Jason Garrett likes to say that the Cowboys will "explore all avenues" in an attempt to improve their talent pool. Normally, this would refer to free agency, the draft, the host of undrafted free agents available every year, players waived by other teams, and sometimes even player trades.
This year, that source of talent may include players on the roster who took what is the equivalent of a medical redshirt year in 2013. A "medical redshirt" is a student who misses an entire year of competition due to injury and is granted an extension of his or her athletic eligibility to replace the lost season. The Cowboys' medical redshirts won't get an extension, but they will get a chance to show that they belong on the team and can contribute.
The Cowboys could have up to five players returning from a redshirt medical season. Add the three free agents signed so far, add 11 draft picks and perhaps some late signings, and the 2014 team could look significantly different than last year's edition.
- DE Anthony Spencer played all of 38 snaps last year before undergoing microfracture surgery on his knee. It's not a given that he'll sign with the Cowboys, much less be ready on opening weekend. But there is no doubt that a healthy Spencer would be a tremendous asset for the Cowboys on the defensive line.
- DE/DT Ben Bass, whom KD Drummond dubbed The Cowboys' Forgotten Man, has played 26 defensive snaps in two years for the Cowboys. After an impressive training camp, the team was very high on Bass but had to place him on IR after he suffered a separated shoulder, ending his 2013 season before it started.
- DE/DT Tyrone Crawford played well in a rotational role in his 2012 rookie season, notching 303 snaps before a torn Achilles at the start of training camp sidelined him for the 2013 season.
- FS Matt Johnson hasn't played a single regular season snap in two years with the Cowboys. The Cowboys remain intrigued by his potential and will give him another chance to show what he's got. On a team that's heavy on strong safety types, a healthy Matt Johnson could provide some much needed relief at the free safety spot.
- RB Lance Dunbar joined the team as an undrafted free agent and played sparingly, recording 91 snaps in 2012 and 121 snaps in an injury-marred 2013 season that saw him listed on the injury report seven times over the first 12 games before finally being placed on IR.
Outside of Spencer, the remaining four players haven't really seen a lot of NFL action so far. And while there really is no substitute for playing experience, their various injuries have afforded them something that the average incoming rookie doesn't have: By now, they are all familiar with the physical and mental demands of the NFL. They are familiar with the playbook. They should be stronger and, if they have sufficiently recovered from their various injuries, should be expected to compete for playing time. Also, even though 2014 is technically the third NFL season for the four guys, it's probably better to call 2014 the equivalent of their second season. And the second NFL season is the season when many young NFL players make their biggest jump in performance.
The one thing these players do not have going for them is that they do not have the allure of the new that makes the incoming class of rookies so exciting for fans and media alike. But just because they are not this year's shiny new toys doesn't mean they are of no value for the Cowboys. Far from it. Think about it this way:
What if, in addition to this year's 11 draft picks, the Cowboys could additionally get
- a first-round defensive end (Spencer)
- a third-round defensive end (Crawford)
- a fourth-round safety (Johnson)
- and two extra priority free agents (Bass & Dunbar)
Or, going strictly by the projected rounds on the 2014 CBSSports big board, what if they would get DE Kony Ealy (first round), DE Marcus Smith (third round), FS Dion Bailey (fourth round), as well as DE Larry Webster and RB Henry Josey as free agents? And again, that would be in addition to the 11 picks the Cowboys have.
In 2012, the Cowboys had five players who effectively redshirted their rookie seasons: Kyle Wilber played all of 16 snaps on defense. Matt Johnson, Danny Coale, Caleb McSurdy and Ronald Leary didn't play a single snap of NFL football in their rookie season. And then in 2013 Ronald Leary started 16 games for the Cowboys and Kyle Wilber will be competing for a starting SLB spot this year. That's not a bad haul for that redshirt rookie class.
But as nice as all of this (hypothetical speculation) may sound, there may also be a downside to the idea of the medical redshirt player. Because if you ignore everything you've ever heard about the danger of comparing apples and oranges, and mentally add up this year's eleven picks with the five or so medical redshirts, you might come to the erroneous conclusion that with so many draft picks at your disposal, trading up may be a good idea.
Just a few minutes ago (as I am writing this) Bryan Broaddus embarked on some mental arithmetic on how the Cowboys could trade up and what it would cost.
That's a no-no this year. The Cowboys need more quality players who can become starters, not less. And ultimately, that's what makes these medical redshirts so exciting: there's a chance that outside of Spencer, one or two of them could become starters down the line.
And that's already much more than can be said about a draft pick that you've traded away.