Team-building is a very important study in today's NFL to see if your franchise is going about things in the right way. That accepted way, it seems, is to build through the draft, churn your roster with homegrown talent, try to only use free agency as a fortification and not the actual foundation, and to keep the age of your talent that you pay premium dollars young so that they may perform at an elite level.
So, every year - both early in camp and right before Week 1, I like to examine how the Dallas Cowboys are built. I try to assemble the chart you will see below to provide some context about how a modern NFL team (or, at least this particular NFL team) is built.
The first thing we do is we figure out how each player is acquired (and in what year). They fall into 3 different categories, although that was only done for simplicity. Just about every player takes a different path to the league and many are the non-traditional routes. Traditional, of course, would be through the draft or the players who are signed by a team after the draft. Those are labeled as Undrafted College Free Agents and over the years the Cowboys have excelled at finding pieces through that method, including their franchise QB Tony Romo, their defensive leader, Barry Church, their slot receiver, Cole Beasley, and a starting guard, Ron Leary. And that doesn't even mention a kicker and a punter who are both solid, with Dan Bailey being amongst the better kickers in the league.
Meanwhile, the draft is where the teams that win have built most of their squad, and the Cowboys are certainly making every effort to make this their principle mode of acquisition - something that wasn't working out for them much in the Wade Phillips era.
Of the 60 names listed below, 29 are Cowboys Draft Picks. That includes 8 from the 2015 draft, so they have yet to actually make the squad, but we will give them the benefit of the doubt for this exercise in early August Add that to the 12 college free agents who have already made a Cowboys roster at least once, and you have 41 as your "homegrown" number. That is actually a very healthy number that Dallas should be happy about - but, of course, that doesn't measure the quality of the 41. For instance, are their enough stars in that group? Are they starting quality at least? And, since making an NFL roster is different in each city because of the relative strength of each particular franchise, how hard is it to make the Cowboys team in 2015?
Free Agency and trades were the calling card of the Jerry Jones Cowboys in the 1990s with large level acquisitions. In the decade that followed, there were still some big moments, including one that you could easily suggest still hurts them (Roy Williams trade of 2008 which gutted the 2009 draft), but for the most part, you can see that aside from Brandon Carr (5 years/$50m - signed in March of 2012), they really have nobody on their roster who was a big money/asset acquisition from another team. Almost every other free agent acquisition the Cowboys have made in the last several years has been for a very low amount of money. Greg Hardy is a slight exception, but the total cash outlay for him is still likely to sit at around $10m for 2015, so unless they sign him to a multi-year deal, Carr remains the only massive free agency deal in the Jason Garrett era. That is enough to argue that the Cowboys only use free agency as a supplement to their homegrown efforts, not as a crutch as some teams do.
Now, let's discuss the colors of the chart below. Those colors represent the different head coaching regimes. The upper silver is Jason Garrett (2011-2015) even though Garrett also had part of 2010, the players listed were brought in under Wade because Phillips was the head coach in the spring when the draft and free agency occur. Wade Phillips is the blue region (2007-2010). Wade had some good teams, but the 2007-2010 personnel-acquisiton performance was about as poor as it gets - especially if you just zero in on 2007-2009. Brutal. It is easy to see why the Cowboys needed to rebuild in so heavily to begin the Garrett era.
Then, the bottom silver is Bill Parcells. His group was nearly cleaned out in the last 24 months with the exits of Jay Ratliff, DeMarcus Ware, Miles Austin, and Jason Hatcher. But, given that this is about to be the 9th season post-Parcells, his impact speaks for itself. Especially since Jason Witten and Tony Romo both go back to his 1st year in office.
Check out the newest version of the chart below:
|YEAR||DRAFT PICKS||FREE AGENTS/TRADES||UNDRAFTED COLLEGE FAs|
|Jones, Gregory, Green, Wilson, Russell, Gibson, Swaim, Nzeochoa||Hardy, McFadden, White, Brinkley, Gachkar, McCray*||Collins, Many|
|2014 (16)||Martin, Lawrence, Hitchens, Street, Gardner, Bishop||T McClain, Mincey, R McClain, Weeden, Boatright, Edwards, J Crawford||D Coleman, Patmon, Vaughn|
|2013 (8)||Frederick, Escobar, T Williams, Wilcox, Randle||Hayden, Clutts||Heath|
|2012 (10)||Claiborne, Crawford, Wilber, Hanna||Bernardeau, Carr, Weems||Beasley, Leary, Dunbar|
|2011 (3)||Tyron Smith||Chris Jones, Dan Bailey|
|2010 (3)||Dez Bryant, Sean Lee||Barry Church|
|2008 (1)||Orlando Scandrick|
|2007 (1)||Doug Free|
|2005 (1)||LP Ladocuer|
|2003 (2)||Jason Witten||Tony Romo|
Since our last version in 2014, we have taken down the following 24 names:
2014: T Mitchell, A Dixon, Will Smith, Henry Melton, Hanie, R Williams, A Okoye
2013: Devonte Holloman, BW Webb, George Selvie, Justin Durant, Martez Wilson, Orie Lemon, Ceasar Rayford, Cam Lawrence, Jakar Hamilton.
2012: Matt Johnson, Sterling Moore, Ben Bass
2011: Dwayne Harris, Bruce Carter, DeMarco Murray
2010: Jermey Parnell
2007: Anthony Spencer
Here is the 2013 version of this study if you like to see the progress from each season.
There are two names above that are special cases. Will Smith was taken off the chart because he did not make the 2014 team, but he is back in camp now in 2015 with another chance. And Danny McCray, who left the Cowboys for a season in Chicago, is now back and expected to anchor down a special teams and safety spot. But, he must now go down as a "2015 free agent signing".
60 players are listed above and those players are either players who have made the team in 2014 or draft picks/signings from 2015 who are likely to be on the squad. Obviously, other bodies at camp could make the team and only 53 will make it overall, so I will run this chart again after final cuts. But, this is a good exercise to see where they are before the cuts must be made.
There is no doubt this is Jason Garrett's roster. 3 Parcells players remain and only 5 Wade players are left, too. That leaves 49 players who have been here for 3 seasons or less. That is right, only 11 players on the Dallas Cowboys were here before the 2012 training camp that occurred just 36 months ago. And as amazing as it sounds, 31 players who have only been since the 2014 training camp. Let this be a lesson about the length of your average NFL career. They happen in the blink of an eye for most every player in the league. It is only the outliers who get to 8 or 10 seasons in pro football.
It also shows you the 4-year rolling window of roster building. Because most NFL rookies are on 4-year contracts, you can see how every year you must declare your intentions from the draft class of 4 years ago. For instance, in the spring the Cowboys had to decide about the 2011 draftees who were still with the club. They kept Tyron Smith (who technically had a 5-year rookie deal and then signed the 8yr/$97.8m extension), the punter Chris Jones (3 yr/$4.2m), and the kicker Dan Bailey (7 yr/$22.5m) but passed on extending others from the class of 2011 - Bruce Carter, DeMarco Murray, and Dwayne Harris.
Right now, they are making decisions on the class of 2012. Do they wish to keep Morris Claiborne, Tyrone Crawford, Kyle Wilber, James Hanna, Lance Dunbar, Ron Leary, and Cole Beasley past this season? If so, extensions need to be decided upon. They already extended Beasley in the spring (4yr, $13.6m) and passed on Claiborne's 5th year option (Mo can still be kept, but this year will prove everything about his future). We shall see if they wait until March on everyone else, but I think Tyrone Crawford is the biggest priority here by a mile to try to get something done - preferably before he busts out this year and the price goes up quickly.
The Cowboys have a young, talented roster that is further fortified by a massive intake of talent in 2015 that includes many potential blue-chippers from the '15 draft class, including Jones, Gregory, and Collins. They have positioned themselves pretty well with the salary cap where they are paying players who are difference makers in the present tense - not paying players for past performance who are on the wrong side of 30 years old. For the most part, they have invested in franchise altering players like Tyron Smith and Dez Bryant along with the 2 old-timers who have helped carry this thing for more than a decade: Tony Romo and Jason Witten.
We will revisit this when they get down to 53, but you can see how the Cowboys are now beginning to resemble those top franchises that are always credited with home-grown, built-through-the-draft rosters. The front office appears to be getting it done the right way.