Every season I like to spend some time at the start of another year by looking at how the team was put together. 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. 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.
Of the 62 names listed below, 31 are Cowboys Draft Picks. That includes 9 from the 2014 draft, so they have yet to actually make the squad, but we will give them the benefit of the doubt for this exercise in late July. Add that to the 12 college free agents who have already made a Cowboys roster at least once, and you have 43 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 43. For instance, are their enough stars in that group? Are they starting quality at least? And, is making the Cowboys roster easier than other rosters because of the soft bottom portion of the roster?
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, they really have nobody on their roster who was a big money/asset acquisition from another team. All of the other free agents and trade targets were really low-level signings until Henry Melton this spring. Melton's deal, of course, is also very manageable, so they have resisted the large money signings - although the cynics could point to a lack of cap room as the reason for this, rather than a conviction that it is not a correct way to build a roster.
One other thing to keep in mind is the colors of the chart. It represents the different head coaching regimes. The upper silver is Jason Garrett (2011-2014) even though Garrett also had part of 2010, the players listed were brought in under Wade. 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 2010 and 2011.
Then, the bottom silver is Bill Parcells. His group was nearly cleaned out in the last 12 months with the exits of Jay Ratliff, DeMarcus Ware, Miles Austin, and Jason Hatcher. But, given that this is about to be the 8th 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:
UNDRAFTED COLLEGE FAs
Martin, Lawrence, Hitchens, Street, Dixon,Mitchell, Gardner, Bishop, Smith
Melton, T McClain, Mincey, R McClain,Weeden, Hanie, R Williams, A Okoye
Frederick, Escobar, T Williams, Wilcox,Randle, Webb, Holloman
Of course, Josh Brent might (will) return this season. And Sterling Moore is complicated because he left and returned a time or two.
So, 62 players are listed above and many of the players at camp are not listed. Only 53 will make the opening roster, so I will run this chart again after final cuts.
But, for now, there is no doubt this is Jason Garrett's roster. 3 Parcells players remain and only 7 Wade players are left, too. That leaves 52 players who have been here for 3 seasons or less. And as amazing as it sounds, 33 players who have only been here for 1 season or less.
So, when you hear the Cowboys boast of having a young roster, we will have to wait to see the rankings relative to the entire NFL. But, they are clearly playing with many, many young and hungry players who will get a chance to prove what they can do because they are not watching established veterans in front of them.
Now, let's see if they are better than their predecessors.