Writer's Blocks: Roster Building, Predictions & Keeping Perspective

FRISCO, Texas – I'm always going to be torn about the realization that my profession is incredibly important and utterly meaningless – all at once.

That sounds dramatic, so let me explain.

It's just that football means the world to me. It was one of my first hobbies. It was my first love and my first genuine heartbreak. And the day I realized I wasn't going to be big enough or fast enough to play it for a living, I set my sights on a way to center my career around it.

At the same time, it's a game. It's really just a game. It's a fantastic diversion from the grind of everyday life, it's a great way to make relationships and meet new people. It fosters an incredible communal bond and it generates a staggering amount of interest and money. But on a regular basis, real life creeps in and reminds us how trivial it all really is. It's hard to get too worked up about football when you see the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey – or when you follow the forecasts of Hurricane Irma, and all the devastation it may cause. Those two examples are easy to grab, because they're all over our televisions and our news feeds, but there are dozens of daily reminders about how hard this world can be.

So that's where I'm at as we inch toward kickoff. I've got a lot of thoughts about the Dallas Cowboys and the 2017 season, and I can't wait to share them with y'all. I also feel a profound sense of perspective, and I'm going to do my best to maintain it this season. If roster moves and rivalry games are the most important things affecting us, we've got it pretty good. Keep an eye out for those who can't say the same.

With that said, this is what I'm thinking about heading into the season opener:

1.I'm not a big fan of redundancies.They're inefficient and annoying. For instance, it drives me up the wall when someone says "7 a.m. in the morning." You can say "7 a.m." or "7 in the morning," but you certainly don't need both.

Where am I going with this, and how does it pertain to football? I'm glad you asked.

In examining the Cowboys' quarterback situation, "redundant" is the only word that comes to mind. You've got an established starter and a Pro Bowler in Dak Prescott. Awesome, great start. Behind him, you kept an unproven youngster without much NFL experience. His name is Cooper Rush.

After a six-week trial period, the Cowboys decided that Rush was the more important quarterback to keep, rather than Kellen Moore. I know there are logical reasons they did it – like the fact that Rush would have been subjected to the waiver wire, while Moore would not have been.

At the end of the day, you're still talking about a 23-year-old quarterback with zero regular season appearances, as opposed to a 29-year-old quarterback with four regular season appearances. I'm aware that Moore has spent the last six years working with offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, but you're simply not talking about much of a difference in terms of potential.

The argument for keeping Moore boils down to the fact that he's a mentor and a player-coach for Dak – but I don't buy that when you consider the fact that Dak's head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach are all former quarterbacks. It seems like he's got all the resources he needs.

Which goes back to my original point. Kellen Moore seems like a great guy, and I don't have any ill will toward him – but his presence on the roster seems a bit redundant, as both a player and a teacher.

2.If someone were to ask me (and believe me, they wouldn't), I've long said that I'd opt for Luke McCown to be the third quarterback on this roster.

McCown boasts something that neither Moore nor Rush has, which is legitimate NFL experience. He has been in the league for 13 years, appearing in 62 games and starting 10. He has shared a quarterback room with some fantastic players – the most notable being future Hall of Famer Drew Brees and reigning NFL MVP Matt Ryan.

Say what you will about his abilities, but he has forgotten more about playing quarterback than most people will ever know. If you want someone to mentor Dak Prescott, he sounds more qualified to do so.

But again, that's just my opinion – which none of the Cowboys' decision-makers asked for.

3.Now that I'm done complaining, I'm going to take a second to marvel at how the Cowboys built their 53-man roster – and how it compares to some important teams around the NFC.

As it stands right now, the Cowboys' active roster is comprised of an absurd 39 homegrown players – that is, guys the organization either drafted or identified as undrafted free agents and practice squad players.

On the strength of several strong drafts, 30 of those 39 guys are draft picks, with the other nine coming as priority free agents. More than anything else, that illustrates the Cowboys' commitment to building their team through the draft, rather than relying on outside free agents.

I think you see the proof of that in Sunday's decision to release Cedric Thornton, who was set to enter the second year of the four-year, $18 million contract he signed in 2016. Thornton was one of the biggest outside free agents the Cowboys have signed in the last five years, and his failure to live up to the deal could provide further justification for avoiding free agency in the future.

Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said as much himself on Monday afternoon.

"That's one of the tough things about free agency. It's why I've always struggled with it," he said. "I think you end up paying players one click, if not several clicks, higher than where they really fit."

Of course, you can easily point out the fact that several of the Cowboys' homegrown talents aren't performing as well as a free agent might. To that end, my argument would be that it's far easier to manage a roster full of rookie and mid-range contracts while hoping to improve your talent in the draft.

4.I was curious, so I decided to compare the Cowboys' 39 homegrown players to a few other teams in the league. I didn't have time to compile all 32 rosters, but I did want to look at the Cowboys' NFC East rivals, as well as what I'd consider the two most stable teams in the NFC – Green Bay and Seattle.

New York Giants –32 homegrown players (24 draft picks, eight UDFAs)

Philadelphia Eagles –28 homegrown players (25 draft picks, three UDFAs)

Washington Redskins –33 homegrown players (27 draft picks, six UDFAs)

Most of this doesn't surprise me. The Giants and Eagles have drafted well, for the most part, for most of the last decade. Washington is a bit of a different story, though I'd point out that 13 of their 27 draft picks came from back-to-back solid efforts in 2015-16, when since-departed general manager Scot McCloughan was running the show.

What mainly interests me is to see how the Giants manage the balance between good drafting and free agent spending. The trio of Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison and Janoris Jenkins paid huge dividends in 2016 – but how will those massive deals shake out over time? And how will those impact the massive deals that will soon be due to Odell Beckham Jr. and Landon Collins?

This isn't to say that it can't be done, but it does create an added wrinkle.

5.The Packers and Seahawks' roster management was probably the most fascinating thing about this entire exercise, and I think it sheds some light on how the Cowboys want to operate moving forward.

Look at this:

Green Bay –44 homegrown players (35 draft picks, nine UDFAs)

Seattle –28 homegrown players (23 draft picks, five UDFAs)

I think there are two philosophies at work here, both of which center around drafting well. That's an understatement for the Packers, clearly, given that nine of their top 10 contracts are for homegrown talents. Sure, they've been known to plug a hole or two with outside help – Martellus Bennett and Ahmad Brooks spring to mind this season. The Packers also just signed veteran defensive lineman Quinton Dial. But this team does not give large amounts of money to players it didn't develop itself. There are rarely exceptions to this rule during Ted Thompson's time as general manager.

Seattle under John Schneider and Pete Carroll seems a bit more flexible. As has been well-documented, the core of this team – which has been dominant by NFL standards since 2012 – was found through the draft. Cornerstone players like Russell Wilson, Doug Baldwin, Bobby Wagner, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor were all uncovered in the draft process.

But with the core of that team established, the Seahawks have been a bit more willing to look outside the fold. In years past, they made splash trades – acquiring Percy Harvin and then later Jimmy Graham. They dealt conditional draft picks this weekend to add to their leaky offensive line.

Then there was the blockbuster last Friday, when they sent veteran receiver Jermaine Kearse and a second-round draft pick to the Jets in exchange for Pro Bowl defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson.

Seattle strikes me as a franchise that knows the window is closing for a generation of stars that helped make it a contender. That's not to say guys like Sherman, Thomas and Chancellor are bad players, but they're closer to the end of their primes than the beginning.

You could say something similar about Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, most likely. But you're seeing two different strategies for similar situations. The Packers trust unflinchingly in the process, while the Seahawks are willing to take chances to achieve their aims. It'll be interesting to see whose strategy works better in these next few years.

6.It's especially interesting for the Cowboys, because I foresee them coming to a similar crossroads in the near future. They have built themselves a contender through the draft, largely thanks to a dominant offensive line and one of the most serendipitous quarterback selections of all time.

They are already in the process of securing their best asset – the offensive line – for the foreseeable future, with Zack Martin as the last big piece left unsigned. The odds are good that they'll have decisions to make about Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott in the near future.

The first challenge of NFL roster building is finding the core group that makes you competitive. Then, you have to determine who you'll pay and how you'll pay them, all without dropping off on the playing field. It's a puzzle that only New England has been able to consistently solve over the last decade.

How the Cowboys handle those challenges in the next few years is going to determine whether they can sustain success the way these others franchises have.

7.Everyone in the media makes predictions around this time of year, and I honestly think it's pretty boring. The predictions are never right, because the NFL landscape shifts massively from week to week. Even when they are correct, it's more happenstance than anything else. The team that eventually wins Super Bowl LII won't look anything like the one that plays its season opener this week, for one reason or another.

8.What I do want to do, rather than make playoff predictions, is take a guess at who won't contend this season. The NFL has done such a fantastic job of creating parity that in any given year there are only five or six teams that are really and truly out of it in September.

Here's my best crack at those poor souls:

  • New York Jets –I seriously can't remember a team with less to feel good about. No answer at quarterback. No offensive difference-makers to speak of. They just traded one of their best defenders. Woof.
  • Buffalo Bills – LeSean McCoy is one of my favorite players to watch in this league, but I'm just not sure how he and Tyrod Taylor are going to get enough help to keep up with New England and Miami.
  • San Francisco 49ers –It's still crazy to think that this team was the class of the NFC just three years ago. There's a lot to like about the Niners' young defense thanks to draft picks like Solomon Thomas, Reuben Foster and DeForest Buckner. Unfortunately, I have no idea how that offense puts together enough to stay competitive in the NFC West.
  • Chicago Bears – I like where the Bears are going in the long run. The offensive line has some great pieces, Jordan Howard is a dynamic young back and the early returns on Mitchell Trubisky are positive. The defense has some nice, young talent, too. But in a division with Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and that Minnesota defense, I don't think I see it happening in 2017.

That's honestly it, though. I don't feel overly optimistic about the Browns, the Rams, the Ravens or the Eagles, but I can't definitely count them out in Week 1. That's the beauty of the NFL – 85 percent of the teams have reason to hope.

9.Like I said, I don't find preseason predictions particularly useful, given the fluid nature of the NFL. Some of the "good" teams on the Cowboys' schedule are going to struggle. Some of the "bad" teams are going to surprise. People are going to get hurt. Outlooks are going to change. That's the nature of the league.

That said, as I sit here before Week 1, I feel fairly strongly about these two bottom lines:

  • Mark it down, if I haven't made my opinion known by now: Dak Prescott remains the real deal, and he's going to make that abundantly clear to any doubters he has left in 2017. That more than anything else will dictate the Cowboys' success this season. The defense will have its ups and downs, and no one knows what's going to happen with Ezekiel Elliott. But the Cowboys' ambitions are tied directly to whether Prescott can raise his level of play, and I firmly believe he will.
  • To that end, I've got the Cowboys winning nine or 10 games and making the playoffs. I doubt they recreate the 13-win magic from last season, and I think there are still some pieces that need to fall into place to consider them a true Super Bowl contender. But a second consecutive playoff appearance is a step in the right direction, and I think this team is plenty up to that task.

10.Football's back, y'all. If you read this site, and if you took the time to read this whole column, I know it means as much to you as it does to me. Perspective is important, but there's nothing wrong with reveling in the most wonderful time of the year – and it has arrived.

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