Over the last several months I have seen some claim we should try and trade commodities such as Romo, Ware, Austin and Witten while they still have value.
The reason behind this is, they claim, the core of the Dallas Cowboys is getting older and there is little to no chance of rebuilding the talent in time for these players to make a run at a championship.
After looking at the roster, I see only five - possibly six - players who will be counted on in the 2012 season who will be over the 30 year old mark.
The truth is, in two years the Cowboys have gone from having an old roster to having players either in their prime or about to enter their prime.
For the 2012 season Jay Ratliff (31) and DeMarcus Ware (30) will be the only major contributors over 30 on defense. The Cowboys seem ready to move on from veterans Keith Brooking (37), Bradie James (32) and Terrance Newman (34). There is a possibility Newman will be brought back, but the Cowboys can save money by cutting him, and his salary and production are no longer in the same state (even if the state is Texas).
Offensively Tony Romo (32) and Jason Witten (30) will be the old men on the block. Kyle Kosier will be 34 in 2012, but if the Cowboy can find a suitable replacement for him, it would not cost the team to cut him from a salary cap standpoint (I think it would be around 1.5 M to cut him and approximately 2.1 M to keep him).
Long snapper L.P. Ladoucer (31) and punter Mat McBriar (33) are the only other contributors over 30 on the roster, and McBriar is in danger of being let go depending on his recovery from injury and the development of 23 year old punter Chris Jones.
Now, it is true, the Romo, Ratliff, Ware and Witten are the core of this team and have more good years behind them than ahead of them. But it is not unfathomable to see another three or four years of good production from this group.
Of the four only Ratliff has taken a step back in terms of production. Some may say Witten is declining, but in 2011 he set or tied career highs in average yards per catch (11.9), catches of 20 or more yards (15) and catches of 40 or more yards (2). He still had 79 receptions for 942 yards and five touchdowns.
Ware finished with his second highest sack total, 19.5, and is a half sack away from eclipsing 100 sacks for his career. Romo had arguably one of the best years of his career.
So while these stars are still capable of carrying this team despite their over 30 status, other players are about to enter the part of their respective careers where they will be expected to step into major production roles.
On offense, DeMarco Murray (24), Dez Bryant (24), and Tyron Smith (22) are players who could take on a much larger role and have yet to enter their prime years. Miles Austin (28) and Doug Free (29) are player who are in their prime years of production.
Add in players like John Phillips (25), Phillip Tanner (24), David Arkin (25) Kevin Kowalski (24), Bill Nagy (25) and Jeremy Parnell (26), and the Cowboys have a chance to develop a young core of players who can contribute.
Defensively Sean Lee (26) seems to be the only player capable of reaching the Ware/Ratliff level on a consistent basis. Mike Jenkins (27) has shown flashes of brilliance as well as moments of ineptitude. Jenkins has also been plagued by injuries which hamper his effectiveness.
Back in December, Gerald Sensabaugh signed a six-year $25 million contract, but only $8 million is guaranteed. Sensabaugh has proven to be a reliable, but unspectacular safety option. Similar to Sensabuagh the Cowboys locked up cornerback Orlando Scandrick (25) in August, inking him to a six-year $28.2 million contract with $10 million guaranteed. Jenkins is scheduled to be a free agent in 2013, but the trio of Scandrick, Sensabaugh and Jenkins are likely to be the core players in the secondary for the foreseeable future.
In terms of development the pickings are slim, Clifton Geathers (25), Sean Lissemore (25), Alex Albright (24), Victor Butler (25), Bruce Carter (24), Orie Lemon (25), Mario Butler (24), Barry Church (24), Danny McCray (24) and Justin Taplin-Ross (23) are all prospects with varying degrees of expectations pinned on them.
The Cowboys roster is full of players who are either in, or about to be in the prime of their years. There are still numerous holes to fill, but there are potential gems hidden on this roster capable of filling those holes.
If Cowboys have a smart off season where they are aggressive in free agency and have another good draft, there is potential for this team in 2012 to make a run at an NFC East title and playoff berth. The window for Romo, Witten, Ware and Ratliff is most assuredly beginning to slide closed, but by no means is it slamming shut.
A few shrewd moves here and there by the organization and there is a good chance the Cowboys will have the talent to give the core "old guys" a chance at a championship.
Just for fun, here is my ranking of Cowboy players 26 or younger (for 2012 season) - feel free to discuss, dissect or dismiss in the comment section.
1. Sean Lee (26) - Potential to turn into an elite MLB in the NFL
2. Tyron Smith (22) - Monster rookie season, if he transitions to LT and plays well there, could move into the top spot
3. Dez Bryant (24) - Receivers tend to break out in their third year, Bryant has the talent to be an elite WR in the NFL
4. DeMarco Murray (24) - Injury history is a concern, but the talent in undeniable
5. Dan Bailey (24) - Is he the answer to the Cowboys kicking woes
6. Felix Jones (25) - He is a better complementary back than lead guy, but defenses have to account for him when he is on the field
7. Orlando Scandrick (25) - Inconsistency has hurt him, but he can be a top flight cover guy at times
8. Sean Lissemore (25) - Seemed to improve every game, had to transition to the NFL from William & Mary and 2012 will be his third year in the NFL - could be a fast riser up this list next training camp
9. Bruce Carter (24) - Expectations will be sky high for the second year player out of North Carolina, showed flashes on special teams - can he replace James/Brooking and be the other half of the deadly "Bruce Lee" combo. He has the talent to move to the top of this list
10. David Arkin (25) - I am higher on Arkin than some, I think he will turn some heads in training camp 2012
11. Victor Butler (25) - After three years in the NFL Butler is who he is, a good backup
12. Barry Church (24) - Good special teams player who has potential as a backup safety and nickel LB
13. Kevin Kowalski (24) - Played well (for a rookie) when asked to come in, excited to see what Callahan and Co. can do with a full off season
14. Bill Nagy (25) - See Kevin Kowalski
15. Danny McCray (24) - Excellent on special teams, good depth player
16. Clifton Geathers (25) - Made a few good plays in preaseason
17. Orie Lemon (25) - Intriguing thumper of an ILB, probably never more than a backup
18. Mario Butler (24) - Needs to improve from rookie campaign, has some skills - could be a replacement for Alan Ball
19. Alex Albright (24) - Good training camp followed by disappearing act in preseason
20. Justin Taplin-Ross (23) - Really liked him coming out of Utah, Jerome Henderson will have several young guys he needs to "coach up"
Summary of my top 20 players 26 and under.
The top six players are all already major contributors to the team. I'm not a huge Scandrick fan, but all the players after him either have less experience or less talent. Lissemore, Carter and Arkin are going to be my players to watch in 2012.