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Offseason | 2024

Spagnola: Needing Cowboys youth to assemble In 2024

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FRISCO, Texas – This has happened before. Several times.

Is happening again. Big time.

Will happen in the future. For sure as long as the Cowboys continue to construct star-studded rosters like they had in 2023.

And don't need to remind anyone of the 10 Pro Bowlers, four All Pros and upcoming contracts for this past season's second-ranked quarterback, who led the NFL with 36 touchdowns passes, the NFL's leader in receptions with 135 and the "Lionbacker" leading the NFL in QB pressures and the fourth-most sacks in NFL history over his first three seasons (a stat that goes back to 1982) with all needing to get paid soon.

Creating, so to speak, a salary-cap-space desert.

And as Jerry Jones, the guy footing the bill for such roster specialties, said, "I'm going to say, without being theatrical, I'm going to drop to a knee and say thank you for the problem.

"It's an outstanding problem to have."

Thus, welcome to The Star, the Land of Opportunity where the youth will be counted on to grow, where the injured can revitalize their careers and where the aging might just turn back the clock.

Yes, these Cowboys might as well erect their own Statue of Liberty out on 1 Cowboys Way for this 2024 season, welcoming these mostly unknowns. Promising a chance to prosper out of necessity since once again they are snuggled up against an unforgiving NFL salary cap with really little other choice.

We heard back in the pioneer days, "Go West, young man." Well, extra specially now, the Cowboys might as well post "Come on to Frisco."

Because unless the Cowboys find some cap dollars under the front-office couch cushions upstairs, they are going to be forced to rely on a bunch of no-name youngsters to grow before their very eyes; to pick up the slack if this team has any hope of winning a dozen games for a fourth consecutive season; of becoming the first NFC East team to repeat as division champs since 2004; and to get over the 28-year, ever-expanding mountain to reach an NFC Championship Game.

Now, of course free agency is but two weeks old. The NFL Draft is a month away. Trades still a possibility. But for the most part, to have the luxury of some of the best players at their positions in the NFL, the Cowboys will need some uninitiated youngin's to grow before their very eyes, as unsettling as that might seem this Easter Weekend. There are no golden eggs out there.

Start with the offensive line. Guys like Brock Hoffman, T.J. Bass, Matt Waletzko, Josh Ball and Asim Richards will have opportunities to make a name for themselves with two spots among the starting five vacant, not to mention prime backup opportunities as well.

Same at running back with Rico Dowdle, Malik Davis, Deuce Vaughn, Snoop Connor and Hunter Luepke having the opportunities of a lifetime, not a soul on the current roster with more than Dowdle's 96 NFL career carries.

And at wide receiver, the likes of Jalen Tolbert, Jalen Brooks, KaVontae Turpin, Jalen Cropper, David Durden and Martavis Bryant need to battle for the third, fourth and fifth spots. And, with the exception of Bryant, who last caught an NFL pass in 2018, the others have combined for 43 receptions.

Young tight ends such as Peyton Hendershot, Luke Schoonmaker and John Stephens will be tested for backup duties to starter Jake Ferguson.

Defensively, here are some of the names with opportunities coming their way: Mazi Smith in his second season and Sam Williams in his third, both with a chance to earn starting positions at wide open defensive tackle and defensive end spots, respectively. Time for last year's fourth-rounder, Junior Fehoko, to earn his first NFL snaps. Same for sixth-round cornerback Eric Scott. Can't keep waiting on Chauncey Golston. It's time, and this could be a do or die training camp for the likes of defensive backs Nahshon Wright and Israel Mukuamu.

There is a dearth of experience at linebacker, meaning Markquese Bell and Juanyeh Thomas must make their bones back at safety after the acquisition of veteran 'backer Eric Kendricks and the growth of Damone Clark. But that also means DeMarvion Overshown needs a successful return to linebacker after his torn ACL of last summer. There's Tyrus Wheat needing a huge second-year jump, too.

These guys can only hope you know their names by the time November rolls around.

But this is what happens when losing nine guys considered starters (Tyron Smith, Tyler Biadasz, Michael Gallup, Tony Pollard, Dorance Armstrong, Johnathan Hankins, Leighton Vander Esch and currently unsigned Stephon Gilmore and Jayron Kearse), along with top rotation guys such as Dante Fowler Jr., Neville Gallimore and unsigned Chuma Edoga.

There is only so much the Cowboys can do in the draft with just seven picks, starting off at No. 24 in the first. And sure can't count on more than three draft choices, if even that many, to help fill some of these gaping holes. Got to have young guys step up … or else.

"If your roster is built the right way, the development of the young guys that may have played 15 plays a game may increase to 45 or 50," head coach Mike McCarthy said. "Ultimately, maybe you want to have the 70-to-75 plays a game player that to me would be in line of a starter.

"The biggest impact on our football team will come from the players who are currently on the roster. We've got a draft class coming in. We'll continue to be involved in free agency."          

The Cowboys, especially McCarthy, have subscribed to the "draft and develop" philosophy of team building. And for the most part, that has been a sound philosophy, if you consider in that Green Bay playoff game 16 starters were draft picks, along with two more starters who arrived as undrafted rookie free agents.

Now that track record must continue, not only with this 2024 draft class but sure will need that 2023 draft class of last year to step up the pace since only receiving three starts out of those eight rookies, all belonging to Mazi Smith but only starting in place of the injured Hankins. All totaled, those rookie draft picks combined for 56 games played, 34 of those belonging to Mazi and Schoonmaker as rotational/special teams guys, with just three others totaling the other 22 games played.

"We knew it was going to be challenging, it always is," Jones said of putting together this 2024 roster with limited cap space, "but I'm buoyed by the team we've got, buoyed by the fact we've got young players, either for injury or otherwise. They've got to step up.

"They will step up. Some won't as much as we want. Some will do more."

But this is what happens when bending over backward to keep a roster together by restructuring some of your star players' contracts. And this cap problem is not just about this year. It's next year's, too, which is one of the reasons the Cowboys refrained from offering splashy long-term deals to free agents. Or to retain their own unrestricted free agents like Tyron, Tyler, Dorance, Dante and Tony while also having to part ways with Michael for cost-cutting measures, knowing next year they'll need available funds to keep the likes of Dak, CeeDee, Micah, Zack, DeMarcus and Osa around. Names you know.

"We've had a great roster by any measure, but I'm very satisfied we've had the roster we've wanted to have over the last the last three, four years," Jones said. "So with that in mind, we've got to pay the fiddler for having those rosters."

And in doing so, this reminds me of the Olympic closing ceremony tradition when the IOC president always says, "I call upon the youth of the world to assemble four years from now …"

Because the Cowboys need their "youth" to begin "assembling" immediately with that fiddler playing a song all too familiar in these parts.

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