Joey Ickes and I have done a couple of rather premature roster projections (check out our latest if you haven't already). In doing the last one a couple of things jumped out at me. First, Joey and I are apparently drinking the same Kool Aid, since our rosters were almost identical, down to the practice squad. And we did not see each other's ideas before doing our own.
But second, I noticed how the team has made a real, and apparently successful, attempt to build the roster primarily with players it has acquired directly from the college ranks. Coty Saxman also saw this, and talked in his recent post about how Dallas is countering the ever present threat of injuries by creating quality depth. In it, he talked about how the team made a major change after the 2009 Draft from Hell. As often happens here, those two posts spurred an idea for me, and I decided to take a cumulative look at what has happened since that miserable experience.
Although we are really still guessing about which players will remain after the final cut down, it is clear in looking through the current roster and combining that with the reports that came out of the media present at the OTAs and minicamp that the Cowboys are seeing more success with the players they draft and sign as undrafted free agents. Not only that, but there seems to be a clear trend that they are getting better every year.
Look at a couple of charts, one for the 2010 through 2012 draftees (round drafted in parentheses), and another of the UDFAs from those years currently on the roster.
|2010 Draft||2011 Draft||2012 Draft|
|Dez Bryant (1)*||Tyron Smith (1)*||Morris Claiborne (1)*|
|Sean Lee (2)*||Bruce Carter (2)*||Tyrone Crawford (3)|
|Akwasi Owusu-Ansah (4)||DeMarco Murray (3)*||Kyle Wilber (4)|
|Sam Young (6)||David Arkin (4)||Matt Johnson (4)|
|Jamar Wall (6)||Josh Thomas (5)||Danny Coale (5)|
|Sean Lissemore (7)||Dwayne Harris (6)||James Hanna (6)|
|Shawn Chapas (7)||Caleb McSurdy (7)|
|Bill Nagy (7)|
(Red highlights indicate players no longer in the NFL. Green highlights indicate players currently on another NFL roster. * indicates starter or ST specialist.)
|2010 UDFA||2011 UDFA||2012 UDFA|
|Phil Costa||Alex Albright||Ben Bass|
|Danny McCray||Dan Bailey*||Cole Beasley|
|Barry Church||Kevin Kowalski||Tim Benford|
|Phillip Tanner||Lance Dunbar|
It can hardly be more clear from a quick glance at these charts that the Cowboys have gotten dramatically better at acquiring talent out of college, and continue to improve. Six starters and two specialists. Most of the others are either already penciled in for depth/situational roles, and every one on this list is certainly still in competition for a roster spot. Only Danny Coale and Tim Benford could be labeled long shots to make the final 53, with the recent reports of Caleb McSurdy doing very well with the second team defense. He also may be used as a fullback if the team does not carry that position on the final roster.
It is quite clear that things have changed radically since 2009, and even more so since Jason Garrett put on the head coach's hat. Even though the Cowboys no longer have three of the 2011 class, all of those players are still with the league, at least for now. And the 2012 class, who had several members who could not even get on the field last year, has a good chance of seeing every draftee, plus most of the UDFAs listed, all making the team.
This fits very well with Coty's assertion that the team has broken the code on drafting people who help your depth and have a chance to become a starter one day. Already, Matt Johnson looks to be in a real battle to start this year, and is likely to break through at some point. James Hanna could be considered a starter if the 12 formation becomes the standard set for the Cowboys, and if he isn't, that role will go to 2013 draftee Gavin Escobar. Dwayne Harris is contending to be the third WR, a key position, and the list just goes on.
I did not even address the 2013 draft class. Although they are just now trying to earn their roster spot, early returns would indicate that there is at least a 50/50 chance that every one of them will make the team. Brandon McGee has a real shot at making the roster as well, and several other UDFAs will likely make it to the practice squad with a chance of becoming the next Ben Bass or Ron Leary.
If anyone out there still thinks Dallas does a terrible job drafting, they need to look at those charts and think again. The draft process has improved dramatically. And I do not think it is a coincidence that the really good years started with the ascension of Jason Garrett.
The head coach of an NFL team has many responsibilities, but one of the most important is the acquisition of talent. He may rely on his scouting department and his assistants for input, but it is on his head to make sure they are getting the job done. He provides the direction and establishes the culture. No matter what other criticisms you may have of Garrett, here is concrete proof that he is doing an outstanding job in this area.
And make no mistake, the players the Cowboys are drafting and signing must first and foremost fit the Garrett image. Yes, RKG strikes again. While it is not a foolproof system and there are bound to be some misfits who slip through now and then, by and large, Garrett has started putting together a roster of, well, Garettesque players. Hard working, football-intelligent, low ego types who put the success of the team first and foremost. The last real misses for the team were all in 2010 (and that can include Josh Brent, who was a supplemental draft pick that year). Since then, every one of the draftees and many of the UDFAs have shown they are at least worthy of a chance to make an NFL roster. There are 22 names on those charts, brought in under Garrett, that are on the roster. While several may yet fall by the wayside, clearly once you add in the 2013 rookies, it is very likely that 27 or 28 players, or over half the team, are going to be players picked by the Cowboys under Garrett. Young, eager, and, thanks to the rookie pay scale, very economical to employ. Additionally, these are players who are brought up in the Dallas system. And the Cowboy Way.
This is the way you build an NFL team in the salary cap era. And these are not a bunch of career backups or journeymen players, either. There are already several starters and many more who show a lot of promise for the future. This is one reason why Stephen Jones is talking about winning a championship. And this is why every fan of the Cowboys should be hoping that the success comes soon and silences the talk of replacing Garrett.
This could the beginning of a new winning tradition in Dallas.