Earlier this year we looked at how the 2018 Cowboys have the youngest O-line in the NFL, which is quite a feat considering the line has already combined for 13 Pro Bowl seasons and 11 All Pro seasons.
But in Dallas, that youth movement extends way beyond just the offensive line.
Bob Sturm of The Athletic pointed out recently that the Cowboys are the youngest team in the league:
According to my friends at Spotrac, a website that tracks salary cap space for all the big sports, the Cowboys have the youngest roster in the NFL when measuring the full 90-man training camp rosters.
And here’s Sturm’s screenshot of the Spotrac data:
The youth movement in Dallas has been going on for quite a while. It’s not always been the result of well-crafted plans (you cannot “plan” player retirements), and it’s frequently been accompanied by big dead money hits, but the results in terms of average age are undeniable.
The Cowboys “lost” eight players who started at least four games for them last year, either to retirement, free agency, or simply because they were cut. Here’s how those eight players compare to the eight players the Cowboys brought in via trades or free agency this year:
|Players Lost||Players Acquired|
|Players||2017 Starts||Current age||Player||Current Age|
|Jason Witten||16||36||Deonte Thompson||29|
|Dez Bryant||16||29||Tavon Austin||28|
|Jonathan Cooper||13||28||Joe Thomas||27|
|Orlando Scandrick||11||31||Allen Hurns||26|
|Anthony Hitchens||12||26||Kony Ealy||26|
|James Hanna||8||29||Cameron Fleming||25|
|Alfred Morris||5||29||Jihad Ward||24|
|Stephen Paea||4||30||Marcus Martin||24|
This is certainly not a like-for-like comparison, but the moves here shaved 29 years off the Cowboys’ total roster age regardless. And while the Cowboys’ youth movement is certainly about getting younger and hopefully healthier, it’s also about getting healthier financially.
Billy Beane, general manager of MLB’s Oakland A’s and protagonist of Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, described the issue succinctly in an interview with the Financial Times a while back.
”Nothing strangulates a sports club more than having older players on long contracts,” explains Beane, “As they become older, the risk of injury becomes exponential. It’s less costly to bring [on] a young player. If it doesn’t work, you can go and find the next guy, and the next guy. The downside risk is lower, and the upside much higher.”
Look at the table above and the list of players lost. Outside of iron man Witten and Alfred Morris, every single player missed time due to injury/suspension or was significantly affected by an injury last year.
Dez Bryant struggled through knee tendinitis last year, Jonathan Cooper underwent surgery for a sprained MCL suffered in the last game of the season, Orlando Scandrick missed games with a fractured hand and transverse process fractures in his back, Anthony Hitchens sat out the first four games of the season with a tibial plateau fracture in his right knee, James Hanna retired because of a knee injury that had hampered him the past two seasons, and Stephen Paea retired with a knee injury after four games last year.
If nothing else, the younger players replacing them should have a lower risk of injury.
The other benefit of youth is the ‘upside’ that Beane mentions. Young players can be mercurial. They can improve suddenly. They can improve in leaps and bounds. You will not get that type of upside from a veteran player.
For the Cowboys, youth is more than just a passing fancy. This looks like a long-term strategy of continuous roster rejuvenation, even though the Cowboys have had to pay a price in terms of dead money.
Heading into 2018, the Cowboys have the second-highest amount of dead money ($25.5 million) counting against their cap, with players like Tony Romo ($8.9 million cap hit in 2018), Dez Bryant ($8 million), Cedric Thornton ($2.5 million) Orlando Scandrick ($2.3 million), Nolan Carroll ($2 million), and Benson Mayowa ($1.1 million) still counting against this year’s cap, even if some of them have been gone for a while.
That dead money is the bitter medicine the Cowboys have to take now for some of the contractual mistakes they’ve made in the past. But as they say, if it doesn’t taste bad, it’s not medicine. Dealing with the dead money is something the Cowboys have to do now to be in better shape going forward.
Because it’s a long-term strategy, ‘roster rejuvenation’ runs counter to the quick-fix mentality that is the hallmark of many free agency signings. Failing to continuously rejuvenate the roster almost always comes back to bite you in a big way and you’ll find yourself scrambling and trying to plug holes at almost any cost (in dollars or player age) in free agency instead of building for the future.
Ultimately, all of this should put the Cowboys in a position to succeed for a long time, because as Doug Farrar pointed out in Sports Illustrated, “when it comes to team-building in the long term, football is for the young.”
Teams drafting well will find success year after year, while teams more interested in spackling their woebegone rosters with overpriced free agents will pay with implosion season after season. That’s not exactly news to anyone in the game not named Dan Snyder ... but when looking at the youngest Super Bowl teams of all time, it’s amazing how valuable it is to get things right, right from the start.
If you want to start an NFL dynasty, it’s generally best to do it young. And in this regard, the 2013 Seattle Seahawks are in remarkably good shape -- they’re the second-youngest team ever to reach the Super Bowl. According to data compiled by Chase Stuart of Pro Football Reference and Football Perspective, the Seahawks’ roster had an average age of 26.4 years, putting them a few hundredths of an aggregate year younger than the 1971 Miami Dolphins, the youngest Super Bowl team ever. And in looking at all the great dynasties that have spanned the Super Bowl era, youth is the common characteristic. The 1992 Dallas Cowboys, who went on to win three Super Bowls in a four-year stretch, tied for sixth-youngest ever (27 years) with the 1999 St. Louis Rams, who made two Super Bowls in three years and featured one of the greatest offenses of all time.
But youth for the sake of youth alone is not a winning strategy. The ultimate goal is to win championships, and you build your roster to contend for championships. Smart teams know that value can also be found by signing older veterans to short term deals. Don’t grow overly dependent on them, and have a plan in place to replace them with younger players. Pay them what they’re worth, but don’t give them lots of years and guaranteed money that will always come back to bite you in the end. Instead, use them as transition guys to build a perennial contender.
Perhaps that’s the plan with Earl Thomas?
In 2011, Seattle was the second-youngest team in the NFL. Two years later, the Seahawks had built a championship team whose average age was the fourth-lowest in the league.
The Cowboys’ youth movement should pay off in many ways, but when?