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Why Cowboys have a lot of roster churn, and why it’s absolutely necessary

After finishing with a winning record in 2017, it’d easy to sit back and think that a few changes here or there will be enough for the 2018 Cowboys. They won’t be.

Dallas Cowboys v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

In January 2015, Jerry Jones explained that roster turnover every year is about 30%:

”We have about a 30 percent turnover every year. What is the core? Who is the core? That’s a part of what we’ll be doing. We’ve had more numbers of players play a key role in our success this year than I had thought we would when we started this season.”

So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to find that the 2018 Cowboys will look quite a bit different from last year’s iteration of the team.

Gone are Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, Jonathan Cooper, Anthony Hitchens, Orlando Scandrick, James Hanna, Alfred Morris, Chaz Green, Stephen Paea, Justin Durant, and Dan Bailey, who together accounted for 92 starts last season, or 26% of all starts.

That feels like a lot of change, and that’s not even accounting for all the backups who left the team.

The Cowboys underwent a major shift, not necessarily because these players are not replaceable, but because having to replace so many players in one offseason is not an easy thing to do.

Which is why the mass hiring of new assistant coaches is a much bigger deal than many think: their success will be measured by their ability to get all the new players up to speed and playing productively, and that may have been something the Cowboys felt the old staff was not up to.

The following chart illustrates just how much of a shift the Cowboys have undergone with their personnel from a year ago:

With 24 players not returning from last year’s season opener, that’s a roster churn of 45%, which even by Cowboys standards is quite a lot. Note also that the Cowboys will be replacing eight starters (nine if you add Dan Bailey), so the roster churn this year isn’t only about the bottom of the roster.

And even if that 45% feels like “just a number”, consider what an indictment that is for the 2017 team.

The Cowboys finished last season 9-7, and it would be easy to sit back and think that a healthy Tyron Smith and Sean Lee, along with Ezekiel Elliott being available for all 16 games, should be enough for a double-digit win season and a playoff berth. But that would probably be wrong.

Success in the NFL depends in part on an organization’s ability to dispassionately evaluate the talent on its roster, and to move on quickly if it sees that the talent on the roster doesn’t meet the franchise’s requirements. Case in point: Dan Bailey’s release caught most fans and observers off guard, and after complaining for years about the Cowboys not making enough changes, suddenly the Cowboys are making too much changes, and we’re reflexively talking about how cutting Dan Bailey is the latest blow in a Cowboys firestorm that could send Jason Garrett packing.

But when you finished just 9-7, and were two injuries and one suspension short of the playoffs (what a wonderful built-in excuse for the 2017 season!), you have a tendency to think that a few tweaks here or there should be enough for a playoff berth. It makes you think that a pass defense that finished 27th in defensive passer rating just needs an upgrade or two and everything will fall into place. That keeping the same receiving personnel for another year will somehow lead to significantly better results. That keeping a kicker whose field goal percentage has been in decline for the last two years won’t matter because he’s Dan Freakin’ Bailey.

Good franchises will err on the side of speed in identifying and correcting their talent acquisition mistakes and roster holes. Roster churn and player turnover happens every year. Except when you finished with a winning record (and fell just short of the playoffs), complacency sets in much quicker than when you’re 4-12.

The Cowboys will feature 8+ new starters in 2017, and have about 21 players who didn’t play a single snap for the team last year. (Count ‘em: QB Mike White, FB Jamize Olawale, WR Allen Hurns, WR Tavon Austin, WR Michael Gallup, WR Deonte Thompson, TE Dalton Schultz, TE Rico Gathers, OL Connor Williams, OL Cameron Fleming, OL Parker Ehlinger, OL Adam Redmond, DE Randy Gregory, DE Dorance Armstrong, DT Antwaun Woods, LB Leighton Vander Esch, LB Joe Thomas, LB Chris Covington, S Tyree Robinson, S Ibraheim Campbell, K Brett Maher)

All of which will be absolutely necessary if the Cowboys want to improve over 2017.

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