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Cowboys Target 30% Roster Turnover To Improve vs 2014

After finishing 12-4, it would be easy to sit back and think that a few changes here or there will be enough to get the Cowboys into the NFC Championship game or beyond in 2015. But that would probably be wrong.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Just three years ago, if you had asked a guy on the street who the faces of the Cowboys were, odds are you would have gotten a reply that included Tony Romo, Jason Witten, DeMarcus Ware, and Miles Austin. Ware and Austin are long gone, and if you had asked the question just six months ago, Romo, Witten, Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray would probably have been on the shortlist. And the fact that the internet is now being flooded with pictures of Murray in a hella ugly jersey shows just how quick the turnover on NFL rosters is these days.

In January this year, Jerry Jones said that roster turnover every year is about 30%:

"We have about a 30 percent turnover every year. What is the core? Who is the core? That’s a part of what we’ll be doing.  We’ve had more numbers of players play a key role in our success this year than I had thought we would when we started this season."

Murray's time in Dallas came to a surprising end after just four seasons and highlights some simple roster turnover math: If you have 30% turnover every year, in theory you'll have a completely new roster every three to four years. You obviously won't churn your stars (or "the core") every three to four years, as the bulk of the churn will happen at the bottom of the roster, so it'll take a while longer to churn the entire roster. But outside of a handful of star players, most players on a team will churn over a period of three to four years, and your Dallas Cowboys are no different.

Here's an overview of the contribution each rookie class of the past 12 years had in 2014, measured as a percentage of the total snaps on offense and defense.

% of total snaps in 2014 2014
2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003
Rookie classes (72.9%)
9.5% 14.8% 12.5% 10.9% 7.9% - - 3.8% 4.7% - - - - - - 8.8%

Last year, the Cowboys had only five players on their roster who were brought in as rookies between 2003 and 2009. With Anthony Spencer (2007) gone, that leaves Orlando Scandrick (2008), Doug Free (2007), Tony Romo (2003) and Jason Witten (2003) as the elder statesmen of the team heading into 2015.

And as we look at 2015, Dez Bryant, Sean Lee, and Barry Church will be the only players remaining from the 2010 rookie class, while Tyron Smith will be the only player left from the 2011 rookie class (DeMarco Murray, Bruce Carter, and Dwayne Harris all left in free agency). Outside of a few quality veterans, the bulk of the Cowboys' homegrown talent in 2015 will have been acquired between 2012 and 2015.

Last year, that homegrown talent accounted for three quarters of all snaps played by the Cowboys in the regular season. The rest came from free agents the Cowboys acquired at some point. Here's how those free agents' snaps are distributed by each player's rookie season.

% of total snaps in 2014 2014
2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003
Free agents (27.1%)
- -
- -
- -
- -
- -

The numbers here are fairly evenly distributed between 2011 and 2007, which would be where you'd expect most players to be who have made it to free agency. But what the numbers don't show is the imbalance in free agent contributions to the Cowboys.

6% of the offensive snaps in 2014 came from players who joined the Cowboys as free agents (Jermey Parnell, Tyler Clutts, Brandon Weeden, Mackenzy Bernadeau, Tony Hills). But 49% of the defensive snaps came from players who joined the Cowboys as free agents. Here's an overview of the 10 free agent acquisitions with the highest snap counts on defense last year:

2007: Jeremy Mincey (724), Justin Durant (336)
2008: Brandon Carr (1,028), Nick Hayden (585)
2009: Henry Melton (433),
2010: Rolando McClain (654), George Selvie (515)
2011: Sterling Moore (752), Terrell McClain (329), Jack Crawford (143)

Even among these free agents, churn is high at 40%.

A week ago, a tweet by Bryan Fisher of caused quite a stir when he showed that only nine (now eight) starters remained on a 49ers team that had played in the Super Bowl in February 2013. The tweet was gleefully received by interested parties who took the number as a sure sign that the 49ers are falling apart. That glee was short-lived though, as an enterprising Ravens fan quickly pointed out that the Ravens only have six starters remaining (including their kicker) from the team that faced the 49ers in that Super Bowl.

And it's not much different for the Cowboys. From the 2012 Week 17 starters, only seven are still with the team (Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Tyron Smith, Mackenzy Bernadeau, Doug Free, Jason Witten, and Tony Romo). Everybody knows that roster churn is a very real thing in the NFL; few fully understand the cumulative effect roster churn has on NFL teams from year to year.

On Wednesday, BTB's Tom Ryle tried his hand at predicting the 53-man roster for the 2015 Cowboys. If you compare his projection to the first 53-man roster of the 2014 season, you'll find that Tom - whether by chance or by design - has only 35 players from the 2014 season-opening roster returning this year, which means that 18 players from last year's squad, or 33% of the roster, were replaced with other players. Tom may not have gotten all the players right, but the amount of churn sounds about right.

After finishing 12-4, it would be easy to sit back and think that a few changes here or there will be enough to get the Cowboys into the NFC Championship game or beyond in 2015. But that would probably be wrong.

Good franchises will err on the side of speed in identifying and correcting their talent acquisition mistakes and roster holes. Jimmy Johnson drafted wide receiver Alexander Wright with the top pick in the second round in 1990. Johnson quickly realized that Wright would not pan out and drafted Alvin Harper with the 12th pick of the first round the following year.

Roster churn and player turnover happen every year. Except when you’re 12-4, complacency sets in much quicker than when you’re 5-11.

If the Cowboys stick to their 30% target, that would mean about 18 new faces on the roster this year. All of which will be absolutely necessary if the Cowboys want to improve over 2014.

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