Back on March 3rd, we projected the Dallas Cowboys’ roster over the next three years. In our 10-part offseason analysis, we articulated Dallas’s team building philosophy in five rules. The fifth rule was “Stay young. Don’t re-sign any player over 30.”
Now that we’re in the middle of free agency, and starting to think about the draft, let’s return to that data, but look at it a different way, by age. Where might Dallas want to look to shore itself up with younger players? The youngest guys in free agency tend to be 25 or 26, with most older, so that’s not usually the place to get younger. It’s through the draft that teams find youth. Does that give any insight into what Dallas might do next month?
Dak Prescott is 23. No issues here.
Dez Bryant is 28, while Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams, and Brice Butler are all 27. Lucky Whitehead is 24. Dez is locked up for three more years, Beasley for two, and WIlliams for four. The Cowboys will need to get younger over the next couple of years, but don’t have to draft anyone this year. If they do, look for Lucky to get pushed out by a better slot-type receiver. Then they could come back next year for a big wideout to take Butler’s job.
Ezekiel Elliott is 21. Dallas will need a backup, but youth is not an issue here and won’t be while Elliott is on his first contract.
Jason Witten is 34 and on the last year of his deal. James Hanna is 27, coming off a major injury with two years left. Geoff Swaim and Rico Gathers are 23. There is no lead tight end outside of Witten in this group unless Gathers makes the leap. With wide receivers locked up, will the Cowboys look to draft a young and explosive receiver at tight end to add another dimension to their offense? We addressed this very question here. If the draft falls to them, don’t be surprised to see the Cowboys draft a dynamic receiving tight end this year.
Tyron Smith and Zack Martin are 26, and Travis Frederick is 25. All three have been All-Pro the last two years, and Smith and Frederick are locked up for the foreseeable future, with Martin certain to follow. This gives the Cowboys a young core. La’el Collins is 23, and Chaz Green is 24, but neither are locked up beyond 2018. Even backups Emmett Cleary and Joe Looney are only 26. With Doug Free retiring this year, the line will get younger and is one of the youngest position groups on the team. But will it be better? It may not be a great draft for offensive linemen, but expect Dallas to add some young depth here in case Green or Collins are not long-term solutions.
Maliek Collins is 21 and locked up three more years, David Irving is 23 and effectively under control for two more, Charles Tapper is 23 and tied up for three years. DeMarcus Lawrence is 24 but a free agent next year, Randy Gregory is 24 but suspended for at least a year, Benson Mayowa is 25 and tied up two more years, Tyrone Crawford is 27 and under contract through 2020. Cedric Thornton is 28 and under control through 2019, Stephen Paea is 28 on a one-year deal, Damontre Moore is on a two-year deal.
There is plenty of youth here. The question is more about having impact players than getting younger. Indeed, had Lawrence and Gregory worked out as Dallas hoped, the strategy might have been to lock each of them up and be largely set for several years. Dallas is expected to spend a high draft pick here, but it’s not the position group needing an infusion of youth.
Sean Lee is 30 and signed through 2019. Jaylon Smith is 21 and signed for the same period. Anthony Hitchens is 24, but will be a free agent next year. Damien Wilson is 23, and will be a free agent in 2019. Mark Nzeocha and Kyle Wilber are both 27 and mostly special teams players.
Given needs elsewhere, this is not likely to be a group where Dallas will draft for youth this season. But they will need to by next season, unless Smith is great and Hitchens is willing to re-sign on an inexpensive deal.
At cornerback Orlando Scandrick is 30 and coming off an injury-weakened season, though he’s signed through 2019. Nolan Carroll is also 30 and signed through 2019. Anthony Brown is 23 and signed through 2019. Leon McFadden is just a fill-in player.
At safety, Byron Jones is 24 and signed through 2018, but the Cowboys have a fifth-year option for 2019. Jeff Heath is 25 and locked up through 2019. Kavon Frazier is 22 and locked up three more years.
The team typically carries 9 or 10 secondary players, and has only six-seven now. At cornerback, only Brown is under 30. At safety, only Jones is reliable.
This is the area of the team most in need of an infusion of young talent. While the Cowboys like to draft best player available, look for them to add at least two players to the secondary in this year’s draft: one at cornerback and one at safety. Unless they sign more free agents, they could actually accommodate four picks for the secondary, but that seems unlikely.
It’s also not just youth that’s important. Off our articles on best quarterback rating differential, the Cowboys need to get much better, not just younger in the secondary. Since they eschew big time free agency contracts, the only way to do this will be through the draft.
Kicker Dan Bailey is locked up through 2020. Punter Chris Jones and long snapper LP Ladouceur are signed through 2017. None of these positions need upgrading soon.
Recap and Conclusion
The greatest need for an infusion of youth is in the secondary, followed by tight end. Defensive line needs impact talent under control for multiple years, but not necessarily youth. Same is true for the offensive line. A wide receiver could be added, or the team could wait another year. Linebackers could also wait until next year. Lead quarterback and running back are set for several years, perhaps much longer. Only backups need apply here. Special teams are also pretty well set.