Over the last couple of weeks, we've looked at the playing time of the Cowboys' recent rookie classes, wondered who the 2013 breakout player could be and how much playing time the 2013 draft class could see this year.
Along the way, we touched on a couple of names that will likely be Cowboys franchise players in a couple of years: the Cowboys' young guns. In five years or so some of the young guns on the current roster will be the faces of the Dallas Cowboys. So today, we'll look at who the top ten guys under the age of 25 are.
The reason we're going for 25 is that Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com last year looked at the league's top ten players under the age of 25, and 25 felt like a good cut-off age. When I then set out to compile the list for the Cowboys, I thought it'd be an easy exercise. Before I even started compiling names, I thought that I'd have to add an addendum with the players not making the list. Turns out, that wasn't the case, as some of the players that I was thinking of for this list are already 25 years or older: DeMarco Murray, Bruce Carter, Dan Bailey are all 25, Phil Costa, Sean Lissemore and Orlando Scandrick will all be 26 by the time the season starts and Sean Lee will even turn 27 on July 22nd this year - those guys are not spring chicken anymore.
So without further ado, here are the top ten young guns on the Cowboys' roster, all of whom will still be under 25 at the start of the 2013 regular season on September 5, 2013.
|Rank||Name||POS||Experience||Age on Opening Day 2013|
|1||Dez Bryant||WR||3||24 years, 10 months, 0 days|
|Dez Bryant squeezes into this list with just two months to spare, and I'm not sure that calling him a "young gun" is doing him justice any longer. Bryant came into his own in the second half of last season and now looks to be everything the Cowboys expected when they moved up in the first round to get him. There is no denying his athletic ability, and he is electrifying to watch. There are other very good wide receivers in the league, but very few bring such a level of raw energy and intensity to the game, and it will be Bryant's "intangibles" more than his play that will make him a superstar in the league.
As Garrett would say, "Passion. Emotion. Enthusiasm." Nobody has more of it than Dez Bryant. Bryant has the stuff to be the emotional leader of this team; he already provides the emotional spark when the Cowboys need it. There's still a long way to go, but Bryant is beginning to fill out that no. 88 jersey.
|2||Tyron Smith||LT||2||22 years, 8 months, 24 days|
|Incredibly, Smith already has two years of NFL starting experience and is still the second youngest player on this list. Smith won't even be 23 years old by the time the season starts. In his second year at left tackle and his second year under Bill Callahan, Smith is poised to take a big step in his performance. A step he has prepared for diligently, taking karate classes in the offseason to improve his hand-eye coordination and adding 10 pounds of weight to "be a better run-blocker and be stronger and more physical."|
||23 years, 6 months, 28 days|
|Secondary coach Jerome Henderson said that Claiborne’s offseason wrist surgery impacted his rookie year significantly: he wasn’t able to participate in OTAs and wasn’t able to spend enough time in the weight room to gain NFL-level strength, and Claiborne had a rocky rookie season as a result.
The Cowboys famously had ranked as the "the highest-rated DB since Deion Sanders", and towards the end of the season, with his confidence increasing, we began to see glimpses of what he could be capable of. When you combine a full offseason in which he's already added eight pounds of muscle, a year of NFL experience and his talent level, then you could have the makings for a huge sophomore season, especially in the new defensive scheme.
||23 years, 9 months, 13 days|
|People tend to forget that Crawford had a college production ratio of 1.62, the highest number of any defensive lineman in the 2012 draft. With 303 snaps in 2012, Crawford saw a moderate amount of playing time in the Cowboys' defensive line rotation as a defensive end. He acquitted himself well and saw his snap count increase in the second half of the season. Like the other rushmen on the defensive line, Crawford should benefit immensely from the new scheme.
And while it's highly unlikely that he'll win a starting job at DE over either Spencer or Ware, he should see of lot of action in rotation duty, with maybe some starts towards the end of the season.
|5||Matt Johnson||S||1||24 years, 1 months, 15 days|
|Critics deride him as the best safety to have never played a snap in the NFL, but those same critics have never seen him in practice either. What we know is that the Cowboys are extremely bullish on Johnson - to a degree they put him on "IR designated for return" last year as they were looking to play him in case they made the playoffs.
Johnson is already taking first-team snaps in OTAs and has caught the eye of at least one teammate: “His ball skills are incredible,” Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne said. “When the ball is in the air, he knows how to go up and play it.”
For Cowboys fans who've been underwhelmed by a succession of one-and-done starters at safety - Ken Hamlin (2009), Alan Ball (2010), Abe Elam (2011) and Danny McCray (2012) combined for only three interceptions in four years - any player with even a modicum of ball skills will appear like a Godsend.
||TE||1||24 years, 1 months, 23 days|
|Gavin Escobar may have the draft pedigree, but Hanna has a full year of NFL experience under his belt. And where Escobar ran a lowly 4.84 at the combine (he improved that to 4.70 at his pro day), Hanna ran the fastest 40 of any TE with a blistering 4.43 a year earlier.
There's every indication that the ’12 Personnel’ or 2-TE set is going to be Dallas’ base offense. In the base set, Jason Witten looks like he'll be joined Hanna (who apparently still has a lead over Escobar) as the "second" tight end, while Escobar will come in for the "Big 12" package, which sounds like a short yardage or goal line package to take advantage of Escobar's size. Escobar may end up getting the TDs (and with them, the glory) but Hanna will likely get the yards to set up the TD attempt.
|7||Travis Frederick||OC||Rookie||22 years, 8 months, 4 days|
|Including a rookie who hasn't done squat in this list may be a bit of a stretch, but you can't ignore the positive impact he may have on the entire offensive line. Frederick projects as a starter and as such is the only rookie we'll include in this list.|
|8||Ronald Leary||OG||1||24 years, 4 months, 7 days|
|Competition for a starting spot along the interior offensive line will likely be fierce this year. In the recent OTAs, David Arkin and Ronald Leary split time at right guard in place of starter Mackenzy Bernadeau, who is still recovering from off-season right shoulder surgery. Last year, the Cowboys promoted Leary to the active roster after the Oakland raiders tried to claim him off the practice squad in December, and the Cowboys like how he's developed over the last year.|
|9||Cole Beasley||WR||1||24 years, 4 months, 10 days|
|Cole Beasley is up against tall competition for a roster spot. 12 wide receivers are competing for five, perhaps six, roster spots. But in a league that values quick, shifty slot receivers very highly, Beasley may have found his niche. And his 15 receptions for 128 yards last year also work in his favor.|
|10||Sterling Moore||CB||2||23 years, 7 months, 1 days|
|Moore was plucked off the Patriots practice squad last year, and while still young, already has two years of NFL experience. In New England, Moore was being developed as a "Hybrid DB", and was used as a nickel/dime corner, playing what the Pats term a "heavy safety". That is a player who is positioned like a middle linebacker when the Pats were in a Tampa 2 type, 4-3 alignment on defense, but who is seen more as a coverage player.
In his two years in the league, he's already played 699 snaps on defense, including 102 in five games for the Cowboys, and that could become more this season.
In the NFL, there are a couple of premier positions that you absolutely have to have locked down because they are almost impossible to acquire in free agency. How often do quality left tackles or edge rushers make it to free agency in the NFL? Almost never.
The premium that teams pay to have a quality player at those positions on their roster is reflected in the 2012 franchise tag numbers by position:
|Position||2013 Tag Value
||Position||2013 Tag Value|
|Quarterback||$14.896 million||Defensive tackle||$8.450 million|
||Running back||$8.219 million|
|Cornerback||$10.854 million||Safety||$6.916 million|
|Wide receiver||$10.537 million||Tight end||$6.066 million|
|Offensive line||$9.828 million||Kicker/Punter||$2.977 million|
Excluding the QB position, the top four Cowboys players under 25 cover the top four most expensive positions in the NFL. That bodes well for the future of the franchise. The Cowboys have one of the best young left tackles in the league. They have one of the most promising corners league-wide, a premier receiver with height and a defensive end who may be able to rush the passer. And if you were to argue that Crawford is a DT and the Cowboys need a DE, that's what the 2014 draft is for.
Who's missing on this young guns list, and which player would you slot differently?