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Dallas Cowboys Wishlist: Divisional Round Edition

Last week, after the wildcard games, I penned a post in which I looked at one aspect of each of the eight teams I would like to see in or on the Cowboys in 2012 and beyond. I planned on crafting another, similar post after watching this weekend's divisional round, but one team in particular caught my eye, to such a degree that I thought it merited further, and singular, examination: the San Francisco 49ers.

When it has been pointed out in recent weeks that the Cowboys have a rookie head coach and that, as a result, there is an expected learning curve, the impatient among us have countered with the 49ers as exhibit A: they, too, have a rookie HC, Jim Harbaugh, yet they made the playoffs, even securing the NFC's second seed. And, as things played out, they will end up hosting the NFC championship game. To make matters worse for Cowboys fans, the 49ers were a "bad team" that had ranged from mediocre to terrible for several years (the last time they were above .500 was 2002). So, the argument ran, Harbaugh managed to completely "turn around" the organization; this morning on the Norm Hitzges radio show, I heard someone say he had "the Midas touch."

Apparently, Harbaugh is a magician and Garrett isn't; the 'Niners win and Cowboys lose the HC hiring game. But wait, there's more to the story that this. I'd like to begin by turning to a fascinating blog post that appeared last week on Pro Football Reference. The author, "Doug," asked, "how are good teams built?" Searching for answers, he looked at NFL teams from 1980-2006, and divvied them up into good (10+ wins), average (7-9 wins) and bad (6 or fewer wins). For each, he broke down the roster two ways: first, by the round in which players were drafted; second, whether they were home-grown (i.e., drafted by the team they were playing for) or acquired from another team.

The numbers, as you'll see if you hit the linky above, are interesting. For most teams, the numbers were very close (all three levels average 3.8-3.9 second rounders on the roster, for example). There are subtle trends: the better teams have slightly more high-round draftees on the roster. In recent years (which, for this study, means 2000-2006), however, this skews more clearly, allowing Doug to reach the following conclusion: "the good teams are starting more first round picks than the bad teams, but it's not first round players they acquired from other teams, it's their own first round picks." In short, the better teams have managed to accumulate more elite-level talent.

Some cool tables and rabblicious concusions after the jump...

With this in mind, lets take a look at the Cowboys and 49ers rosters, focusing on players who were drafted in rounds 1-3. San Francisco first:

Homegrown 1st Rounders Homegrown 2nd Rounders Homegrown 3rd Rounders
Alex Smith (’05) Shawntae Spencer Frank Gore
Vernon Davis (’06) Chilo Rachal Adam Snyder
Patrick Willis (’07) Colin Kaepernick Reggie Smith
Joe Staley (’07) NaVorro Bowman
Michael Crabtree (’09) Chris Culliver
Anthony Davis (‘10) Ray McDonald
Mike Iupati (’10)
Aldon Smith (’11)
Imported 1st Rounders Imported 2nd Rounders Imported Third Rounders
Braylon Edwards (Clev) Madieu Williams (Cin) Ahmad Brooks (Cin)
Ted Ginn (Mia) Tavares Gooden (Balt)
Carlos Rogers (Wash)
Justin Smith (Con)
Donte Whitner (Buf)

A few things to note here: 1) The 'Niners boast 25 players, over half of their game-day roster, drafted in the "premium" rounds; 2) the most impressive aspect of this: 13 first rounders on the roster; 3) other than 2008, they have done very well in round one; 4) they have done a masterful job acquiring top-level talent initially drafted by traditionally bad clubs (Cleveland, Cincy, Buffalo, Washington), guys who likely underperformed because they didn't have good coaching or weren't surrounded by loads of talent; 5) as a result of their talent-acquisition philosophy, they have only 9 UDFAs on the roster, five of whom are rookies.

Now lets look at the Cowboys' talent base:

Homegrown 1st Rounders Homegrown 2nd Rounders Homegrown 3rd Rounders
Terence Newman (’03) Martellus Bennett Jason Witten
DeMarcus Ware (’05) Sean Lee Jason Hatcher
Marcus Spears (’05) Bruce Carter DeMarco Murray
Anthony Spencer (’07)
Felix Jones (’08)
Mike Jenkins (‘08)
Dez Bryant (’10)
Tyron Smith (’11)
Imported 1st Rounders Imported 2nd Rounders Imported Third Rounders
Keith Brooking (Atl) Derrick Dockery (Wash)
Laurent Robinson (Atl)

Dallas has as many homegrown first rounders on the roster, eight, as San Francisco does. The key difference is the amount of imported first rounders San Fran has brought on board. A few other takeaways: 1) at least four (and as many as six) of these players won't be on the roster in 2012 (I've placed lines through these player's names; 3) the 'Niners have acquired much more talent along the offensive and defensive lines (7 big uglies to 3), a fact that oundly was in evidence on Saturday, as they beat the Saints along the lines; 4) the Cowboys have 19 UDFAs on the roster, seven of whom are rookies.

This last observation is telling. Both teams have roughly equitable numbers of premium homegrown picks on their respective rosters. The key lies in importing elite talent: where the 'Niners have brought in 5 first-rounders from other teams, Dallas has only the aging Keith Brooking, who wasn't a starter in 2011 (and wouldn't have been on a reasonably deep roster). Thus, the roster spots San Francisco has filled with premium draft pick-level talent are filled in Dallas by UDFAs (and I'm not talking about Romo and Austin here, but the likes of Barry Church and Phil Costa). Want to know why the 'Niners are playing next weekend with a chance to fight for a sixth Lombardi and the Cowboys are watching the tournament from home? Look no further than this disparity.

By extension: want to know why Harbaugh had a Midas touch? Its because he inherited a really freakin' talented roster (particularly alng the lines) that had been growing up under previous coaches Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary and became fully-fledged in 2011. Before we condemn Garrett for failing to achieve what Harbaugh has, let's give him a similarly talented roster, a front seven that can take over games, an elite running game, and an offensive line that can dominate in the fourth quarter.

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