It's been an eventful off season in Dallas. Signings, departures, a wild draft haul, and now training camp begins. As the news is about to begin in earnest, we take a look at some things that may not have registered completely in the combined whirlwind and desert that was the 2015 off season.
1. This team is really young
I don't just mean that there are a number of talented rookies who will compete immediately. Nor do I refer to the returning second-year guys or breakout candidates like Anthony Hitchens, J. J. Wilcox, or Tyrone Crawford. I mean that some of the grizzled veterans are really young. Only eight players on the roster have hit their 30th birthday. Brandon Carr, Mackenzy Bernadeau, Nick Hayden, and Sean Lee are 29. Orlando Scandrick is 28. After those 13 players, everyone else on the team is 27 or less. Putting that in perspective, Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, Ronald Leary, and Rolando McClain are all 26. Tyrone Crawford, Morris Claiborne, Corey White, and Terrance Williams are all 25. Possibly most shocking, Dan Bailey, Barry Church, Greg Hardy, and Darren McFadden are all 27.
That's right, Darren McFadden is only a year older than Ron Leary and the same age as Dan Bailey. Actually, he's only six months older than DeMarco Murray and only has 104 more carries. Since Chris Johnson seems to be replacing Adrian Peterson as the zombie RB rumor that won't die, I'll just take this time to point out that CJ2K is 15 lbs lighter, two years older, and has 859 more carries than Run DMC.
2. (Corollary) This team is really cheap
Doug Free has a $3 million cap number this year, according to OverTheCap.com. As a veteran tackle with a solid track record, he probably represents good value. There are only ten players on the team that represent a larger cap hit. Granted, some of them are enormous hits, and the top five guys account for roughly one third of this year's cap, but look at the value down the line.
An incomplete list of players who will cost the Cowboys less than Doug Free this year includes Rolando McClain, Dan Bailey, Zack Martin, Cole Beasley, Travis Frederick and DeMarcus Lawrence. Players who will cost less than one million dollars include projected starters Tyrone Crawford, Terrance Williams, J. J. Wilcox, Nick Hayden, Joseph Randle, Anthony Hitchens, and Ronald Leary. Those last seven players represent nearly a third of the starting 22 for under $5 million combined.
3. (Corollary 2) This team is really deep (and broad)
Where was the team weakest last year? Without question it was defensive line, followed closely by defensive back. Look at them now six deep at each spot:
DE - Lawrence, Hardy, Mincey, Gregory, Gardner, J Crawford
DT - T Crawford, Hayden, T. McClain, Bishop, Coleman, Whaley
CB - Scandrick, Carr, Jones, Claiborne, White, Patmon
S - Church, Wilcox, Heath, McCray, Scott, Vinopal
Now, admittedly, the safety position doesn't look all that great, until you realize that Jones and White both took reps at safety in OTAs, giving a lot more depth and flexibility there. Nonetheless, looking at those lists, there's been a serious upgrade to the potential at all of those positions. Even if Jeremy Mincey continues to hold out and is eventually cut, the DE position looks to be well improved over last year. The main thing Mincey's holdout will do is give the coaches a better look at guys like Gregory, Gardner, and Ryan Russell. I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone who wouldn't admit that the line and cornerbacks look vastly improved and, with those in place, that safety should be sufficient to the task (leaving aside, for the moment, my personal prediction that Wilcox will have a breakout year).
But the team also has a great deal of breadth. While the Cowboys clearly have star players at QB, TE, WR, and OL, some up and coming talent on the defense in general, and some star ability in Sean Lee, Greg Hardy, and Rolando McClain, the most glaring thing to me is the lack of a glaring weakness. Some will point to RB and, while Joseph Randle is somewhat unproven, he and McFadden do not represent an actual hole, so much as an unknown. Elsewhere, the team is quite solid, though some will bemoan the safety tandem, whoever ends up there. Nonetheless, Barry Church is a solid player, while Wilcox and Heath continued to make strides last year and both have a great deal of physical ability. With a solidly improved defensive line, look for the safety play to appear much better this year.
Expectations are always high this time of year. Fans swell with hope and pride, and look forward with an excited optimism, anxious to see what their team will look like in action. But Cowboys fans have reason to believe in their team. They were 12-4 last year, and made many clear improvements in the off season. More importantly, the youth of this team, resulting in a good cap situation and strong depth, gives three layers of reason to believe the thing is built right this time, and built to last.