It was with great satisfaction that I read about San Francisco's 2012 draft class today: It seems that the vaunted 49ers, those paragons of drafting greatness, just released another member of their 2012 draft class, leaving them with just two members of the 2012 draft class still on the roster. And those remaining two haven't been signing beacons of draft prowess either - second-round pick RB LaMichael James had combined for 84 offensive snaps in two years, fourth-round guard Joe Looney has been inactive for 28 of 32 regular-season games and accumulated 71 career snaps.
But as I was making mental jumps of joy in malicious delight over the 49ers' misfortunes, an unbidden thought crossed my mind: Are the Cowboys 2012 rookies so much better?
Of the seven-player-strong 2012 draft class, only two are not on the Cowboys' roster anymore. WR Danny Coale received an injury settlement from the Cowboys after foot and ACL injuries and is now with the Steelers; ILB Caleb McSurdy tore his Achilles in his first training camp and was released after his second camp. He is now with the Rams.
Five draft picks remain on the roster from that draft class, who are joined by four undrafted free agents as nine players from the 2012 rookie class still with the Cowboys. And every one of these players faces some serious questions heading into 2014.
- CB Morris Claiborne (1st rd) lost his starting job to Orlando Scandrick and will likely enter camp as only the third guy on the depth chart. Two years after being drafted No. 6 overall, that is not really acceptable. Claiborne has this year to put it all together, or he may find himself traded out of Dallas.
- DE/DT Tyrone Crawford (3rd rd) 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. The Cowboys have high hopes for Crawford, and Hatcher sees Crawford as his natural successor, but Crawford will have to find a position somewhere on the D-line before starting his charge up the depth chart.
- FS Matt Johnson (4th rd) 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 a final 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, but another injury would likely end the Matt Johnson experiment.
- DE Kyle Wilber (4th rd) looked completely lost for one and a half seasons at DE, both in a 3-4 and 4-3 scheme, before mounting injuries forced the Cowboys to play him at SAM Linebacker, where he performed very well in a role that many believe secured him the starting spot this year as the SAM linebacker. But Kyle Wilber only move to LB in week 11 last year and only tallied a total of 200 snaps at the position. Can he repeat that performance over an entire season?
- TE James Hanna (6th rd) can't block but is incredibly fast. So what do the Cowboys do? Keep him in on to block on the majority of his snaps and throw the ball his way 24 times in two seasons. If the Cowboys can't find a way to use him effectively, then it may be in both parties best interest to part ways after the season and end this misunderstanding.
- OG Ron Leary (UDFA) sat out his rookie season, but started 16 games for the Cowboys last year at guard. Leary was the weakest link in a good offensive line last year. With Zack Martin set as a starter at one guard spot, can Leary improve enough to beat out Bernadeau for the remaining starter spot or will he be relegated to backup duty?
- WR Cole Beasley (UDFA) is battling to move up the depth chart, but with Terrance Williams in 2013 and Devin Street in 2014, the Cowboys have now twice drafted guys that will enter the depth chart above Beasley. Other teams have found ways to utilize players of Beasley's size and caliber, but in an offense that wants to emphasize the deep ball again, Beasley's time may be running out.
- RB Lance Dunbar (UDFA) is the second consecutive pocket Hercules who joined the team as an undrafted free agent. He has played sparingly over two years, 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. This is probably a make or break year for Dunbar, and if the Cowboys do indeed run a little more, that may be his chance.
- DE/DT Ben Bass, whom KD Drummond once 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. The Cowboys brought in four free agents for the D-line (Spencer, Melton, McClain, Mincey) and added an edge rusher in the draft with Demarcus Lawrence. It may get pretty tight for Bass.
This may read like a depressing list, and it's true that all of the players here face significant questions heading into their third year in the league. But that third year also holds a great promise for the nine young players here: many players don't fully develop until their third year in the NFL.
The assumption behind the third-year theory is that many young players need at least two years to develop. They need the time to learn how to hone their craft, understand the playbooks and develop physically and mentally. By now, these nine players 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.
The other things all nine guys have going for them is their youth. Young players can be mercurial. Young players can improve suddenly; they can improve in leaps and bounds; their potential for improvement is infinitely higher than that of any veteran.
A good example here is Barry Church. In 2011, Church played 171 defensive snaps, with the bulk coming at the beginning of the season, and the coaches using him less and less as the season wore on. Heading into 2012, Church was seen by many as a potential special teams player at best. But seemingly out of nowhere, Church emerged from the 2012 training camp as a bona fide starter, before his 2012 season was cut short by a torn Achilles. But Church worked back from his injury and started 16 games for the Cowboys last year.
The 2012 rookie class does 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.
Realistically, only Zack Martin and Demarcus Lawrence will be in the mix for starting jobs this season. All the other rookies are very long shots for a starting role in their rookie season. Not so the class of 2012. Provided they stay healthy, Claiborne, Crawford, Johnson, Wilber and Leary can be expected to compete for a starting spot, while Hanna, Beasley, Dunbar and Bass can all be expected to compete for significant playing time.
Overall, the calls of 2012 has disappointed so far. Can the Cowboys expect 'break out' seasons from the players entering their third year in the league in 2014? Each player's future in Dallas, and the Cowboys' 2014 season, may hinge on it.
Which payer from the 2012 rookie class do you expect to see break out this year?