Note: This is part two in a five part series. Counting down to the draft on April 27, Blogging The Boys will be presenting profiles on the top 5 biggest steals and worst disappointments in Cowboys draft history.
Biggest steal nominee #2: Herschel Walker, selected in the 5th round of the 1985 NFL draft
Herschel Walker was an All-American running back at the University of Georgia and won the Heisman Trophy in 1982. Walker made the decision to leave college after his junior year and become a player for the newly formed USFL. Playing for the Donald Trump owned New York Generals he put up monstrous numbers, rushing for over 5,500 yards in just three years. When the USFL seemed destined to fail, the Cowboys acquired Walker's NFL rights by drafting him in the 5th round of the 1985 draft. Following the eventual fold of the USFL he joined the Cowboys for the 1986 season.
Walker would continue his outstanding play in the NFl. He was the only shining star on a lackluster Cowboys team that had struggled mightily since its championship days. When Jerry Jones bought the team in 1989 and hired Jimmy Johnson, Walker was one of just a few players with any drive and competitive attitude on the team. Five weeks into his first season as head coach, Jimmy Johnson traded away his only Pro Bowl player to the Minnesota Vikings in a move that would become legendary. In the days before free agency, large multi-player trades were a common occurrence and used to help build winning teams. However, the trade between Minnesota and Dallas was the largest player trade ever and instantly called into question the sanity of Minnesota's GM. To acquire Walker from the Cowboys, Minnesota sent five players and six draft picks to Dallas. Two of those players were eventually turned into conditional draft picks and the Cowboys ended up with eight additional draft picks between 1990 and 1993.
The impact of the trade was immediately felt on both sides. Minnesota went from being a Super Bowl caliber team to struggling throughout the early 90's. Dallas used the draft picks acquired from Minnesota to build a dynasty. Making smart trades and gaining great value with various draft picks Dallas was able to stay near the top of the draft in 1990 and 1991 while acquiring even more draft picks in the 1992 and 1993 drafts as well. When all was said and done Dallas had drafted Emmitt Smith, Darren Woodson, Kevin Smith, Russell Maryland among numerous others that helped anchor the Super Bowl winning teams between 1992 and 1995.
Herschel Walker would play well in Minnesota but never became the savior they hoped he would be when the trade was made. He would spend just three years as a Viking before moving on Philadelphia and the New York Giants. He would eventually come full circle and play the final two years of his career in Dallas. Despite not playing much on offense, he was still a stand out on special teams and averaged over 25 yards per return as a kick return specialist. Long regarded as one of the most in shape players in football, he missed only 4 games because of injury his entire career. Herschel Walker had a very good career as pro football player but that is not why he is considered one the Cowboys' great draft steals. His value as a player helped turn an off-hand 5th round draft pick into one of the all-time great NFL dynasties.
Worst disappointment nominee #2: David LaFleur, selected #22 overall in the first round of the 1997 draft.
With the possibility looming that All-Pro tight end Jay Novacek would have to retire because of a back injury, the Dallas Cowboys had their minds set on drafting a tight end. And not just any tight end; they wanted LSU tight end David LaFleur. Fearing that would not be available at #25, the Cowboys traded its first rounder and two additional picks to Philadelphia to move up three spots and select LaFleur in the 1997 draft. Dallas already had a receiving tight end in Eric Bjornson and touted LaFleur for his blocking skills as well as his ability to catch the ball on third downs. The Cowboys hoped that his large frame (6-7, 270) would create mismatches against NFL linebackers and give Troy Aikman one more weapon on offense.
LaFleur never reached the heights the Cowboys hoped he would soar to. His lack of athleticism combined with his size was actually detrimental to his success in the passing game as he was unable to get open for the pass. He also turned out to have suspect hands as well and was never a true threat in the passing game. His best year was in 1999 when he caught seven touchdown passes, yet had just 322 yards receiving. To make matters worse LaFleur was never the great blocking tight end he was in college, the part of his game that was supposedly his strength.
After an injury plagued 2000 season, the Cowboys released LaFleur when he failed a physical in the offseason. The Cowboys had reached and given up draft picks for the chance at getting a hopeful replacement for Jay Novacek and ended up with a merely mediocre tight end whose career was cut short because of injury. It was touted as a bad move at the time and looking back it is thought of one of Jerry Jones' great draft blunders. Since making the move to trade up for LaFleur in 1997, the Cowboys have yet to draft an offensive player in the first round.