Jason Witten and Tony Romo have been core players for the Cowboys for years now. But who will be the future core?
Core players. The stars an NFL team has to have to achieve great things. Some teams have a large group. Others have a serious lack of these standouts. While a team has to have contributions up and down the 53-man roster to succeed in this league, there is still little argument that can be made against the idea that you have to have that handful of truly outstanding players to achieve success. Without those players to make the impact they do, a team is not going to get into the playoffs with any regularity, much less hoist the Lombardi at the end of a season.
One of the concerns for the Dallas Cowboys is that the four players generally acknowledged to be the stars of the team are aging, with a shrinking number of seasons of top level play left for their careers. Another area that troubles fans of the team is the "dead zone" that happened in the latter part of last decade when the team added very little in the way of quality players to the team.
But it is a new era in Dallas. The time of Jason Garrett, with the RKGs, the Process, the concept that it is a privilege and not a right to be a Cowboy. What does this mean for the team and how are things starting to shape up for the future?
I started to think about this, and I pulled together some basic information about the established stars and the players that seem to be emerging into that role. And when I put it into a chart, it showed some things very plainly. There is a depressing reality - and signs of great hope for the coming years.
Take the jump to see what I mean.
I used a bit of a code here.
Gray - Current Core. The big four, the established star players for the Cowboys. Also the over 30 crowd.
Green - Rising Core. The young stars that already show every sign of being future star players.
Yellow - Likely Core. Players that have shown the potential in the past and are likely to be future stars.
White - Possible Core. These are four players that, for various reasons, I think have a very good chance of being stars for this team in a year or two.
The ages listed are for the start of the 2012 season.
|Player||Year acquired||How acquired||Age|
|Jason Witten||2003||Draft - Rd||30|
|DeMarcus Ware||2005||Draft - Rd 1||30|
|Jay Ratliff||2005||Draft - Rd 7||31|
|2010||Draft - Rd 1||23|
|2010||Draft - Rd 2||26|
|2010||Draft - Rd 7||24|
|2011||Draft - Rd 1||21|
|2011||Draft - Rd 2||24|
|2011||Draft - Rd 3||24|
|2012||Draft - Rd 1||22|
|2012||Draft - Rd 4||22|
The bar dividing the top and the bottom of the chart is black for a reason. This was a gaping, sucking hole of drafting ineptitude that caused so many of the struggles the team has seen in recent years. This is a simple, graphic, and truly inarguable illustration of the lack of talent brought into Dallas from 2006 through 2009. If you take out Tony Romo and Miles Austin, who as UDFAs were long shots to reach the level of play they have, then there are only three players from the drafts prior to 2010 that show the talent to contribute to this team at a playoff caliber level.
Pitiful. That is all that you can say about it. The fact that two of the players are likely Hall of Fame members is no excuse.
But look at how things have changed since then. While no one since then can be said to have achieved that superstar status yet, there are certainly players that are on the cusp. Tyron Smith and Sean Lee certainly have turned heads in the league, and DeMarco Murray is right there with them. Murray is a running back, which is historically a position that does not have as much longevity as some, but tackles and linebackers often have ten year careers of outstanding performance. Smith has the advantage of being remarkably young and may go even longer.
Then there are the four players I consider likely stars. Miles Austin and Dez Bryant are showing signs that they are going to benefit greatly from the offseason conditioning and, in Dez' case, coaching to become consistent, extremely potent receiving threats. Brandon Carr has had a very good OTA/minicamp, and we all expect Morris Claiborne to live up to his draft status.
The final four are a mix of speculation, projection, and, I suppose, wishful thinking on my part. Sean Lissemore is getting a lot of attention as a potential breakout player. Bruce Carter looked like a great match with Sean Lee so far in practice. Lawrence Vickers just brings in a resume for both play and leadership that inspires me. And with Matt Johnson, I just look at those 17 career interceptions in college and the need the team has at safety, and hope the perfect storm hits with him.
There are also some players I have on my personal watch list. Jason Hatcher, Tyrone Crawford, Cole Beasley and Ronald Leary all have some things about them that warrant some thought in this conversation, or at least a flight of fantasy. OK, maybe they are a stretch, especially Beasley and Leary, but I can dream. And who knows who else might catch fire and emerge to surprise everyone in the way DeMarco Murray and Miles Austin did?
But the real thing here is the number of players that have been brought onto the team since 2010 that have at least the potential for stardom. This is such a drastic change from the four years before that. Only two are free agents. The rest are from the draft, and show that the team has made a radical change for the better. And the fact that at least one of the free agents, Carr, is looking to have a major impact on this team is also encouraging. Not since Terrell Owens has a free agent looked to contribute so much to the team - and without all that drama. If a team can consistently add three or four impact players a year along with a few decent role players, it can sustain success in the NFL.
We can't forget that black hole of talent acquisition that, interestingly, largely coincided with the Wade Phillips era. No matter what you read into that, the evidence is that it is now clearly in the past. The new, mostly young talent may have arrived to give the four established stars a chance to make it to the top before their careers are over. And they provide an excellent foundation for the years going forward.