The Dallas Cowboys had some significant injury news this week. First, they learned that La’el Collins injured his big toe. For now, he is resting and will see how things progress before the team determines if he can return soon or will need surgery, which could lead to IR for him. Then they found out (after a great bit of mystery) that Dez Bryant has a hairline fracture of his tibia and is day-to-day, with a possibility of missing up to three games. Then the team announced that rookie defensive end Charles Tapper will go on IR because of lingering problems from a long-term back injury that was unknown before he was drafted.
All of course have possibly serious implications as the team moves forward, but the Tapper injury is just the latest problem to befall the defensive ends for the team. DeMarcus Lawrence is both recovering from his own injury and sitting out the last game of his suspension. He and Jason Garrett have both stated that he has no limitations and will be back after the game against the San Francisco 49ers. Randy Gregory is still expected to miss almost the entire season due to his suspension. Now Tapper becomes the third defensive end the team has drafted in recent years that is going to miss most or all of his first year due to injury problems. The team has had a terrible run of bad luck, combined with a certain level of risk-taking, in trying to upgrade the pass rush through the draft.
And now Tapper becomes the second 2016 draft pick who may not see the field at all this season, joining second-rounder Jaylon Smith. Smith was taken with full knowledge that he could not play while he waits for a nerve to regenerate in his injured knee. That means the second and fourth picks of this year’s class are not contributing. It looks bad for this class.
If you are determined to see the downside of things. Because while those two picks look a bit ugly, there are certainly other rookies that are making a huge positive impact in this draft class.
You cannot make a real judgment on how a class does for at least three years, but some major contributions are being made already by some of this year’s group. And the good, if things continue on the current path, may make this one of the best classes Dallas has ever had. Here is a quick review of all nine picks.
First-round pick Ezekiel Elliott (fourth-overall). He got off to a somewhat slow start in his first game and had fumble issues in the second. But things finally came together for him against the Chicago Bears, with 140 yards rushing and a total of 160 yards from scrimmage. He is already tied for second among NFL rushers, and with the trajectory he is on, the idea that he may be the league’s leading running back this year is not at all far-fetched. And he is accomplishing this despite defenses making a clear effort to not let him beat them.
Per Next Gen Stats, Ezekiel Elliott and Isaiah Crowell performed well against 8-plus defenders in the box: pic.twitter.com/B25NfyeyeC— Alex Gelhar (@AlexGelhar) September 27, 2016
Elliott looks like he can be everything the team hoped for as a running threat.
Second-round pick Jaylon Smith (34). This was a long-term move by the Cowboys’ staff to land a truly remarkable player at a low cost. If it works out, it will look brilliant - in a couple of years. But right now, the team needs more on defense, and taking Smith meant forgoing more immediate help. If Dallas falls just short of the playoffs this year, or gets in and makes a quick exit, there will be inevitable “what if” questions about this pick.
Third-round pick Maliek Collins (67). Quietly, Collins has become a real find for the team. You don’t really expect third-rounders to become starters early in their rookie year, but against the Bears, that is just what he was. His play inside makes up for moving Tyrone Crawford back to defensive end while the team waits for Lawrence’s return. And he has been good enough to play ahead of the top free agent acquisition this year, Cedric Thornton. That says a lot.
Fourth-round pick Charles Tapper (101). As mentioned, he may not see the field at all this year. His loss seems worse because of the string of defensive end problems, coupled with the defensive problems the Cowboys have had, particularly in trying to generate any pass rush. In the team’s defense, his injury was something of a freak thing that no one knew about. But that does not lessen the difficulties it causes.
Fourth-round (compensatory) pick Dak Prescott (135). This pick alone may be enough to consider this draft a success. He has come in and gotten the team to a 2-1 start without Tony Romo. He has been impressive as an NFL starting quarterback, much less a rookie who was supposed to have a very difficult time making the transition from his college system. But most importantly, talk of him being the quarterback of the future for Dallas is now entirely plausible. His improvement from game to game has been clear to see, and the coaching staff has demonstrated a great grasp of how to maximize his talent and mask his weaknesses. You don’t hit it out of the park any better than it appears the team has done with Prescott.
Sixth-round pick Anthony Brown (189). It is remarkable to be starting three draft picks in week three of the season, and have them all do well. Against the Bears, Orlando Scandrick was inactive with hamstring issues, forcing Brown into the nickel cornerback role. Given the predominance of that personnel grouping in today’s pass-happy NFL, that means the Cowboys essentially had four members of the draft class starting last Sunday. And all of them had good games - great in the case of Elliott and Prescott.
Sixth-round (compensatory) pick Kavon Frazier (212) and sixth-round (compensatory) pick Darius Jackson (216). Both have been inactive for all three games this year. Many have questioned why Frazier is not active instead of J.J. Wilcox, but Wilcox had one of the best games in memory against Chicago as well as continuing to be a key special teams player, which may quell the disquiet for at least a game or two. Frazier and Jackson are both serving as depth in case of injuries ahead of them on the depth chart, and that is a valuable role for rookies.
Sixth-round (compensatory) pick Rico Gathers (217). Gathers is on the practice squad, which quite frankly was the obvious plan all along for the converted basketball player. It is hard to argue with that use of a late-round bonus pick, especially with the flashes Gathers has shown despite his tremendous rawness as a tight end.
So the Cowboys have two 2016 draft picks that have done nothing so far and may not this season. Weigh against that two rookies that are already showing genuine star quality, two more that were solid starters in their first opportunity, and three that are strictly in the “to be determined” category. If things continue this way, this is a very good result for a draft class. Should Frazier or Jackson see action and acquit themselves well, it will just look even better.
For some reason, everything the Cowboys do to try and upgrade defensive end just seems to turn out badly in recent seasons. Tapper is a continuation of what seems to be more a freakishly bad trend than anything. But his injury does not make this an ugly draft at all. Right now, the good far outweighs the bad, no matter how you look at it. This is a very preliminary evaluation, of course, but it could not have gone much better for this draft class to this point.