Jason Garrett has consistently argued that talent acquisition is a year-round process. From a fan perspective, the highlights of that talent acquisition process consist of free agency, the draft, UDFA's, and trades. But this year, the Cowboys may get a talent boost from players already on the roster who took what is the equivalent of a medical redshirt year in 2014.
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 the equivalent of a redshirt medical season. Add the seven (!) free agents signed so far, add seven or so draft picks and perhaps some late signings, and the 2015 team will look significantly different than last year's edition.
- LB Sean Lee got an elite-level contract from the Cowboys in 2013, worth as much as $51 million over six years, and the Cowboys obviously think he's worth every cent of that contract - if he stays healthy. Stephen Jones said at the combine that Sean Lee is "ahead of target" in his torn ACL, and given that the injury happened last May, every indication is that Lee will be a full participant in OTAs. There have been discussions about moving Lee to the weak-side spot, but there is no doubt that getting him back at full strength will improve the Cowboys defense, regardless of where he plays.
DT Amobi Okoye got a two-year contract from the Cowboys even though it was far from certain that he'd recover quickly enough to play in 2014. Or at all. But he did make progress last year, and the Cowboys are hopeful the 10th overall pick in the 2007 will be able to contribute this year. And despite missing two entire seasons, Okoye is still only 27 years old.
- CB Morris Claiborne is heading into his fourth NFL season, and has yet to live up to his draft pedigree. Six days after losing his starting spot early in 2014, Claiborne suffered a season-ending patella tendon rupture in Week 4, prompting some Cowboys fans to declare him a bust. The snake bit corner faces a steep uphill climb, as he's not expected to return before training camp, and might still be limited at that point.
- DE Ben Gardner suffered a shoulder injury that required season-ending surgery for the 2014 seventh-round pick. The former Stanford standout is expected to add some competition on the D-line, and there are positive vibes at Valley Ranch about him, at least according to Bryan Broaddus: "Gardner has been in the weight room all season and I am hearing more positive news on him than any of the other players that missed the season."
- DT Chris Whaley was a productive defensive tackle at Texas, and the Cowboys brought him in knowing full well that he was likely to miss the entire 2014 season with torn ACL. Whaley is a former running back and has drawn favorable comparisons with Henry Melton, and could be a nice developmental prospect for the three-technique spot.
The one thing these players do not have going for them is that they do not have the allure of the new that will make the incoming rookie class the talk of town 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 seven draft picks, the Cowboys could additionally get
- a first-round corner (Claiborne)
- a first-round defensive tackle (Okoye)
- a second-round linebacker (Lee)
- and two extra seventh-round picks (Gardner & Whaley)
That would be a stellar haul, and highlights how much of an impact these players could have - if they all were to live up to their draft pedigree.
In 2013, Anthony Spencer and Tyrone Crawford were two of the Cowboys' "medical redshirts." Crawford came back from an Achilles tear to start in 15 games in 2014, Spencer came back from microfracture surgery and contributed 384 defensive snaps last year.
The Cowboys are certainly planning on Sean Lee to contribute this year at the level he has shown he is capable of in the past. The plans for the other four players are much less clear. At this point, any significant contribution from those four players would be an unexpected bonus that could make the difference for the Cowboys defense in 2015.