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Cowboys 2016 Offseason: The Dangers Of "The Long View"

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Are there hidden dangers to the Cowboys long view approach to the 2016 offseason?

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The Cowboys' decision making triumvirate of Stephen Jones, Will McClay, and Jason Garrett has drawn a great deal of praise from fans and media alike for their approach to building the Cowboys roster. Spending three first-round picks in four years on offensive linemen, laying low in free agency, and avoiding the "splash" moves that Jerry Jones was so well known for through the first 20 years or so of his ownership of the team. These decisions are the ones that led to the team's successful 2014 season, and had them considered Super Bowl contenders going into 2015.

As the 2016 offseason has progressed, many fans, bloggers, and media members have pointed to things like needing to re-sign those same offensive linemen as the reason for the lack of early free agent activity, claiming the team is playing the "smart" long-view on these decisions. The thought behind this is that making moves in free agency, or other moves geared towards helping the team win in the short-term will somehow, financially or otherwise, prevent them from being contenders for the long-term, and that the risks of perhaps parting with a young studly offensive lineman, although unlikely, present too high a cost to justify an aggressive move towards seeking more immediate returns.

But is this approach ignoring other costs, and other risks that could be even more detrimental to the short- and long-term success of the team?

Let's imagine for a moment that the Cowboys are looking long-term at the year 2018 as the start of their run of success with the players they've recently acquired. How many players seen now as key contributors, even Pro Bowlers or All-Pros will no longer be a key aspect of the winning formula for the team by that point? The following table lists a group of players, all likely to be either a) no longer with the team, or b) experiencing significant declines in performance due to age, by the year 2018.

Player Position 2016 Age Free Agent Year 2018 Age
Tony Romo QB 36 2020 38
Jason Witten TE 34 2018 36
Doug Free OT 32 2018 34
Sean Lee LB 30 2020 32
Brandon Carr CB 30 2017 32
Orlando Scandrick CB 29 2020 31
Cedric Thornton DT 28 2020 30
Barry Church SS 28 2017 30
Dez Bryant WR 27 2020 29
Terrance Williams WR 27 2017 29

(Ages are as of Week 1 of the Regular Season)

If you were to ask an average Cowboys fan who their three favorite players are, it is very likely that they'll name at least a player or two off of this list. A few more notes on this group.

  • This list presents 10 players who have been with the Cowboys long-term or are signed long-term which the Cowboys will likely be replacing between now and two seasons from now. If you add the needs that the team didn't address long-term in this FA period (DE, RB, CB3, and MLB), the Cowboys will need answers to 14 significant questions by 2018.
  • Within these 14 spots, are four of the "Money-5" positions that hold heavier weight when building an NFL roster. With Romo, Bryant, and Scandrick aging, along with injury and off-field questions for their young defensive ends, the Cowboys will need to replace their QB, WR1 and CB1, as well as find a DE1, Only Tyron Smith represents true long-term stability at a "position of great import".
  • There is also the possibility that the team decides to allow Travis Frederick to leave in free agency in the name of asset allocation in an attempt to play the long game leading up to new contracts for guards Zack Martin and La'el Collins. This adds a 15th spot to be filled.
  • The Cowboys currently hold nine picks in the 2016 draft, and based on the course of free agency so far, don't look to be likely to gain any compensatory picks in 2017, so they'll likely have seven picks that year, and 7 more in 2018. That gives you 23 picks between now and the week one kickoff in 2018. Dallas has drafted better of late, especially early, but to find as many as 15 key players in those 23 picks would be a stretch for even the best drafting team.
In conclusion, playing the long game, while at the tail end of so many crucial careers, is quite a scary venture. The draft is one of the few times a year that the team can not lie to its fans, so we will know more about their approach as the picks roll in on the last weekend in April, but as it stands, they are at risk of allowing the careers of several great, and a few iconic Cowboys' players to come to an end without ever having a legitimate shot at winning a ring.

Based on the composition of the roster today, it's pretty easy to see, 2016-2017 is likely the best chance this team has of hoisting a Lombardi in the next five or ten years.