As we’ve discussed over the better part of two offseasons, the Cowboys have turned their roster over to youth. It seems like ages since Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray, Dez Bryant, and Jason Witten lined up for that famous NFC East Champions photo after trouncing the Colts. In reality, it’s been three and a half years, but not a single one of those names remain and mainstream media-types like Albert Breer of MMQB are starting to process what we all did long ago. The Cowboys have turned their team into one of the youngest in the NFL where the average age is 24-years-old:
Fun fact I stumbled into a few weeks ago: There are only three 30-somethings on the Cowboys’ roster. For a team that just a few years ago relied on aging stars like Tony Romo and Jason Witten and DeMarcus Ware, it sure happened quietly.
The 10 highest-paid players on the roster by APY are DeMarcus Lawrence (26), Zack Martin (27), Tyron Smith (27), Travis Frederick (27), Tyrone Crawford (27), La’El Collins (27), Sean Lee (30), Tavon Austin (27), Ezekiel Elliott (22) and Allen Hurns (27). Dak Prescott is 24. And the two guys over 30, aside from Lee, are kicker Dan Bailey and long-snapper L.P. Ladouceur.
The Cowboys didn’t plan a lot of the circumstances they came face-to-face with in the last few years but they deserve credit for how they overcame unforeseen events. They didn’t mourn their losses but instead built around the best players they had. As Breer points out, it’s quite remarkable that the Cowboys have been able to rebuild their team without having to be cellar-dwellers in the NFL:
“Dallas has effectively rebuilt its roster on the fly, without really ever bottoming out, and now it looks like they’re a few things breaking right—young DBs developing; Prescott rebounding; a young receiver, like Michael Gallup, emerging—from being set up nicely for some time to come. Which isn’t bad when you consider half of the eight Pro Bowlers from the 12-4 team of 2014 are gone.”
Last season wasn’t dazzling for fans as the Cowboys missed the playoffs but 9-7 is not exactly the worst possible outcome. For a team that rebuilt almost their entire secondary in one offseason, while having their best player miss six games, and suffering through injuries to some of their very best players, 9-7 is quite good. So, how have the Cowboys been able to weather the storm for the most part? Stephen Jones laid it out in the simplest of terms:
“We’ve just really drafted well over the last 10 years,” Jones said, “and when that happens, your young players that you draft, you keep them so they can push old players off. That’s what’s happened here. We feel very confident, comfortable that we have players on our roster, young players that are ready to step up and do the job. If you don’t ever give them opportunity, you won’t ever see what you have.”
This isn’t news to anyone roaming around this great BTB community, it’s surprising that it hasn’t already caught on many times over with the larger platforms. It also isn’t some game-changer of an idea that the Cowboys have stumbled across, teams that draft well typically have sustained success. What the Eagles were able to do with free agency was great but they got a major helping hand out of their homegrown talents. Dallas is all about homegrown talent:
Meanwhile, the closest thing Dallas has had to a first-round bust this decade was 2012 cornerback Morris Claiborne (he’ll make $7 million this year from the Jets), with five first-rounders over that span having made Pro Bowls. We’ll see what becomes of last year’s No. 1, Taco Charlton, and this year’s pick, Vander Esch, but that’s a pretty good track record.
Add the non-first-round hits like Lee, Lawrence and Crawford, players who’ve since departed such as DeMarco Murray and Anthony Hitchens, and undrafted finds like Cole Beasley, and it’s clear how the Cowboys have withstood the gradual attrition of the old core (Ware in 2014, Romo in 2017, Witten and Dez Bryant this year) with only one significant bump, a 4-12 mark in 2015 fueled by Romo’s injury and the Greg Hardy circus.
The Cowboys spent the last couple of year making tough decisions and saying goodbye to some of their veteran leadership. However, the moves that they had made whether it be their vaunted offensive line leading the way for the most lethal rushing attack in the NFL, or a spread-the-rock passing game, or a young but hungry defense, the Cowboys aren’t afraid to turn their roster over to the less-experienced guys on the roster.
So in a lot of ways, this offseason for the Cowboys was about trusting the job they’ve done in bringing all those guys up the last few years. Because in a lot of ways, the team really does now belong to those guys.
It’s a new era for the Dallas Cowboys but they’ve been so good at evaluating the young talent that they haven’t had to experience the feeling of bottoming out in the NFL. Even when most of their talent still has a lot to prove, Albert Breer believes there should be no discounting what this team could accomplish:
What’s there, however, is a roster that’s young and ascending. Leadership will shift. Jones told me that as Martin signed, he told his All-Pro guard, “We need you now more than ever to step up, you and your group, Tyron and Travis. With Jason being gone, y’all are gonna fill that leadership role.” On Prescott, Jones says, “He’s got rare leadership skills,” and he trusts that the quarterback knows it’s time to show it.
But more importantly, he knows they can play.
The Cowboys have been very fortunate to have the right guys in place like Stephen Jones and Will McClay. In this league, it’s not very often you can keep a team as competitive as Dallas has been when you make the wholesale changes they have made.