It is the season of mock drafts and prospect rankings for the NFL and its fans. That means that the names of Mel Kiper and Todd McShay, the big draftniks for ESPN, will be floating around quite a bit as they offer their opinion on what is to come. But both of them have also just taken a look back at last year’s draft, and for both of them, the Dallas Cowboys’ crop was worth mentioning.
McShay compiled a list of the twelve rookies last year who provided the best return on their draft position. In other words, he put a valuation on how much they overperformed based on what you would normally expect from where they were actually drafted. And you probably can guess who led off his list.
1. Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys
Pre-draft grade: Fourth round | Drafted: Fourth round
I liked Prescott's frame, mobility, intangibles and toughness, but I worried that he would need a lot of time to develop coming from Mississippi State's zone-read spread offense. Prescott ended up finishing third in Total QBR. Granted, a great offensive line protected him well and Ezekiel Elliott helped provide balance, but there's no doubt that Prescott improved his mechanics. That led to his showing more accuracy as a rookie than we saw on the college tape we studied (67.8 completion rate in 2016, fourth in the NFL).
Kiper did something even more interesting. He went back and reviewed the grades he handed out immediately post-draft, and regraded all 32 teams based on how the rookies actually performed (or didn’t, as the case may be). Here is what he had to say about the Cowboys.
Post-draft grade: C
This was obviously a fabulous draft, netting a franchise-changer at the quarterback position and useful players elsewhere, with only one major question mark that directly affects the ability of this team to be a Super Bowl contender in 2017. First, let's get this out of the way: We all missed on Dak Prescott and what he was capable of. It's yet another reminder that where you land matters so much. This offense is a perfect incubator for a young QB, with a great offensive line and a solid running game, but we can't say, "Anybody could do what Dak did." No way. He was better than we could have imagined, and the only question now is how good he can be. Just remember: Dallas wanted both Paxton Lynch and Connor Cook before it was essentially forced to draft Prescott. But the Cowboys still pulled the trigger and deserve the credit.
I don't want to understate how good Ezekiel Elliott is (1,631 yards, 16 TDs) and was -- I called him "one of the best running back prospects in recent years" -- but I said then I expected him to have a huge rookie year, and I'd say the same for other running backs playing here. He's a great, great player, but he needed to be in order to justify the pick slot (see: Jordan Howard). If there's a big question, it's still Jaylon Smith in Round 2. Again, this is the best player in the draft if he's healthy, but what he'll become still remains a mystery, and that's a huge bet Dallas placed knowing its defensive personnel was a problem and will be again in 2017. And they did that two years in a row in Round 2, after taking Randy Gregory the year before. Charles Tapper, Dallas' fourth-round pick, also didn't see the field because of a back injury. This affects the on-field talent level. Outside of that, Dallas got useful contributions from Maliek Collins (670 snaps) and Anthony Brown, who might have to start in a suddenly empty secondary.
Make no mistake, it was a great draft based on Dak and Zeke alone. Hopefully, Smith can get on the field and make this an easy A+.
New grade: A-
This is the biggest improvement of any of team.
Both of these articles are nicely complimentary towards the Cowboys and their drafting skills last year. And it is worth noting that McShay and Kiper were engaging in some self-criticism here. Both of them openly admit how wide of the mark they were in their initial evaluation of Prescott, and Kiper seems to agree with the theory that the class could look even better should Jaylon Smith and Charles Tapper make contributions this season.
With this year’s draft now less than a month away, it also reminds us that Dallas did a pretty good job last time around. The team is looking to make some serious upgrades again, particularly on defense. Last year’s performance makes it a little easier to believe they can pull it off again this year.