This time last year Cowboys fans, media, and probably the organization itself had no clue exactly what the immediate future of the Dallas Cowboys would look like, certainly not beyond Tony Romo, but even with him. With Romo coming off collarbone surgery and having barely played in the 2015-16 season, fans and the team alike could do nothing but cross their fingers that he could make it through 2016 healthy, and give the team a chance to compete for a Super Bowl as they did in 2014.
Unfortunately for the team, the future beyond Romo looked even more uncertain. Clearly the need for a successor to Romo was at the forefront of the organization’s mind with their interest in Carson Wentz, Jared Goff, and the near trade up for Paxton Lynch in the 2015 draft. Planning for the future at quarterback, which means planning for the future of the organization in general given the nature of the position was one of the highest priorities of the 2015 offseason. Despite the heavy interest in the top-rated quarterbacks nothing panned out, and the team ended up taking a flier with a compensatory pick at the end of the fourth round on a quarterback who was projected as a prospect who could develop into a strong backup.
What I’m getting at is that this time last year the fans, the media, and if they were being honest with themselves, the organization, truly had no idea whether or not Romo could make it through a season, and they certainly didn’t know what the future beyond Romo would look like. Neither the present nor the future were secured in any kind of meaningful way if people were being honest with themselves.
Goes to show how much can change in a year.
We all know what has transpired over the past 12 months, and given that there is a strong argument to be made that there is not a team in the league positioned better to compete for titles both in the present, as well as the future, which we’ll define as five years from now.
On paper the only team clearly superior to the Cowboys going into 2017 are the Patriots, but they have a soon to be 40-year-old quarterback whose decline could begin at any time. Despite Tom Brady’s claims otherwise he won’t be playing at 45. Jimmy Garoppolo has shown promise but he hasn’t even thrown 100 regular season passes, and pretty much everything with him is a projection.
Five years from now I’m taking my chances on a team led by Dak Prescott, not Jimmy Garoppolo. It’s also hard to imagine Bill Belichick coaching much more than five more years, especially once Brady retires, and at that point I’m definitely rolling the dice on Prescott over a Belichick-less Garoppolo.
There are a handful of teams where there is an argument to be made as far as whether or not they’re better positioned than the Cowboys heading into 2017. This includes the Falcons, Packers, Seahawks, Raiders, Chiefs, Steelers, and let’s just throw the Panthers in there as well since they made it to the Super Bowl less than 18 months ago and mostly have the same core intact.
Conversely there are teams that arguably have a brighter future, such as the Tennessee Titans or Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but those teams are not better positioned for success in 2017. Could the Titans or Bucs have a better record or more success in 2017 than the Cowboys?
Sure, you never know what can happen in any given NFL season with injuries, the timing of the schedule, if a team gets hot at the right time, etc., but I don’t think you’ll find very many out there who would say they’d rather go into 2017, and only 2017, with the Titans or Bucs roster instead of the Cowboys roster as things stand today.
Now back to the teams who could arguably be better positioned going into 2017. Most have quarterbacks in their early to mid-30’s, many of whom will be retired or no longer in their prime five years from now. So that rules out the Steelers, Falcons, and Packers as having both a brighter present and future. It’s possible that Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan are both playing five years from now at 38 and 37 years old respectively, but the recent performances of Tom Brady aside, I’m going to bet on common sense here and say that it’s not usual for a quarterback to play better at 37-40 years old than at 32-35.
That is especially the case for a player like Ryan who had been very inconsistent up until last season and Rodgers whose game is very reliant on lateral agility, athleticism, and quick feet in the pocket.
For now I’ll leave the Kansas City Chiefs in the conversation since they’ve added a young quarterback with plenty of upside, as well as a head coach who could conceivably stick around for another 5-10 years and who has shown that he can get strong performances out of quarterbacks with a lot less individual talent.
Clearly the Seahawks and Raiders are in the conversation due to how young their quarterbacks are, as well as the Panthers. It’s a stretch to say that Carolina is better positioned for 2017 than the Cowboys but for argument’s sake we’ll keep them in.
Obviously I’m using a team’s quarterback situation to weed out teams but given the nature and importance of the position I believe that’s a fair starting point before delving in deeper.
So out of those four teams let’s take a quick look at the All-Pro talent (any players on the team’s current roster that was named First Team All-Pro by the AP at any point of their career) and use that as an indicator to project out five years from now:
|Team||AP First Team All-Pro (Age)|
|Kansas City Chiefs||TE Travis Kelce (27)
WR/KR/PR Tyreek Hill (23)
S Eric Berry (28)
CB Marcus Peters (24)
OLB Justin Houston (28)
LB Derrick Johnson (34)
|Seattle Seahawks||CB Richard Sherman (29)
S Earl Thomas (28)
LB Bobby Wagner (26)
TE Jimmy Graham (30)
WR/KR/PR Tyler Lockett (24)
|Oakland Raiders||G Kelechi Osemele (27)
LB/DE Khalil Mack (26)
RB Marshawn Lynch (31)
|Carolina Panthers||QB Cam Newton (28)
LB Luke Kuechly (26)
LB Thomas Davis (34)
C Ryan Kalil (32)
|Dallas Cowboys||RB Ezekiel Elliott (21)
T Tyron Smith (26)
C Travis Frederick (26)
G Zack Martin (26)
TE Jason Witten (35)
LB Sean Lee (30)
WR Dez Bryant (28)
Note: I included players who became All-Pros as special teamers/returners (Hill and Lockett) but did so reluctantly because of the relatively fickle impact on the game that returners have and that they aren’t All-Pro talents at their primary positions. Despite their inclusion on the list I don’t think they deserve as much consideration as far as the “foundation” of a team compared to a linebacker, offensive lineman, safety, etc.
Now this is admittedly a very quick and dirty way of comparing the top-flight talent on a team’s roster, and it certainly leaves off excellent young players such as Amari Cooper and several of the quarterbacks themselves as well, but it’ll have to do.
Looking at the table it’s clear that the Cowboys are in a position unlike any other team in the NFL with a young, established quarterback and so many positional players who have been named First Team All-Pro early on in their careers. For the purposes of this exercise we can pretty much write off any positional player that is about 28 or 29 years old, and obviously older, because five years from now those players will be retired or on the brink of retirement.
So the Cowboys have four such players, while the Panthers, Seahawks, and Raiders only have two, and the Chiefs have three. If you want to include players under 30 both the Cowboys and Chiefs have five while the Seahawks have four, although cracks are starting to show in Seattle’s foundation with the Earl Thomas injury that sparked talks of retirement and the rumblings of a Richard Sherman trade.
Of course the Chiefs quarterback situation isn’t nearly as secure as the Cowboys with Alex Smith seemingly on his way out and an untested rookie waiting in the wings to take over. Personally I like the position they’re in because Andy Reid can make a quarterback’s life easy and Patrick Mahomes is definitely very talented, but it’s undeniable that the Cowboys situation with Dak Prescott is the better bet at this point in time.
Obviously this is a relatively narrow analysis given that there are 53 players on a roster and we’re only using a handful on each team to project five years into the future, but it does give us an idea of what type of elite, “foundational” level talent each team has to build on moving forward.
What’s also undeniable is that the Cowboys are in the unique position of having legitimate Super Bowl aspirations right now, while also having several All Pro position players in their early to mid-20’s, along with an elite young quarterback to build on as we move into the next decade.
It’s a position very few could have imagined just 12 months ago, and a position very few teams, if any around the league currently enjoy.