The NFL is a young man's game. The average career length is a matter of some dispute, with the NFLPA claiming it is only 3.3 years, while the league itself uses a figure of six years for players who make the opening day roster their first year. Whichever source you believe, it is clear that any NFL team is going to have to depend on players in their early to mid-twenties for the bulk of their team.
One of the problems that Jason Garrett faced when he became the full time head coach of the Dallas Cowboys was a roster that was built in denial of this, with too many aging players on contracts that were rewards for past contributions, not realistic projections of what the could bring to the field in the future. His first major influence to reshape the team was the cutting of several players he saw as dragging the team down. Leonard Davis, Roy Williams, Marc Colombo, Marion Barber and Andre Gurode all were released. In particular, this cleared out the offensive line, and the most impressive thing about the way the team has been rebuilt on the fly is the star-studded lineup now blocking for Tony Romo and the running backs.
As several recent articles here have shown, the Cowboys are now starting to reap the full benefits of the youth movement. There is no doubt that injuries are something that has to be faced and handled during the season. Evidence, if largely anecdotal at this point, indicates that the team has much better depth to handle the inevitable health problems this season. A younger roster overall is playing a major role in this.
Two of the acknowledged leaders of the team are of course exceptions to this. Romo and Jason Witten are cornerstones of the offense, but most NFL teams also have one or two age-defying veteran leaders. They do not invalidate the overall need to have a predominantly youthful roster.
Youth, in and of itself, is not the complete answer, of course. The talent also has to be there. And several indications are that Dallas is getting the combination of youth and talent that it needs to be successful over the long haul.
Last season saw two draftees pay immediate dividends. Zack Martin came in and started from day one, which is something that is expected now from first-round picks. What was not expected was how well he performed, winding up in the Pro Bowl. Also unexpected was the rapid development of Anthony Hitchens, who became a multi-position starter for thirteen games. This season, the Cowboys may also see two immediate impact players in Byron Jones and Randy Gregory, which would be continued evidence of the skills of the personnel department. La'el Collins may not be an immediate starter, but he is likely to be nearly as valuable as key depth for the interior offensive line.
However, one or two standouts is not the most important measure of effectiveness in drafting. Most players, including the ones who become immediate starters, reach their highest level of proficiency sometime during their second, third or fourth seasons. Over the long haul, being able to fill your starting jobs and key backup positions with good players at that stage of their careers is what makes the difference. This is where the often overlooked function of nurturing and developing the players you have, as well as putting them in the right situation to capitalize on their abilities, comes into play. And the Cowboys look to have that going on.
Micheal Sisemore took a look at potential breakout players for Dallas this year, and what was remarkable about his list was not the names. There is a good argument for every one he included. What stands out is the number. He listed eight players, only one of them a rookie (Jones). And all the others fall into that second- through fourth-year category. It includes two members of last year's draft class, DeMarcus Lawrence and Devin Street. A couple of others, Tyrone Crawford and Cole Beasley, have already proven that they can contribute, but may be poised to take the next step. The rest all have joined the team since Garrett took over, and are homegrown products.
Michael's list was of players that could become major contributors, even stars, but as was noted, depth is just as important. And there are several other players in the important experience range that may become key, competent depth. Ben Gardner, Jack Crawford, Ken Bishop, Kenneth Boatright, Jeff Heath, Tyler Patmon, Dustin Vaughan, and Darrion Weems all could become important backup or rotational players. There are often completely unexpected players who fight their way onto the 53-man roster as well.
The Cowboys had their own breakthrough in 2014. But the NFL sees an average of roughly six teams each year that do not repeat making it to the playoffs. Sustaining success the way teams like the Patriots, Packers, Seahawks and Broncos have done of late is the hard part. Finding and developing talent in your younger roster members is how that is done. After several years of having some good starting talent but little in the way of reliable backups, Dallas at least looks like it has gotten that in place. We will start to learn more whether this is reality or illusion in the preseason, but for now, the picture is encouraging.