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Spagnola: Next Man Up Opportunities Galore


FRISCO, Texas – It's Friday afternoon. Like half-past noon.

Raining up a storm out here at The Star. Hard. A good 20 minutes or so. Maybe more.

And when looking out the window, there were a pack of 12 guys running on the practice field. Hard jog for right at 100 yards. Then walk it off across half the back of the end zone and back. Then another hard jog the length of the practice field.

Now who in the heck is crazy enough to be out there running in the pouring down rain?

The Dallas Cowboys offensive linemen.

Must be the young guys, right?

Un-uh. Leading the pack is nine-year veteran, seven-time Pro Bowl guard – one of those this past season – Zack Martin, the, uh, old man of the group at 31. Right behind him most of the way is Tyler Biadasz and Terence Steele. Both are entering just their third seasons in the NFL.

They finished up as the rain began to subside. Got in a circle and hugged it out.

The game of follow the leader was over. For this day, but one that will be repeated at nearly every position nearly every single day on what must be one of the youngest 53-man rosters in the NFL for this 2022 season that is about to start. And for the Cowboys, in just nine days, trying to become the first NFC East team to repeat as division champs since the Eagles in 2004, if you are willing to believe that.

But when you look out onto the two practice fields, this is the land of opportunity, an unusual amount of opportunity with 30 of the 54 players the Cowboys have rights to entering no more than their third NFL season. For most, their field of dreams. Young, inexperienced guys.

There is no time for babysitting. A whole gunch of these must be ready to go come Sunday against the Buccaneers and 45-year-old quarterback Tom Brady, reasonably old enough to be the father of the 35 players on this roster no more than 25 years of age.

Scary when you are trying to win football games against grown men?

"I love the youth," says 29-year-old Dak Prescott, beginning his seventh season in this league, knowing he was one of them back in 2016, just a 23-year-old rookie at the time, probably to him just a blink of the eye ago. "The excitement, the confidence they can have. A little bit of the naiveness. Some of those young guys think they are the best to do it, and I want to make sure they believe that – and do that."

What these veterans want to impart on these young bucks is this: Don't let these opportunities pass you by. Seize the moment.

"I talk to them all the time," says 28-year-old Jayron Kearse, entering his seventh season, too. "Those opportunities might not come twice."

He knows. Those first five years in the league, but a seventh-round draft choice of the Minnesota Vikings in 2016, the opportunities were scarce. The safety received a huge one last year when Cowboys new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn carved out a special package for a guy always considered but a special teams player.

Kearse didn't just grab the moment, he strangled the opportunity, leading the Cowboys in tackles with 92. Now he is on the other side of that coin.

Think about all this.

Rookie Tyler Smith has been thrust into the opportunity of starting Day 1 at left tackle for the Cowboys.

Having cut veteran starting right tackle La'el Collins in the offseason, now Terence Steele has earned that starting job on his own merit and must prove worthy heading into the last year of his rookie contract.

Same with presumed to be the starting left guard Connor McGovern, what with the injury to Tyron Smith causing Tyler Smith to move left and vacating the competition for the starting left guard job. McGovern is heading into the final year of his contract after earning a fulltime starting job for the first time in his career.

Rookie wide receivers Jalen Tolbert, a third-round draft choice, and Dennis Houston, a rookie free agent, out of sheer necessity with Michael Gallup still not ready for the opener, will likely serve as the third and fourth receivers with sixth-year veteran Noah Brown having the first chance to hold down the No. 2 receiver spot behind CeeDee Lamb, his first shot at No. 1 status.

See what I'm talking about? Yet wait, there is more.

At tight end, the Cowboys are moving forward with two rookies behind Dalton Schultz, fourth-rounder Jake Ferguson and rookie free agent Peyton Hendershot. How many times does that happen, especially on a team partial to two-tight end sets?

There is kicker Brett Maher, a second opportunity to become THE Cowboys kicker after a first go-around in 2018-19.

How 'bout rookie KaVontae Turpin, a young man who has gone to great lengths to get this shot as a returner/receiver, traveling even as far as Poland to sharpen his skills for a chance at the NFL.

Watch for defensive tackles like second-year vet Quinton Bohanna, now known as "Big Q," along with Trysten Hill entering the final year of his rookie deal, both nudging their way into the rotation.

Or the opportunity rookie Sam Williams will get at defensive end, the Cowboys giving their second-round draft choice a chance to make fans forget the loss of Randy Gregory as a pass rusher. Or even Dorance Armstrong, re-signed in his fifth year with a chance to start for the first time in his career.

Oh, and with nickel cornerback Jourdan Lewis still nursing a strained hamstring, though possibly returning early next week, fifth-rounder DaRon Bland is the likely choice to slip into the slot, not normally the opportunity given to a rookie.

And even Markquese Bell, not only one of three undrafted rookies making the 53-man roster but having a real shot to make a name for himself on special teams, if not elbow his way into some specialty safety snaps.

Opportunities as many as these don't usually surface on an NFL team, especially not one coming off a 12-5 record and winning a division title.

You might say the Cowboys are fearless or foolish for depending on so many young, unproven or tested players to start a season, especially facing two division champions, Tampa Bay and AFC champ Cincinnati, in the first two weeks of the season. But what do they say sometimes? "Necessity is the mother of invention."

Well, necessity, either born out of injury or pure need, has created a slew of opportunities on this team.

"I remember talking to even Trevon as a rookie," says starting corner Anthony Brown, now a seventh-year veteran himself, "saying, 'Man, this is going to go fast. You've got the ability to be great right now. You've got to take advantage of it.'

"This year I've been talking to DaRon Bland and 'Izzy' (Israel Mukuamu), saying the same thing: 'Take advantage of every opportunity.' They listen."

Now they have to play and play well.

You know the Cowboys didn't exactly stumble into this youth movement. Oh sure, there have been a couple of injuries along the way, spurring on the growth of a few young guys – those to Tyron Smith and Gallup, now Lewis – along with the free agent defection of Randy Gregory and the never-ending battle of managing the salary cap.

Head coach Mike McCarthy continually leans on his "draft and develop" mantra, and sure seems the Cowboys are testing the limits of this philosophy. But this also resembles that "meritocracy" saying of former head coach Jason Garret, and heck, that goes all the way back to legendary coach Tom Landry, Super Bowl winner Jimmy Johnson and even to Bill Parcels.

"A lot of young guys are getting an opportunity to play," Brown says, "and as coach says, we want the best 11 on the field. We show no favoritism around here. If you can play, you're going to play.

"The Cowboys are always trying to find that diamond-in-the-rough player."

And to cut Brown short, how true is that? Think Hall of Famer Cliff Harris, undrafted out of Ouachita Baptist. Think Hall of Famer Drew Pearson, undrafted out of Tulsa. Think Hall of Famer Rayfield Wright, seventh round out of Fort Valley State. Think five-time Pro Bowler Cornell Green and six-time Pro Bowler Nate Newton, both undrafted. Think Super Bowl MVP Larry Brown, 12th round out of 12 from TCU. Heck, even four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Everson Walls, undrafted out of Grambling State, the franchise rookie interception record holder tied by Diggs at 11 this past season.

On and on and on.

"Last year, 'JK' would have been that diamond in the rough," Brown says of Kearse. "Came in and took advantage of his opportunity, you know."

Yep, we do know.

Now then, Who's Next? More of a proper noun than the name of The Who's rock album released in 1971. Because the Cowboys are in great need of a few "Nexts."

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