Cowboys' decisions Saturday go beyond finalizing 53-man roster

IRVING, Texas -- For the Dallas Cowboys' front office, scouts and coaches, this is the trickiest time of the year.

Trimming the roster to 53 players isn’t the tricky part. Picking the right 53 is, and where they get them is equally as tricky.

The Cowboys started the process by releasing players on Friday, informing defensive end Ben Gardner, running back Ben Malena, fullback Ray Agnew and running back Gus Johnson they will be waived. None are terribly surprising even if Johnson started two preseason games and scored two rushing touchdowns. Perhaps he comes back to the practice squad with Gardner and, possibly, Malena.

The Cowboys have to make 18 more roster moves by 4 p.m. ET to reach the 53-man limit. Just because they will be at 53 players by the end of business today, does not mean the roster is set.

Last year at the deadline, they made a trade with the Tennessee Titans for defensive end Lavar Edwards. A day later they claimed offensive tackle Donald Hawkins off waivers. A day after that they picked up safety C.J. Spillman and linebacker Korey Toomer. The day after that they signed defensive lineman Jack Crawford.

Of those five pickups, only Spillman and Crawford made impacts.

“At the end of the roster, it’s always a challenge to know who you should keep and also is when you start comparing them to some of that good depth you have on your team now they don’t look as good as they used to,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “We might be surprised when we go out there and start looking around -- it may be harder to find upgrades more than we think it will be.”

The Cowboys could look for help on the offensive line, linebacker, secondary, wide receiver and running back in either low-level trades or waiver wire pickups.

But they also need to determine if that potential player is better than what they have in-house already.

The questions aren’t so much about the 53-man roster as they are about the 46-man roster.

Darrion Weems looks to be the swing tackle behind Tyron Smith and Doug Free. Does it make sense to add an inexperienced tackle from another team off waivers when they would need a backup tackle in the Sept. 13 season opener against the New York Giants?

Beyond that how do they shore up depth needed throughout the season?

Would adding a fourth running back with special-teams experience make sense? Do they need a fourth tight end and a fullback? How do they cover themselves if something were to happen to Dez Bryant or Terrance Williams in the regular season? Can they find a linebacker to help on special teams that would be better than a Keith Smith or Jasper Brinkley?

“I think it’s one of the best things we’ve done here the last few years is after you make your final cutdowns, massaging that roster and maybe adding somebody from another team to address a need that you have or upgrade a position,” coach Jason Garrett said. “It’s critical for us. The pro personnel department, they go to all these preseason games. We’ve studied them coming out of college. Some of the veteran guys we’ve known for years and then you just kind of put them in the mix and say, ‘What are the needs? What are the areas where we think we can improve? If this guy’s available, does he fit?’ We’ve done a good job of that in the past. It’s a critical few days for us. We have some hard decisions to make with the guys on our team and then you have some harder decisions when you’re thinking about bringing in somebody from the other side.”