Jerry Jones told media Thursday that there were "still potentially some things we want to do" in free agency, but for all intents and purposes the signing of Abram Elam likely is the final major piece added to the Cowboys' roster for 2011. With Elam having just completed his physical and Dallas' preseason opener just six days away, let's take a high level look at the makeup of the roster. (One frightening note: I have no problem narrowing this roster down to 53. The Cowboys may be one of the teams in the market for other teams' cuts.)
Tony Romo is now 31. The window for the Cowboys to finally return to the Super Bowl (11 of the 15 other NFC teams have been to there since Dallas last made it) and possibly win one realistically mirrors the number of years left in Romo's prime. In other words, the clock is ticking. Jon Kitna and Stephen McGee will both be back. Kitna showed in 2010 that he had something left in the tank, while we should see plenty of McGee this preseason to hold us over for another year.
Marion Barber's gone and Felix Jones is now the starter. The Cowboys wanted DeMarco Murray to come in and take over a role geared toward passing situations, but he suffered a horribly timed hamstring injury just before camp and won't participate in his first pro practice until he's down to about two preseason games. Tashard Choice is back - for now - as the expected third back, though he still doesn't seem to have many fans on the coaching staff. Lonyae Miller is once again a camp observer favorite, but he's probably not on the 53-man roster unless something happens with Choice.
Seventh rounder Shaun Chapas will battle Chris Gronkowski for the fullback role. John Phillips' return reduces the number of snaps we can expect to see with fullbacks on the field, but his availability may also persuade Jason Garrett to use more of the 12 formation again. Chapas does seem to have the edge here early in camp.
In Miles Austin and Dez Bryant the Cowboys expect to have one of the best young receiving tandems in the league. It's important to remember, though, that Bryant has a long way to go before he can beat corners technically. Garrett has pointed out that Austin has some ways to go himself to become a complete receiver. Still, the overwhelming question at this position, now that Roy Williams (and Patrick Crayton) is gone, is whether a No. 3 or No. 4 can be counted on. Kevin Ogletree is the favorite to emerge as a third receiver, while sixth rounder Dwayne Harris has looked good in camp. A handful of familiar names - Jesse Holley, Manny Johnson, Titus Ryan - will vie for a roster spot, though Garrett has not discounted the possibility that the team could look to the outside if Ogletree & co. don't step up.
Jason Witten was as dominant as ever, particularly in the second half of 2010, and Phillips' return adds significantly to what Garrett can do after he lacked a second reliable tight end last season. There are once again stories about Martellus Bennett's new found maturity (he's married now), but those are met with wide skepticism. Bennett joins Choice as a possibility to exit late in camp if the team feels secure without them.
Doug Free is thankfully back, and he appears entrenched on the left side, at least for this season. Tyron Smith will be broken in on the right side. While he had to take his licks at the hands of DeMarcus Ware in the first week of camp, reports on his athleticism and effort level are encouraging. Since Marc Colombo and the club could not reach an agreement on a reduced salary, Sam Young looks to be in the pole position to earn the third tackle spot. Reports are that he was not able to increase his strength on his own over the offseason and that we would be wise to root for the starters' good health.
Kyle Kosier is also back and Leonard Davis - at least for now - is not, meaning that Montrae Holland has the starting role for the moment. Right guard looks like the weakest link in the starting lineup at the moment, and considering that he will be playing next to a rookie at right tackle and a center currently recovering from minor knee surgery, it's easy to be antsy about Holland. Though the Cowboys have not said this publicly, some in the media believe that they are still considering upgrading the spot. In the mean time, fourth rounder David Arkin is getting a lot of attention from Garrett and Hudson Houck.
As mentioned, Andre Gurode, now 32, is recovering from having his knee scoped recently, so he's not yet practicing. Phil Costa and Bill Nagy are getting extra looks in his absence.
Jay Ratliff is having a strong camp and seems to be taking to Rob Ryan's scheme. Josh Brent finished 2010 well and still looks like his backup.
All of the free agent maneuvering essentially amounted to the Cowboys swapping Stephen Bowen for Kenyon Coleman. Igor Olshansky and Marcus Spears, both of whom were quite underwhelming in 2010, are back, as is Jason Hatcher. Sean Lissemore figures to once again back up Olshansky. The Cowboys need more from this spot, but the personnel is not above average. Olshansky and Spears both play the run well, but Ryan will have to find other ways to mount middle pressure.
DeMarcus Ware figures to benefit greatly from Ryan's scheme, which will probably ask him to run forward more than Wade Phillips'. He did lead the league in sacks last season, but he was far from his most dominant form. Anthony Spencer must perform in his free agent season, after a big step backwards in 2010. He could be pushed by Victor Butler, who keeps getting better. Brandon Williams is also having a solid camp, and Ryan may well find ways to utilize all four.
Bradie James and Keith Brooking are back, but the hope is that they will be able to reduce their number of snaps. Sean Lee could be one of the few young players on the roster to force his way onto the field. Bruce Carter is not practicing yet, as he continues to rehab his knee injury.
Gerald Sensabaugh and Abram Elam are here on one-year deals to stabilize the secondary. The Cowboys missed out on upgrades, but they managed to avoid disaster, aka relying on Barry Church and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah to run coverages. Elam's experience with Ryan adds to his value here. Danny McCray and Andrew Sendejo will also vie for roster spots as the Cowboys look for successors for their starters.
Possibly motivated by salary cap restraints, the Cowboys decided to bring the gang back after one of the worst pass defense performances in franchise history. Terence Newman is dinged up once again and will miss the entire preseason and possibly a game or two to his groin injury. Mike Jenkins joins Spencer as the guys the team badly needs to rebound from a poor season. Orlando Scandrick will fill in for Newman while he's out and figures to be the third corner when he's back. Scandrick is also in a contract year, so he'll be looking to prove his value. Bryan McCann, Alan Ball and fifth rounder Josh Thomas will compete for backup spots.
David Buehler is off to a poor start in camp, and he may be pushed by rookie Dan Bailey, who has been much more accurate. Still, the new kickoff rules make that skill even more important, and that bodes well for Buehler. Mat McBriar and L.P. Ladouceur are expected to be back in their punting and long snapping roles, and they're among the best in the league at those spots.
Draft picks aside, this team made two additions - Elam and Coleman - and a handful of subtractions from their 6-10 team. The focus is on youth and improved performance, presumably because of the influence of Ryan and Garrett. That's believable on some fronts, considering the U-turn the club made after Phillips was let go last midseason. The other big factor, of course, is that the quarter back will be back after essentially playing five games last year.