Cowboys 2014 Free Agency: Dallas Goes For Youth Movement

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys have been steadily trimming the age of their roster over the last few years, and the releases of DeMarcus Ware and Miles Austin are two more steps in that process.

30 is a dangerous age in the NFL. Last week, player agent Jack Bechta opined in the National Football Post that teams are more focused on age than ever.

In twenty-even years as an agent I never heard teams talk more about players ages than they do now. If you are on the wrong side of 30, not named Manning, Brady, or Brees, you may as well be ready for a tap on the shoulder any day to be shown the exit.

And the Cowboys are one of those teams. DeMarcus Ware's release yesterday is just one more example of the Cowboys saying goodbye to a player over thirty years of age. One popular meme about the Cowboys that's been mindlessly perpetuated by lazy thinkers for the last few years is that the Cowboys have a habit of hanging on to their veteran players too long.

While addressing the press at the Senior Bowl two years ago, Jerry Jones told the assembled scribes about the Cowboys' plans to get younger as a team.

"We will get younger. Now that's not to say we won't bring in a veteran or two, but we'll get younger."

And if you take a look at the last five years, that's exactly what the Cowboys have done. Here's an overview of the greybeards (age 30 or older) on the team in each of the last five seasons who started at least six games:

2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 Projection
Player Age Player Age Player Age Player Age Player Age Player Age
F. Adams 34 J. Kitna 38 K. Kosier 33 T. Romo 32 T. Romo 33 T. Romo 34
K. Brooking 34 K. Brooking 35 T. Newman 33 J. Ratliff 31 J. Hatcher 31 J. Hatcher 32
M. Colombo 31 M. Colombo 32 K. Coleman 32 J. Hatcher 30 D. Ware 31 D. Ware 32
L. Davis 31 L. Davis 32 M. Holland 31 N. Livings 30 J. Witten 31 J. Witten 32
K. Kosier 31 K. Kosier 32 T. Romo 31 D. Ware 30 M. Austin 30
T. Newman 31 T. Newman 32 A. Elam 30 J. Witten 30 A. Spencer (??) 30
P. Crayton 30 A. Gurode 31 B. James 30 D. Free 30
A. Gurode 30 T. Romo 30 J. Ratliff 30
8 8 8 6 4 3-4

Under Garrett, the Cowboys have made an effort to purge the greybeards from their roster. For 2014, only three starters are currently projected to be on the list: Romo, Witten and Doug Free, who turned 30 in January and is entering the last year of his contract. DeMarcus Ware will be gone and Jason Hatcher is unlikely to return. Miles Austin, who would have turned 30 this year, has also been cut, so he won't make that list, and Anthony Spencer, who turned 30 in January, may or may not remain with the Cowboys. Of course, the list doesn't contain any potential 30+ free agent signings, but the overall trend is clear.

Look closely at the the names in the 2012, 2013 and 2014 columns. Outside of Doug Free, almost every player listed missed playing time due to injury or was significantly affected by an injury. If nothing else, the younger players replacing them should have a lower risk of injury.

In part, the Cowboys' youth movement is about getting younger and hopefully healthier. But it's also about getting healthier financially. Billy Beane, general manager of MLB's Oakland A's and protagonist of Michael Lewis's Moneyball, described the issue succinctly in an interview with the Financial Times a few years back.

"Nothing strangulates a sports club more than having older players on long contracts," explains Beane, "As they become older, the risk of injury becomes exponential. It’s less costly to bring [on] a young player. If it doesn’t work, you can go and find the next guy, and the next guy. The downside risk is lower, and the upside much higher."

But the type of roster rejuvenation the Cowboys are engaged in comes at a price, as they inevitably incur a sizable chunk of dead money against the salary cap in the process.

In 2012, the Cowboys were weighed down by about $30 million in dead money from the previous year's releases. A year later, they still had to account for $17.3 million against the 2013 cap. This year, they have to account for about $23 million in dead money, led by cap hits for Ware ($8.5), Ratliff ($6.9), Austin ($2.7), and Livings ($2.1).

That dead money is the bitter medicine the Cowboys have to take now for some of the contractual mistakes they've made in the past. But as they say, if it doesn't taste bad, it's not medicine. Dealing with the dead money is something the Cowboys have to do now to be in better shape going forward.

Roster rejuvenation is a long-term strategy that runs counter to a quick-fix mentality that is the hallmark of many free agency signings. Failing to continuously rejuvenate the roster almost always comes back to bite you in a big way and you'll find yourself scrambling and trying to plug holes at almost any cost (in dollars or player age) in free agency instead of building for the future.

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