In this day and age of the National Football League, the teams that are the most successful develop homegrown talent. That is those players in which the team either drafts or signs as undrafted free agents. When you look at the last four teams left standing in this year’s playoffs, you will see that the players that have the most impact are the persona of homegrown talent. Here is what I am talking about:
Roddy White (2005), Matt Ryan, Thomas DeCoud (2008), William Moore (2009), Sean Weatherspoon (2010), Julio Jones (2011)
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Frank Gore (2005), Vernon Davis (2006), Patrick Willis, Joe Staley, Dashon Goldson (2007), Michael Crabtree (2009), Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati, Navorro Bowman (2010), Aldon Smith, Colin Kaepernick (2011)
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Tom Brady (2000), Vince Wilfork (2004), Logan Mankins (2005), Jerod Mayo (2008), Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez (2010), Nate Solder (2011)
Ray Lewis, (1996), Ed Reed (2002), Terrell Suggs (2003), Haloti Ngata (2006), Marshall Yanda (2007), Joe Flacco, Ray Rice (2008), Michael Oher, Paul Kruger (2009), Dennis Pitta (2010), Jimmy Smith, Torrey Smith (2011)
All four of these teams have two things in common. They were able to produce multiple players in recent drafts that have emerged as leaders on the team. They also have players that have made what is known as “the leap” rather quickly. Fourteen players listed just finished their third year or less in the league.
For Dallas to get over the hump and become the team we want them to be, we need the young players on the team to step up and become the leaders. Jason Witten (2003), Tony Romo (2004) and DeMarcus Ware (2005) are the elder statesmen of the core of this team. In 2011, Sean Lee, drafted in 2010, made the leap and joined the core. Last year, another 2010 draftee, Dez Bryant, did the same. There are seven players on the current roster that the Cowboys must have progress into core members and make the leap.
Here are those players in descending order of importance to the success of the team.
7. James Hanna – Tight End – 2012 draft class
Even though Jason Witten has shown no signs of slowing down, he will be entering his 10th year in 2013. With the way that offenses are utilizing the tight end position, it is becoming more of a necessity to have two viable options which is where Hanna comes in. Although brief, there were glimpses of his abilities shown in his rookie year. It would be a major help to the offense if those glimpses became more common in 2013.
6. Matt Johnson – Safety – 2012 draft class
Johnson missed all of 2012 with multiple injuries to his hamstrings. He also missed four games of his senior year in college due to a shoulder injury, so there may be cause for concern in regards to being injury prone. With the safety position being one of the weakest on the team, the positives Johnson brings (youth, athleticism and play-making ability)are in definite need. If he was to progress in any way like Bruce Carter did from 2011 to 2012, Dallas could have a starter for the next 10 years.
5. Alex Albright – Linebacker – Undrafted (2011)
With the very possible departure of Anthony Spencer in free agency, there could be an opening in the starting lineup next year at the outside linebacker spot. One viable candidate is Albright. Making the team as an undrafted free agent, he played primarily on special teams as a rookie. With the rash of injuries to the unit late in the 2012 season, he was thrust into more of a role and responded with a couple of solid games. If Albright is to be a player in this league, stepping up in 2013 will be key to both his and the team’s success.
4. Dwayne Harris – Wide Receiver – 2011 draft class
Harris made a sizeable leap from 2011 to 2012, stepping in to the role of the primary punt returner and growing into a possible third down receiver. He was second in the league in punt return average and made several third down receptions. Even though the numbers do not jump out at you, Harris showed a knack for making important plays at crucial times. Since Kevin Ogletree will likely not be back and Cole Beasley is more of a slot receiver, Harris could add another dimension to the Cowboys offense by continuing to improve.
3. Bruce Carter – Linebacker – 2011 draft class
Carter had a throw away year in 2010, spending most of it recovering from major knee surgery. In 2011, he started the first eleven games of the season before suffering a season-ending elbow injury on Thanksgiving day. Carter showed why he was drafted in the second round last season, excelling in pass coverage and exhibiting top end sideline to sideline speed. All signs point to Carter making the Sean Lee-esque leap in 2013. If that occurs, the Dallas defense could be well on the way to being one of the best in the league.
2. Morris Claiborne – Cornerback – 2012 draft class
The sixth pick in the last year’s draft, Morris Claiborne started all but one game. With Dallas giving up a second round pick to move up in order to pick him, Claiborne has a lot of expectation assigned to him. He played fairly well for a rookie, however he is listed as the number two option here for a reason. Dallas desperately needs him to evolve into a playmaker and shutdown corner quickly. Claiborne displayed all the necessary skills in college to be an elite level corner in the NFL, next year will be crucial to that development.
1. DeMarco Murray – Running Back – 2011 draft class
Murray exploded upon the scene, reaching the 100+ yard mark in three of his first four starts in 2010 but finished the season on IR. In 2011, he started the season with another 100+ yard game but never reached that again and missed another six games. For the Dallas offense to truly become dominant, Murray is the most important player to make the leap. Dallas needs to have him on the field for an entire year. He also needs to become the focal point to take pressure off of Romo. If he does this, there is no telling how explosive the Cowboys truly could be.