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Helman: What Does A Practice Squad Look Like?


FRISCO, Texas – It's one of my favorite refrains throughout training camp.

Any time a young player makes a play, or misses a play, or gets hurt – or basically does anything, I mention the practice squad. It's a classic fallback for when we don't know how to feel about a guy.

The reasoning is obvious. There are 53 jobs on an NFL active roster, and even though coaches don't want to admit it, the vast majority of those are spoken for. When the Cowboys arrived in Oxnard, Calif., for the start of camp, they probably had a good idea about 45 of the 53 spots on this team.

That's where the practice squad comes into play. NFL rules allow clubs to carry as many as 10 young, promising players to help them practice during the season and hopefully develop along the way. So while there might not be many jobs available on the active roster for the rookies and other youngsters, it makes a ton of sense to keep them hanging around on the practice squad.

Thinking about that made me wonder, though: what exactly will the practice squad look like? It's one thing to throw names around, it's another thing to try and hammer out exactly who the Cowboys will opt to sign.

So what I did was, I went back and looked at every Week 1 practice squad during Jason Garrett's tenure as Cowboys head coach. Which players have the Cowboys signed to the practice squad at the outset of a season?

Now, obviously this is a moving target. Practice squads change on a regular basis, and coaching staffs adapt them to meet their roster needs. But this feels like a few reasonable guesses at what to expect when this year's practice squad comes together.

It's likely going to include a draft pick

This isn't scientific, but it just feels like a really good guess. The Cowboys boast a deep roster, and it was always ambitious to think this year's draft class was going to account for eight of 53 roster spots. The math just doesn't make sense.

Trysten Hill, Connor McGovern and Tony Pollard aren't going anywhere, but after that it's guesswork.

The Cowboys drafted these guys for a reason, though, and they'll surely want to continue working with some of them. Recent history proves this trend. Bo Scarbrough, Marquez White, Rico Gathers, Will Smith and Danny Coale all spent time on the practice squad after failing to make the roster as rookies.

If they don't make the team, both Mike Jackson and Jalen Jelks seem like perfect candidates to join the practice squad.

Striking the balance

There's a tough balancing act that comes with putting together a practice squad.

On one hand, the Cowboys would prefer that all 10 practice squad players have the potential to develop into meaningful players. If you'll remember, Blake Jarwin started on the practice squad just two short years ago.

At the same time, you need players that can help you get through the grind of three weekly football practices. Think about the fact that Tyron Smith and Zack Martin, among others, will likely have limited workloads during the practice week. Think about the fact that injuries currently have the Cowboys slightly short-staffed at tight end.

If they are cut, and assuming they clear waivers, it's easy to imagine guys like Mitch Hyatt, Brandon Knight and Cody McElroy could have futures here. In addition to their developmental potential, they can help the team get through practice.

Fresh legs

In looking over the last eight years, something that tends to stand out about the composition of the practice squad – it's centered around guys who can run.

Since 2011, the Week 1 practice squad has featured 11 wide receivers, 11 linebackers and 10 defensive backs. During most of Jason Garrett's tenure, they've opted to sign multiple of each of those three position types.

Again, getting through practice is a big part of that. Three practices per week means there's going to be a lot of routes run and a lot of ground to cover. No team is going to put all that strain on its two-deep – not with a game to play on Sunday. Not to mention, these types of players can do a variety of jobs, whether that means lining up in multiple receiver spots, shifting from corner to safety or playing special teams.

There might not be room for them on the active roster, but guys like Jon'Vea Johnson, Reggie Davis, Nate Hall, Justin Phillips, Mike Jackson and Donovan Olumba fit this bill.

New faces

As much as we might focus on this team's players, there'll be some guys we're unfamiliar with, one way or another.

For starters, there's no predicting the waiver wire. If this team is as talented as we think it is, other NFL clubs will undoubtedly have some level of interest in the Cowboys' cuts. All told, 37 guys will be released, and some of this will draw outside interest.

But even if that's not the case, NFL personnel departments have eyes all over the league. The Cowboys will have a bead on other teams' cuts, as well. Perhaps an AFC team will release someone who can upgrade the Cowboys' tight end depth chart, or perhaps someone in the NFC South will cut a running back who is better than what the Cowboys had in camp.

Every year without fail, a few new names pop up on the practice squad. This year probably won't be different.

QB is the key

There are two types of quarterbacks who make the practice squad, and the 2019 Cowboys might employ both.

The first is the obvious: a talented, developmental prospect that you want to continue to work with. Mike White might not be good enough to make the current 53-man roster, but the Cowboys might want more time with him to see if he can become a viable NFL player.

The other kind is the utility man. There aren't a ton of reps to go around for a practice squad quarterback, but the right type of talent can really benefit a team. Back in 2015, Jameill Showers earned his keep by offering a fantastic look as a scout team quarterback. He mimicked Russell Wilson and other athletic quarterbacks in practice. He also took reps on various special teams, helping meet the demands of the practice week.

Showers is out of practice squad eligibility, but Taryn Christion fits that bill perfectly. He's worked at a number of different positions, including quarterback, receiver and special teams. If he makes it onto the practice squad, he could fill half a dozen different roles. There's obvious value in that.

That brings up two questions. Firstly, will either player clear waivers? As much as White has struggled this preseason, he still plays the game's most important position. Another team may remember White from the pre-draft process, and if they decide to take a chance on him, then he's gone. Christion has a much lower profile, but it's possible someone could be intrigued by the work he's done this past month.

The second question is whether the Cowboys can afford to give two of their 10 practice squad spots to quarterbacks. As we've outlined above, you want your practice squad players to fill a lot of roles, so there just might not be room for two young quarterbacks.

We've seen this team carry both kinds of quarterbacks in the past. Showers spent three years on the practice squad in a variety of roles, while both Alex Tanney and Kellen Moore spent time here in that developmental role.

How this year's situation shakes out will be interesting to watch.

Tallying It Up

By my count, that gives us roughly 12 names to work with, not including players from other rosters. There's no way this list will be 100 percent accurate, but it should provide a decent road map of what the practice squad looks like when it's finalized.