As the Dallas Cowboys benefit from a pair of all-star-caliber rookies this season, it gives us an opportunity to discuss the best draft classes in franchise history since 2000. It is clear that the ultimate draft stretch for our franchise took place between 1988 and 1990 which brought in The Triplets who catapulted the Cowboys into a Super Bowl winning dynasty. Although we have yet to achieve those heights again, this 2016 draft class may be a springboard to future success.
A look back at some of the best drafts for the Cowboys since 2000.
2003: Terrence Newman and Jason Witten
2003 marked the acquisition of Terrence Newman in the first round, Jason Witten in the third round and Bradie James in the fourth round. While Newman and James are no longer on the team, their presence, reliability and play-making was critical during the Bill Parcels years. Newman provided solid coverage in the secondary while James manned the defense as the middle linebacker for a rather depleted defensive unit at the time. The ultimate prize during this draft was clearly Jason Witten who will finish off his career in Dallas as the franchise leader in all meaningful receiving categories, including catches, yards and touchdowns, and is a lock for first ballot Hall of Famer when he decides to retire. Much has been made of his heroics in the community, his locker room leadership and his presence as the ultimate security blanket for Tony Romo and Dak Prescott over the last thirteen seasons.
2005: DeMarcus Ware, Marion Barber, Jay Ratliff
This was one of the Cowboys most celebrated drafts. The centerpiece was obviously DeMarcus Ware, one of the most dominant pass rushers the NFL has ever seen. But the Cowboys also scooped up players like Marion Barber, Jay Ratliff, Marcus Spears and Chris Canty. Just look at all the talent the Cowboys added to their defensive line with just one draft. And Marion Barber was a bruising, productive back who gave the offense a physical identity during his time in Dallas.
2010: Sean Lee and Dez Bryant
The 2010 draft was critically important for the Joneses given the colossal failure from the 2009 draft where Dallas did not have a first- or second-round pick, and none of their late-round picks kept a roster spot for more than two seasons. It was also a time when Dallas was lacking play-making ability outside of the ever-resourceful Tony Romo.
Christmas came very early for the Cowboys as Dez Bryant fell into their hands late in the first round. While there was question about his off the field antics, Bryant quickly became a top receiving threat and provided the offense a play-making dimension that they had not had since Michael Irvin. Following the Dez pick, just one round later, the Cowboys selected Sean Lee who has simply brought brilliance since his time with the Cowboys. The defensive success has relied more on Sean Lee’s presence on the field than any other player on the Cowboys since Darren Woodson.
2016: Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott
Oh, c'mon, you knew this was coming. The ultimate draft since the 1990s has been 2016 which has brought Dallas their future backfield in Dak and Zeke, but has surprisingly also brought Dallas a trio of defenders who may become mainstays. Maliek Collins has started on the defensive line since coming back from injury while Anthony Brown has been a very pleasant surprise in the secondary as he has filled in for one injured starter after another. The ultimate x-factor to catapult this draft into a legendary one will be the potential play of Jaylon Smith, the superstar linebacker from Notre Dame who suffered a gruesome knee injury last year.
It has already been established that short of a horrific injury or an unexpected salary cap situation, the 2016 draft has brought Dallas its starting backfield for at least the next seven to ten seasons. While this in itself places this draft as the top in the last 15 seasons, the play of Smith, Collins and Brown could cement this draft as the most fruitful in franchise history.
The clear difference between the 1990s successes and the last twenty years has been the caliber of talent that Dallas has brought in with the draft. From 1986-1992, Dallas drafted innumerable All Pros and sent four players to the Hall of Fame. With that rapid influx of talent, it is somewhat clear how the Cowboys were able to rack up multiple Lombardi trophies in such a short amount of time.
The Cowboys had a few good drafts in the early/mid 2000’s, but they were never able to fully capitalize on it for various reasons. One reason was the offensive line had long been neglected, something the Cowboys have remedied in the the last half-decade with the picks of Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin.
Using this experience, the next few drafts are exceptionally important given that Dallas already has a young core which would benefit from added talent. The defensive side of the ball seems like a likely place for the Cowboys to go in the next few years, and if they can add anything along the lines of the talent in this most recent draft, they could set themselves up to be competitive for a long time.