Albright, DeVonte Holloman: Alex Albright has been used as the “Swiss army knife” so far in OTAs and mini-camp, and I believe that versatility makes it highly unlikely that he doesn’t make the roster. After all, who wouldn’t want a guy active on gameday (where your numbers are limited) who can back-up all three LB positions AND the DE position, as well as contribute on special teams? The only reason I put him here rather than in the previous category is because, at times, teams will try people at multiple positions like this because they don’t think they’re good enough at any one position, and are trying to justify keeping them around. I do NOT believe this to be the case with Albright, however, so I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t make the roster. As for Holloman, he makes this list not because he’s a draft pick—although that doesn’t hurt him—but because of two factors: a lack of depth at LB and his special teams ability. Total roster spots used thus far: 41 The Likely The players listed here are likely to make the squad as it stands right now, but could be beaten out for their roster spot by someone else without it being a great shock to anyone. Often, veteran players at this level are in danger of being unseated by younger, cheaper alternatives who have more upside. RB – Lance Dunbar: Both Phillip Tanner and rookie Kendial Lawrence will push for the #3 RB spot, but Dunbar showed enough last year out of the backfield and on special teams to ensure that either of them will have to really step up to take the spot away from him. TE – Donte Rosario: It may surprise some people to see me include Rosario here, but I don’t think his signing was just for depth purposes. We all know the Cowboys want to run a lot of two and three TE formations, and Rosario adds the extra benefit of having not only played some H-back and FB, but is a quality special teams player as well. WR – Cole Beasley OR Danny Coale: I listed both of these guys because I, quite frankly, don’t know what else to do. There’s no guarantee that the Cowboys will keep six WRs, but if they do, I think both of these guys are likely to make the squad. With the reality that they may only keep five WRs, though, comes the acceptance that we can only count on one of the two making it. Coale seems to be playing from behind at this point, as he’s still not 100% from his knee injury and Beasley now has a year of experience under his belt. But you can’t teach size, and that’s something Coale has that Beasley doesn’t, giving Coale additional versatility. This is going to be a good camp battle to watch, and if they both play well, it could be the deciding factor for the Cowboys in determining how many WRs to keep. OL – Nate Livings: This is one of those weird things because we have so little definitive information. The fact is that Livings is guaranteed $1.7 mil this year because of the contract he signed as a free agent prior to last season. If they did not turn in his restructure, they could release him and take roughly equal cap hits this year and next (approximately $2.1 mil, depending on if he signed on with another team this season). That’s not the best thing in the world, but if they fear his knees becoming an ongoing problem, it’s a possibility. However, if they did, indeed, turn in his restructured contract, I can’t see him getting released, as his cap hits would increase to approximately $2.6 mil this year nearly $2.8 mil next year. DL – Ben Bass: This guy has done nothing but impress, from what I’ve heard, and the Cowboys need another rotational DT to come in and push the pocket. With Hatcher set to become a free agent next year, I think there’s very little chance of the Cowboys releasing a guy who is likely to contribute significantly this year, and could potentially start next season if Hatcher departs. LB – Brandon Magee, Caleb McSurdy, OR Ernie Sims: Again, I’m not sure there’s another way to do this. The Cowboys will definitely keep at least seven LBs, and the seventh will, in all likelihood, be one of these guys. Sims has the advantage of experience, not only in the NFL, but in this defense for his first three years in the league under Rod Marinelli, then the head coach in Detroit. But he is a veteran, and younger, cheaper guys are always going to get a look. McSurdy, like WR Danny Coale, essentially had a red-shirt year after an injury last preseason, and as a draft pick, will certainly get his chances. Magee, on the other hand, was not drafted. But he was the Cowboys’ highest priority free agent, indicating that they not only wanted him badly, but that other teams did as well. If all of these guys play well, it could easily force the Cowboys to keep an eighth LB on the roster. In fact, that’s what I’m expecting, at this point. CB – Sterling Moore: I fully expect the Cowboys to keep a fifth CB on the roster, and the preference is always to have that guy be able to contribute in multiple ways, if necessary. Moore came in and made some plays last season, and has the versatility to play either CB or S, in a pinch. He could be unseated, of course, and his roster spot is by no means guaranteed. But if he continues to show up as he did last year, I think it’s likely he’ll be around. S – Danny McCray, Eric Frampton, OR Jakar Hamilton: And for the third time, I pull out the “OR” at a position. I fully expect the Cowboys to keep a fifth safety on the roster. On the surface, that might make it seem as if McCray, who excels on special teams, would be a given. But we all saw his deficiencies when he had to play defense last season, and that has to concern the Cowboys. Perhaps it will be different with the change in scheme, but there are no guarantees. As such, a veteran like Frampton, who had some nice contributions when given an opportunity to play, is a possibility. The greater possibility for me, though, is undrafted rookie Jakar Hamilton. He has shown a tendency to be around the ball, and has a feel for special teams as well. If he can show that he can be anywhere near as good as McCray on special teams, and that he has potential for the defense as well, he could force the two veterans aside. Total roster spots used thus far: 49 The Rest Based on this perspective, there are three key training camp battles to watch at WR, LB, and S, with the losers of those battles fighting it out with everyone else for the remaining four spots on the final 53-man roster. What other positions should we focus on? Let’s look at a positional breakdown of the 49 “taken” spots listed, above. QB – 2 RB – 3 TE – 4 WR – 5 OL – 8 DL – 8 LB – 6 CB – 5 S – 5 ST – 3 Based on those numbers, I think it’s fair to say that it is most likely we’ll see a 9th O-lineman and a 7th LB added to the list, taking the available roster posts down to two. So in addition to the three camp battles mentioned, above, also pay attention to the O-line, as it could be a free-for-all between Kevin Kowalski, Ryan Cook, and David Arkin on the interior and Darrion Weems on the outside for one position. If the Cowboys do decide to go with six WRs and eight LBs, that fills the roster. But a dominant performance by a player like RB Phillip Tanner, who has looked much improved, could throw a monkey wrench into the whole thing. If he shows up throughout camp, and forces the Cowboys’ hands into keeping a fourth RB, who loses their spot? The sixth WR? The eighth LB? Only time will answer those questions. And with nearly four weeks left to go before the beginning of training camp, it seems a very long time to wonder.