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Cowboys under-25 talent rankings take a hit

The Cowboys are starting to age, the time to win is now.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t that long ago when everybody was talking about the young talent the Cowboys were accumulating. It really kicked-off when the Cowboys absolutely crushed the 2016 draft. Ezekiel Elliott, Dak Prescott, Jaylon Smith, Maliek Collins and Anthony Brown formed the core of a draft that pushed the Cowboys into a new era. 2017 wasn’t as good as the team whiffed on first-round pick Taco Charlton, but re-tooling their secondary with Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis and Xavier Woods was not a bad haul.

2018 continued a strong trend when the team hit on Leighton Vander Esch, Connor Williams, and Michael Gallup. While 2019 hasn’t shown much outside of Tony Pollard, 2020 looks very promising. All in all, the Cowboys have been accumulating some high-quality young players.

But those players don’t stay young forever. The scale for measuring age in the NFL is very different from the one used in the real world. Once players start aging, and getting expensive, the salary cap comes into play and teams can sometimes miss their window of opportunity. That hasn’t quite happened with the Cowboys yet, although the salary cap crunch certainly led to players like Byron Jones leaving, and hampered the ability to get Prescott locked up long-term.

The Cowboys were once among the higher-ranked young rosters, but when you look at them now, in 2020, they aren’t quite what they used to be in that department. Using the metric of best talent under-25 years of age, the Cowboys have plummeted to 24th in the league.

24. Dallas Cowboys

2019 ranking: 11

Blue-chip players: Leighton Vander Esch, OLB; Connor Williams, LG; Michael Gallup, WR; CeeDee Lamb, WR

Notable graduated players: Maliek Collins, DT; Jaylon Smith, ILB; Ezekiel Elliott, RB; Chidobe Awuzie, CB; Xavier Woods, FS

If you’ve followed the drama of the Cowboys’ attempts to balance the contract demands of free agents Amari Cooper and Byron Jones and impending free agents Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott over the past 12 months, then you probably realize the team is no longer flush with young assets on inexpensive rookie contracts. That fact is also evident in the team’s precipitous fall from ninth in the under-25 rankings two years ago to 11th last year and now 24th this year.

Still, the Cowboys deserve credit for continuing to nail a good number of their draft picks. In 2018, those successes included all three of their Day 1 and Day 2 draft picks, Leighton Vander Esch, Connor Williams and Michael Gallup. A disk issue in his neck limited Vander Esch to nine games in his sophomore season and likely compromised him when he did play — as his 26.8% allowed broken tackle rate was much worse than his rookie rate of 6.6%, second best at the position. He deserves the benefit of the doubt. Williams duplicated his impressive rookie 1.4% blown block rate in his sophomore season. And Gallup had a 13.5% receiving DVOA that would make him a No. 1 receiver on most teams, just not his because of the veteran Cooper (22.3%). One could argue the Cowboys now have three No. 1 caliber receivers since their first selection in the 2020 draft, CeeDee Lamb, led his class in Playmaker Score and was an incredible value at 17th overall.

With stars like Dak Prescot, Ezekiel Elliott and Jaylon Smith aging over the 25 year mark, the Cowboys need to replenish. As mentioned, the 2019 draft, so far, doesn’t look to be much help. Pollard is certainly notable from that draft, and Connor McGovern stands a chance of being a quality contributor. But it’s the 2020 draft that could vault the Cowboys back up the rankings.

The team’s 2019 draft class has not made the same immediate impact, but things could change for those players in 2020. Connor McGovern will return from a pectoral injury that cost him his rookie season, and he has the versatility to play either guard or center if any veteran Cowboys suffer injuries and if fourth-round rookie Tyler Biadasz needs time to develop. And running back Tony Pollard produced a starting-caliber 11.6% rushing DVOA in his rookie season and would allow the team to continue its typical rushing success if Elliott misses time. Day 2 selections from the past two seasons, Trysten Hill and Neville Gallimore, offer defensive tackle depth behind the aging Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe. And second- and fourth-round rookies Trevon Diggs and Reggie Robinson give the Cowboys a pair of bigger cornerback prospects to try to replace the departed free agent Jones.

As long as the Cowboys keep hitting on two to three players in each draft that can crack the starting lineup, they should be fine. But what was once a bevy of young talent is now middle-aged. The 2020 draft needs to hit paydirt. Decisions will be coming up on contracts after the 2020 season for many veterans, having ready-made, young replacements is always a bonus.