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Why Cowboys stack up better versus Patriots and Rams than you may have thought

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How do the 2018 Cowboys compare in terms of draft pedigree, roster structure, and roster age to the Super Bowl finalists?

NFL: NFC Divisional Playoff-Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The teams that end up in the Super Bowl each year are, by default, the two best teams in the league. It doesn’t mean that they will be the two best teams the following year, but they are the teams used most frequently to define what successful teams should look like - at least until the next season begins.

Unfortunately, that success model contains a lot of soft factors that are not easily quantifiable or replicable, like scheme, coaching, individual talent, and much more. But there are things which are quantifiable, three of which I’d like to focus on today: each team’s draft pedigree, something called The Rule of 50 (which is much simpler than it sounds), and team age.

DRAFT PEDIGREE

For each team’s draft pedigree I looked only at the 53 players listed for the Super Bowl for the Rams and Patriots (and the divisional round game for the Cowboys) leaving out players on IR, players on the practice squad, or players otherwise unavailable for the game. And then I looked where those 53 players on all three teams were drafted.

Here’s what the season-ending rosters of all three teams looked like in their last game of the 2018 season in terms of draft pedigree.

Team 1st Rd. 2nd Rd. 3rd Rd. 4th Rd. 5th Rd. 6th Rd. 7th Rd. UDFA Total
Patriots 9 4 4 6 3 6 4 17 53
Rams 10 6 3 5 2 7 3 17 53
Cowboys 8 7 5 6 1 6 2 18 53

With 10 former 1st-round picks on their roster, the Rams look to have a leg up against both the Patriots and Cowboys. And with 16 players drafted in the first two rounds versus just 13 for the Patriots, the Rams certainly had the more pedigreed team. Didn’t help them much in the end, but it did get them to the Super Bowl.

The Cowboys have 15 players drafted in the first two rounds, and if you consider that Travis Frederick and Datone Jones (both former first-round picks) were on injured reserve for most of the season, the Cowboys don’t look to have a structural disadvantage versus the Patriots or Rams.

In fact, as you look at the breakdown by round from top to bottom, the three teams look rather similar. For a long time, the Cowboys had a second-round talent gap, where players like Bruce Carter, Gavin Escobar, DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, and Jaylon Smith played sparingly or not at all early in their career – or their entire career. But that talent gap disappeared last season, with Lawrence, Gregory, and Smith playing extremely well, and more recent draft picks Chidobe Awuzie and Connor Williams playing most of the season as starters.

Structurally, there is no reason why the Cowboys shouldn’t be able to compete with the Patriots and Rams, but just because you can successfully line up the chess pieces on a board doesn’t mean you’ll win the chess match.

THE 50 PERCENT RULE

Two years ago I ran across an article from Dan Durkin of The Athletic in which he explained the “50 Percent Rule.”

An exercise I do to assess the overall talent level on teams prior to the season is look at which players they’re spending 50 percent of their salary cap on. Metrics like the number of players it takes to reach the 50-percent threshold shine light on the overall star power of the team. How the player was acquired indicates how well the team has drafted, and typically those with more drafted players have more roster stability.

I liked Durkin’s approach, so I replicated it for the 2018 Rams, Patriots, and Cowboys, hoping that perhaps it would shed a little more light on the differences between the three teams. Here’s what that looked like:

Durkin explains that when a team reaches double digits before hitting the 50-percent threshold, it typically indicates a lack of difference makers at the top of the roster. So is that our first clue to the 2018 Cowboys, who have 11 players accounting for 50% of the cap versus the Rams with nine (the Pats also have 11)?

Probably not.

The Cowboys do not lack star power, they simply aren’t paying their star players star salaries. Yet.

Here’s an overview of the players making up the Cowboys’ Top 50 Percent in 2018:

Player POS 2018 Cap Hit Cap %age
Tyron Smith LT $17.5 9.5
DeMarcus Lawrence DE $17.1 9.3
Sean Lee OLB $11.0 6.0
Tyrone Crawford DE $9.1 4.9
La'el Collins RT $7.9 4.3
Ezekiel Elliott RB $6.8 3.7
Travis Frederick C $6.3 3.4
Zack Martin G $6.0 3.2
Cole Beasley WR $4.3 2.3
Terrance Williams WR $4.1 1.5
Allen Hurns WR $4.8 2.6

For 2019, the Cowboys will likely sign Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, Demarcus Lawrence, and Byron Jones to megabucks extensions. Add Earl Thomas as a potential free agent signing, and there’s a good chance eight players could account for 50% of the Cowboys cap in 2019: Prescott, Cooper, Lawrence, Jones, and Thomas along with Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and Travis Frederick.

In terms of star power, the Cowboys should be right up there with the Rams, at least according the Rule of 50%. The main difference being that the Cowboys got their stars mostly through the draft while the Rams used the draft, free agency, and trades to build the top of their roster.

So again, structurally the Cowboys are not far off from where the Rams and Patriots were in 2018.

Which leads us to our third and final point.

TEAM AGE

At the end of the 2018 season, I looked at the snap-adjusted age for all 32 teams in the league, and found that on December 30, 2018, the Cowboys had a snap-adjusted age of 25.7, making them the youngest team in the NFL last year. Here’s what the snap-adjusted age of all NFL teams looked like for 2018:

Rank Team Avg. Age Rank Team Avg. Age Rank Team Avg. Age
1 DAL 25.7 12 TB 26.8 23 NO 27.2
2 CLE 25.7 13 TEN 26.8 24 LAR 27.3
3 IND 26.1 14 BUF 26.9 25 BAL 27.3
4 CIN 26.2 15 GB 26.9 26 WAS 27.4
5 SF 26.3 16 MIA 27.0 27 PIT 27.5
6 CHI 26.5 17 NYG 27.0 28 ATL 27.6
7 HOU 26.6 18 DEN 27.0 29 OAK 27.7
8 KC 26.7 19 DET 27.0 30 PHI 27.8
9 JAX 26.7 20 MIN 27.0 31 CAR 28.2
10 NYJ 26.7 21 LAC 27.1 32 NE 28.4
11 SEA 26.8 22 ARI 27.2

And here is where we see the biggest structural difference between the three teams. The 2018 Cowboys were much younger than both the Rams and the Patriots, and some of their early struggles last year may have been a result of that assembled youth.

And the gap between the three teams becomes even more obvious when you split team age by the offense, defense, and special teams.

Team Avg Age
Offense (Rank)
Avg. Age
Defense (Rank)
Avg. Age
Special Teams (Rank)
DAL 26.0 (1st) 25.2 (1st) 26.4(19th)
LAR 27.6 (21st) 27.4 (26th) 26.2 (17th)
NE 28.4 (32nd) 27.7 (28th) 28.4 (32nd)

The Cowboys weren’t good enough to make it past the divisional round in the playoffs in 2018. And we could endlessly debate how soft factors like talent, coaching, or scheme played a role in that and how those same factors may continue to hold the Cowboys back in years to come.

But structurally, the youth of the team and the quality of that youth means the Cowboys should be able to contend for years to come.