The Dallas Cowboys are coming off a 10-6 season in 2018, finishing with the best record in the NFC East. After a 24-22 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in the Wild Card round, Dallas ultimately fell to the Los Angeles Rams in the divisional round.
With their sights now set on 2019, there’s reason for optimism. The team has its young core of talent still in place for at least one more season, which means a repeat playoff appearance — and maybe more is — within reach.
Below is a top 5 list of Dallas players who are 25 years old or under.
Now, it should be noted that there were a few players, such as Byron Jones (26), DeMarcus Lawrence (27) and Zack Martin (28), who were crucial to the Dallas Cowboys’ success but weren’t eligible due to age.
5. Dak Prescott | Quarterback
2018 pass stats: 356/526 (67.7%), 3,885 yards, 22 TDs, 8 INTs, 305 rush yards, 6 TDs
PFF grade (2018): 74.8 (No. 20 QB)
More than likely, Dak Prescott will be the next quarterback to get a massive contract extension. After being selected No.135 overall in the 2016 NFL Draft, the Mississippi State product has started all 48 possible regular season games.
The results have been up and down for Prescott, but his 4,000-plus-yard performance last season should be enough land that extension.
Prescott may never be a top-tier quarterback in the NFL. He is, however, a serviceable player capable of leading the Dallas Cowboys to a potential Super Bowl berth. With a wide variety of weapons and a healthy offensive line, it’ll be interesting to see how good this offense can be.
4. Amari Cooper | Wide Receiver
2018 stats: 53 receptions, 725 yards, 6 TDs (9 games)
PFF grade (2018): 76.7 (No. 32 WR)
Amari Cooper recently made it known that he didn’t think the Oakland Raiders were a fit for him. Considering how he flourished once he was traded to the Dallas Cowboys, that comment isn’t surprising. Here’s how his numbers looked in 2018:
- OAK: 22 receptions, 280 yards (12.7 YPC) and 1 TD (6 games)
- DAL: 53 receptions, 725 yards (13.7 YPC) and 6 TDs (9 games)
Cooper became a more consistent threat in Dallas, and now it looks the former No. 4 overall pick is poised to take another step in his development. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound receiver out of Alabama still brings youth — he just turned 25 in June — and balance to the roster.
Cooper has the mental and physical makeup needed to be Dallas’ No. 1 receiver for the foreseeable future.
3. Jaylon Smith | Linebacker
2018 stats: 121 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 forced fumbles
PFF grade (2018): 84.5 (No. 8 LB)
The Cowboys took a chance on Jaylon Smith in 2016 when they drafted him at the top of the second round. After a slow start to his NFL career, it looks like that gamble could be paying off.
Smith was outstanding during his second full season. He racked up 121 tackles, four sacks and two forced fumbles in his 16 regular season starts. That success led him to being graded out as the No. 8 linebacker in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
The most surprising part is that Smith only turned 24 years old back in June, which means there’s room for even further development. Despite his size (6-foot-2, 245 pounds), he isn’t as rock solid against the run as one may think. But with that being said, he’s not a liability in that area either.
Overall, Smith has proven those draft pundits correct who said that was a top 5 talent in the 2016 draft before the knee injury almost ended his career.
2. Leighton Vander Esch | Linebacker
2018 stats: 140 tackles, 2 INTs
PFF grade (2018): 85.7 (No. 5 LB)
Smith wasn’t the only linebacker to excel in Dallas last season. Rookie first-round pick Leighton Vander Esch emerged as one of the game’s top young defenders as well. In fact, the argument could be made that Vander Esch was even better.
The 23-year-old out of Boise State only started 11 of the team’s 16 regular season games, but he still managed to put up numbers — 140 tackles, seven pass deflections and two interceptions.
Now that he’ll have a year of experience and a full offseason to prepare as the starter, people expect even more growth from Vander Esch. Granted, that growth will need to come mentally because at 6-foot-4, 256 pounds, there isn’t much need for any more growth physically.
The comparisons to Brian Urlacher are still a bit premature. But with his knack for finding the football and range getting sideline-to-sideline, Vander Esch is showing that may not always be the case.
1. Ezekiel Elliott | Running Back
2018 stats: 1,434 yards (4.7 YPC), 6 TDs, 77 receptions, 567 yards, 3 TDs
PFF grade (2018): 75.7 (No. 25 RB)
Ezekiel Elliott has been somewhat of a headache off the field, and everyone knows it. On the field, however, the fourth-year running back is considered one of the top players at his position.
The PFF grade doesn’t back that up necessarily (rated as the No. 25 running back), but there are few who would argue it.
Elliott finished with 2,001 total yards in 2018, which was second only to Giants rookie running back Saquon Barkley (2,028). Elliott produced his impressive numbers in one less game, too.
It feels like it’s been forever since the Dallas Cowboys took Elliott No. 4 overall in the 2016 NFL Draft, but he’ll still only be 24 when the season kicks off on Sept. 8 against the Giants. His career numbers — 4,048 rushing yards, 1199 receiving yards and 34 total touchdowns — are beginning to look a lot like those of an all-time great.
Clint Lamb is a writer for PFN covering the Dallas Cowboys. In addition, Clint covers the Alabama Crimson Tide for Roll Tide Wire and The ‘Bama Beat podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @ClintRLamb.