FRISCO, Texas – There was an unexpected, overwhelming theme to Monday's national championship classic between Alabama and Georgia: 'true freshmen.'
At any level, teams need first-year players to develop during the season and make immediate contributions. The Cowboys didn't reach their goal of making the playoffs for a second consecutive season, but each of their six rookies showed signs of growth heading into 2018.
Wide receivers Ryan Switzer and Noah Brown had smaller roles on offense, but Brown saw his snaps increase late as a blocker in the running game. Switzer primarily held down kickoff and punt return duties on special teams. His 83-yard punt return from a touchdown Nov. 30 against Washington helped Dallas snap a three-game losing streak.
On defense, first-round pick Taco Charlton's snaps rose slightly over the final eight games (from 23 per game to 27) and he collected two of his three sacks in the last five games.
During that stretch, the Cowboys went 4-1 with their three rookie defensive backs – Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis and Xavier Woods – moving into the starting lineup. A hamstring injury sidelined Awuzie for six of the first nine games.
"Each of those guys, particularly those guys in the secondary, they were dealing with some injuries early on," Garrett said. "So besides being rookies, they were behind a little bit because of the time they missed. Having said that, I thought they did a really good job of coming back from that. If you think about the number of snaps that Jourdan Lewis played over the course of the year (748; 70 percent of the defense's snaps), it's a lot of football for a young corner. You know playing that position is a challenging one in the NFL.
"Then Chido, once he got healthy, I thought really made a positive impact on our team. It's easy to see the things that we liked in him coming out in the draft, I think he demonstrated a lot of that. Not to say that he was perfect by any means, he has a lot to learn, but he went about it the right way, I think he played the right way. He was around the ball, he was physical, you saw some of his instincts and play-making ability.
"Then Xavier Woods, the same way, we asked him to do a lot of different things, play a couple different spots, play as a nickel, play as a deep safety, and he seemed to handle it well. I thought those were all positives, those guys clearly got better as the season went on, individually but also collectively communicating with each other.
"Taco did some good things. I thought he got better as the year went on, started to make some impact plays, sacking the quarterback, making some plays sideline to sideline. He'll continue to grow. He's in a good environment with the veteran players at that position and the coaching that he gets there. So he has to reflect back on this year and build on some of the good stuff and certainly continue to grow in a lot of different ways."