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Depth Chart Dilemma: Why Dallas Doesn't Need 5 Tight Ends

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TE Jason Witten is one of the franchise greats, but how many backups does he really need for this year's offense to flourish? Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images.
TE Jason Witten is one of the franchise greats, but how many backups does he really need for this year's offense to flourish? Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images.

With 53-man roster projections flooding headlines and coaches evaluating talent at breakneck speed, it’s worth speculating on the best combination of offensive skill players and linemen. Though it’s sure to fluctuate, that ratio — as it exists within the first official group of 53 — will tell us something about how the Dallas Cowboys’ offense views itself.

It sounds oversimplified, but naming Bill Callahan the play-caller really has become synonymous with committing to the run. Through two preseason games, we’ve seen it integrated into game plans with unmistakable purpose and direction. Lance Dunbar, Phillip Tanner and Joseph Randle have all played well enough to merit a roster spot, and considering DeMarco Murray’s health risk, it’d be pretty surprising if they didn’t all get one.

So who gets axed?

If the Cowboys are serious about shoring up their ground game, they should absolutely cut their fifth tight end. That sounds counterintuitive, but this particular group is made up of a bunch of oversized receivers. They’re speedy and sticky-handed targets, not stout and hardened run blockers. On paper, their size is instrumental to jumpstarting the rushing attack. But in practice, their technique is potentially detrimental to it. 

Dallas is scrambling to beef up in the trenches. After a deal with OG Brandon Moore fell through, the team tendered a contract to veteran OG Brian Waters this past Sunday. If signed, Waters would likely commandeer the starting right guard position from Mackenzy Bernadeau — a significant upgrade to the weaker side of the line.

Would the Cowboys then cut another guard, like Nate Livings or David Arkin, as some experts think? Or would they keep 10 linemen in a reaffirmation of their commitment to the run?

The ‘Boys could take a page from Bill Belichick’s playbook: insert the extra lineman as a third tight end on typical rushing downs, and capitalize on the upper-body strength when they need to grind out yardage. Or they could take six wide receivers and only three tight ends. Either way, a fifth tight end is a wasted roster spot.

What about sacrificing a defender? Based on the collective injury histories, that would be less than advisable.

Some mock roster roundups have Dallas going with only four safeties, which would be pushing it. It’s by far the weakest position; Barry Church missed most of last year and Matt Johnson all of it. You can’t keep fewer than five corners when you need three on the field for the majority of the defense’s snaps.

Six linebackers instead of seven? Risky again considering the time Sean Lee and Bruce Carter have missed at such young ages. Not to mention, the strongside job is now being contested by players thought lost, like veteran Ernie Sims.

And how can you justify shortchanging a defensive line that lost its No. 3 pass rusher (Tyrone Crawford) in training camp, that has an injury-prone starter in Jay Ratliff and that has another starter coming off knee surgery? The reserves are just starting to look good, and they need more reps to continue on that track.

If this offense is truly resigned to improving its rushing numbers, it needs blocking. That’s not to be found among the tight ends. If balance is in fact a key ingredient for the Cowboys’ success, the final cuts should reflect that.