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Reasons For Optimism: 2013 Cowboys Rookie Class Poised To Take A Leap Forward

Historically, the biggest leap forward happens in the second year of a player's career, which is good news for Cowboys fans, given the early success of Dallas' 2013 rookie class.

This man is poised to break through the rookie wall
This man is poised to break through the rookie wall
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

On the last day of 2013, O.C.C. penned a post in which he demonstrated, by looking at snap counts, that the 2013 draft crop was the most productive Cowboys class since 2008. The next day, the first of 2014, he followed that up with an excellent piece showing that the '13 class had the highest percentage of single-season total team snaps (15.3%) since the 2005 class' 16.3% mark. The catch here is that the '05 bunch did it in their fourth year; the 2013 group did it as rookies (quick caveat: the data begins in 2008, so we don't have figures on, say, the 2005 class' first three seasons).

As The Cool One points out, the Cowboys got 43 starts from their 2013 rookie class, the NFL's 10th-highest total. And, with Terrance Williams, J.J. Wilcox and, possibly, DeVonte Holloman gearing up to assume starting roles in 2014, those numbers are likely to grow. The larger takeaway here is that Dallas' 2013 rooks enjoyed an unusually high level of success and are likely to get even better. Why? Because of the second-year leap, of course.

Back in the bang-bang 90s, Jimmy Johnson often reminded us that young NFL players take their biggest step forward between their rookie season and second year. This makes a lot of sense: as rookies, most players' heads are spinning; they struggle to adjust to a new city, a new team, new coaches, schemes and expectations. For the first time in their lives, they are full-time football players, a brave new world that requires a great deal of adjustment and increased professionalism and focus.

Take a moment to consider what happens between football players' final collegiate season and their first NFL training camp: they spend most of it working out to achieve success at the combine and their respective pro days. Because a couple tenths of a second in the 40-yard dash can mean several hundred thousand dollars, draftable collegians spend most of their training time drilling the key measurable tests: 40-yard dash, three-cone drill, short shuttle.

In order to succeed at these drills, players often will "lean out," dropping weight to get quicker and faster. In short, they get into "testing shape" rather than "football shape." While their workouts may lead to terrific numbers in Indianapolis, they don't help them get into football-specific shape, which requires the kind of extensive and precisely calibrated lifting and running program that NFL veterans undergo each offseason.

We've seen this in recent years, especially during the rookie minicamp and first OTA sessions. Incoming rooks often lack the proper football conditioning to compete. Recall Jakar Hamilton's first impression last spring: puking on the sidelines just an hour into the first minicamp practice. And, while the newly-minted pros are thrown into an NFL strength program after they are drafted, they are light years behind the veterans by the time they join up with the elder statesmen. For players such as Cowboys' seventh-rounder Terrance Mitchell, whose schools employ the quarter system, and are forbidden by NFL rules to join their NFL teams until after graduation, this problem is exacerbated.

Once they make it through their rookie seasons, however, second-year players have an opportunity to train with their teams for the duration of the offseason program. They can begin to work on what is known as "functional football movement" in the weight room, while improving their conditioning, lateral speed and linear speed out on the field. That first-time immersion in an NFL-caliber weight program - which is far more advanced than even the most sophisticated college programs - makes a tremendous difference. Consider that Gavin Escobar has reportedly added ten pounds of much-needed muscle this offseason. He and the Cowboys would both have liked for him to do this last offseason, but he simply didn't have the time.

Second-year players don't only make strength gains, they become much more comfortable in the way their organization conducts business, from where and when to meet, and how to prepare for those meetings, to the expectations of their respective coordinators and position coaches, to the larger organizational infrastructure. With those more global concerns out of the way, players can spend an entire offseason focused on nuances of alignment and technique.

A great deal of that comes from studying tape. Most draftable-level college players win one-on-one matchups by exploiting superior athletic ability. As a consequence, they don't develop NFL-ready study habits. During their rookie seasons, when NFL coaching staffs don’t have the luxury of waiting around for rookies to catch up while they are devising game plans, good study habits are acquired haphazardly and on the fly. It's during that first full offseason that first-year players can really settle in and devote themselves to their books iPads.

Most obviously, getting one's head into one's computer is useful in studying scheme tendencies; defensive backs like J.J. Wilcox or B.W. Webb, for example, can get clearer on fundamental questions: what do wide receiver splits tell us? How about personnel groupings? When, given the formation and alignment, might we expect a deep ball? Multiple verticals? A hi-lo concept?

In addition, a great deal of work in the filmroom involves players studying their own games: technique, leverage, keys, hand placement, eyes, etc. This is intellectual "core work": productive NFL players learn to self-scout and to improve their games by watching film. If they played much as rookies, second-year players have a library of plays to study how opponents targeted them, focus on the situations where they got beat and find ways to correct that. In addition, they can use tape to examine the leading players at their respective positions, especially those that play in the same scheme, to study their footwork, mechanics, and hand placement.

And the beauty of the offseason is that there are opportunities a-plenty for practical implementation of that study. Firstly, the facility is open every day to grab a teammate and go to work on the field; Jason Garrett often tells us the story of Michael Irvin repeatedly taking him down to the practice field so the future Hall of Famer could run routes until he puked - and all that throwing also helped the young Garrett to improve his technique: footwork, timing, release point. Furthermore, OTAs and minicamp provide young players space to work on their technique with their position coaches without training camp's compact timeline and attendant stresses.

All of this is good news for the Cowboys, thanks to their talented and productive 2013 draft class. A group of players who already have established themselves as worthy of considerable playing time has spent the last few months getting stronger, smarter and more comfortable. They were good as rookies; if they make a normal leap in their second years, the '13 class will have the opportunity to make a significant impact.

And for a team searching for ways to eke out another win or two, that improvement may well be enough to get them over the proverbial hump.

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