Everybody is pretty much aware that the Dallas Cowboys are trying to do a major rebuild on their defense in 2017. Although it is very early in the process, there is a real chance that we could see multiple new players in important roles this year. Taco Charlton, Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Xavier Woods, Jaylon Smith, and Charles Tapper all have very good chances of either starting or being very key rotational pieces. It would not be very surprising to see them all on the field together at some point this season, which would mean six of the eleven defenders would be in their first year playing for Dallas. And even if that does not come to pass, it is almost a given that four or five of them will get out there at once.
That is a massive amount of rebuilding all in one year. And it would come on the heels of the 2016 season when arguably the most impactful pair of offensive rookies ever, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, took the league (and NFL jersey sales) by storm. Although the years-long assembling of the offensive line served as a foundation for what the Cowboys did when they had the ball last year, the addition of the league’s most proficient runner and the quarterback of both the present and future was a huge turnaround for that side of the ball. And now we may be at the beginning of a similar revolution for the defense.
NFL teams get blown up and rebuilt all the time - but not ones that tied their season record for wins in the middle of it all. And the Cowboys have relied almost entirely on the draft for their renovation job, not an influx of pricey free agents. It is, if not unprecedented (and I freely admit to not being knowledgeable about league history to know for sure), certainly quite rare. And it puts Dallas in a unique position. Most such tear downs and reassembling of rosters are done by new coaching staffs who are in place because of preceding failure. But the Cowboys have one of the most stable staffs in the league.
To provide a clear illustration of just how favorable the situation is for Dallas, here is a chart from SB Nation. Note that it focuses on quarterbacks rather than the age of entire rosters, but the QB status for teams is always the most important single position in the NFL.
To clarify, the best place for teams to be is in that lower left hand corner - where the Cowboys sit in a tight cluster with the Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Rams. This is where teams have a very young quarterback and a staff that is not coaching for their jobs. The Rams are in complete rebuild, having just turned out Jeff Fisher and his 7-9, err, stuff. The Broncos have a secure coaching staff, just one year removed from winning a Super Bowl, which makes them close to the Cowboys. But unlike Dallas, both Denver and the Rams are putting their future hopes on unproven young quarterbacks. While many seem to be looking gleefully forward to a sophomore slump for Prescott, all indications are that he is not very susceptible to such things.
It must be noted that the sudden change at quarterback was neither intentional or anticipated for Dallas. A year ago, all hopes were still riding on Tony Romo and his supposedly improved health. And no one had any idea what Prescott was capable of. But the strange story of 2016 played out and the Cowboys had made a sudden transition at that all important passer job.
The defensive change is quite the opposite. Dallas deliberately let four veteran defensive backs, three of them starters, walk in free agency, and then brought in four draftees to replace them. They hope that the talents of the new players will make them better. There is no question that it made them younger. Under head coach Jason Garrett, roster churn has always been a tool that was used. What is different this year is how much of that churn involves the top of the depth chart.
One misleading thing about the chart in the tweet embedded above is the “win now” idea. In that article, it is really about the pressure to win or be out of a job. The lack of that kind of pressure for the Cowboys’ staff is clear in how the lost season of 2015 was handled by Jerry Jones and his son Stephen. In many organizations, a 4-12 collapse would have led to a serious housecleaning in the coaching ranks. But the Jones brain trust did exactly the opposite, giving an unequivocal vote of confidence that the coaches were not the problem. It is often unappreciated just how much of the responsibility Jerry Jones in particular took for the dismal performance on the field. As his own general manager, Jones has the job of building the roster, and by keeping his coaching staff almost entirely intact, he admitted that it was a failure of personnel that led to 2015. Now, in two draft classes, he and his scouting department have addressed every single need the team had coming out of that failed season. We still have to see just how well they have done when the season starts, but any shortcoming is not going to be for a lack of investment.
And obviously it is wrong to make any assumption that the Cowboys are not concerned with winning now. With the foundation of the 2016 season, they are most assuredly looking to get back to the playoffs and make a run at the Lombardi Trophy.
But with the infusion of young players, they are also set up to succeed for years to come. Again, those new additions have to prove themselves, but if they do, they will be the core of this team into the 2020s. And there is every sign that the continuity on the coaching staff will also continue, as the Cowboys seem to have understudies on staff for their coordinators, with Wade Wilson prepping to step up if Scott Linehan moves on, and Matt Eberflus looking very much like the planned successor for Rod Marinelli. They may, of course, decide to move on - but so far, a combination of what is being built in Dallas and the deep pockets of Jerry Jones have kept them in the family.
This is just not a situation that comes along very often in this league, where stability and youth exist at the same time. We cannot know just how far it will carry the Cowboys. But there seem to be far more reasons for optimism than otherwise.