If you ask any Cowboys fan about how this team has been completely remade over the last several years, most would point to the remarkable turnover on the offensive side of the ball. And for good reason - it’s completely different now. Jason Garrett’s first draft pick as head coach was Tyron Smith as it marked the first time Jerry Jones had ever taken an offensive linemen in the first round of the draft. The team has now rebuilt an entirely new offensive line with this year’s second-round pick Connor Williams being the final piece of the puzzle. The Cowboys trio of offensive stars from 2014 - Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray, and Dez Bryant are all gone. They have been replaced with Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and a handful of young receivers vying for the #1 spot. Even the team’s longest offensive fixture, Jason Witten, is no longer around. It’s a new offense with a bunch of young stars.
But the offense isn’t the only unit that has had a big makeover. The Cowboys have gradually been churning away at fixing the defense as well. There have been significant changes over the last few years and the average age of the projected starting defense is now 24.4 years. That includes a lineup consisting of the following:
DeMarcus Lawrence, 26
David Irving, 24
Maliek Collins, 23
Tyrone Crawford, 28
Sean Lee, 31
Jaylon Smith, 22
Leighton Vander Esch, 21
Byron Jones, 25
Chidobe Awuzie, 22
Jourdan Lewis, 22
Jeff Heath, 27
Xavier Woods, 22
Note: I have included both the base defense as well as the nickel since these are the two most prominent packages the team uses so that is a total of 12 players. All of these players are expected to see significant playing time.
And it’s not just the starters who are helping create this youth movement. Many of the top rotational guys are young too.
DE - Taco Charlton (23) and Dorance Armstrong (20)
DT - Brian Price (23) and Jihad Ward (24)
LB - Damien Wilson (24)
CB - Anthony Brown (24) and Duke Thomas (23)
S - Kavon Frazier (23)
The average age of this reserve group is just 23.
For a frame of reference, the Cleveland Browns were the only team in the league last year whose average age was under 25. That comes from constantly picking high in the draft year after year where they’re repeatedly replacing old inventory with new. When you have so many young players on the roster, there’s going to be a much more noticeable learning curve and it shows up in the results. The Browns didn’t win a single game last year.
But the Cowboys defense is not in that boat as this group continues to improve. It wasn’t that long ago when this defense was a catastrophe. In 2013, the Cowboys defense allowed the most yards in the entire NFL. But last season, the team finished 8th in yards allowed (318.1 per game), which was the first time since 2009 the defense has finished in the top 10. And there are reasons to believe this group is still trending up.
- The Cowboys traded up to get DeMarcus Lawrence in 2014 and that finally showed itself to be a great move. Lawrence finished second in the league in sacks with 14.5 and helped the team finish with 38 sacks total, their highest amount in six seasons.
- The Cowboys completely changed out their secondary after four veteran players left in free agency last year. Despite relying heavily on so many young players (including three rookies), the defense allowed the fewest passing yards per attempt since 2008.
- And then there is the linebacker position group. In 2016, the Cowboys defense allowed the fewest rushing yards per game, but fell off last season after dealing with injuries to Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens. While Hitchens has left town for big money, the group will now have one of the top college prospects in Leighton Vander Esch manning the middle of the field. Not only that, but Jaylon Smith’s knee continues to get better as this group looks pretty strong heading in to the new year.
- Factor in the addition of one of the top defensive coaches in the league over the last several years in Kris Richards and you have even more reasons to be excited. This is a very young and impressionable squad and Richards is just the guy to be making that impression.
The team keeps getting better and better and we are no longer just talking about the offensive side of the ball. The defense has made tremendous strides in improving not only their starters, but their depth as well. There is no hour glass slowly dwindling away on this team. Time is on our side. I know many of us are impatiently wanting great things to happen right now, but this is a team that has a chance to be great for a long time.