If you look at the best case scenario for the Dallas Cowboys, it is hard not to get absolutely giddy about their prospects this year. The super rookies, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, are back for more, and they were just the headliners from last year’s draft. The “red-shirts” are all looking to contribute this year, and everyone is eager to see what the new crop of rookies brings to the table. It’s all exciting.
But are we assuming way too much? As Cowboys fans, were we (even more) spoiled by the incredible success of last year’s draftees? Do we need to take a step back and temper those soaring expectations?
Those are questions to ask, and this is not really intended to come up with answers, just to get you thinking.
The first thing that has to be acknowledged is that what happened for Dallas last year was a very, very rare thing for any NFL team to do. It is not all that common for a rookie to come into the league and immediately become one of the acknowledged leaders in the NFL at his position (which is, after all, what the Pro Bowl is all about). It is almost unheard of for two such players to emerge on one team. Yet that is exactly what happened in Dallas - and we may be letting that incredibly high bar drive our expectations much more than we should. Not only did the Cowboys wind up with the two biggest stars in the league period, not just among rookies (just look at the jersey sales if you don’t believe it), they also had two more very, very solid draft picks in Maliek Collins and Anthony Brown, both notching multiple starts during the season. Of the rookies to see the field last year, only Kavon Frazier still has to prove his worth. To use the common baseball analogy, it is like the Cowboys got two grand slam home runs, plus a triple and a double in the 2016 draft. And that is not going to be easy to match.
What it does provide for the team is a very solid place to build from. The Cowboys unquestionably made a huge improvement from the debacle that was the 2015 season, and all four of the rookie contributors from last season are set to continue making a difference. Now, there is also a great hope for those “red-shirt” players, Jaylon Smith, Charles Tapper, and Rico Gathers, to come in and establish this as one of the all time greatest draft classes ever.
No pressure there.
The lofty goals so many are setting in their minds for that trio are almost certainly too high. Both Smith and Tapper are coming off serious injury. Yet Smith is widely expected to seize the starting MIKE job right away - even though he is not able to even practice full time. Likewise, Tapper is being touted as perhaps the best option as a right defensive end, even though he has been away from the game for almost a year himself. And even if Gathers is ready to make the 53-man roster this year, he is going to be a bit player as long as Jason Witten has anything to say about it. And Witten has a lot of say about who is taking snaps at tight end.
We need to divorce the “red-shirts” from the excellent rookies that played so well last year. All three are in a position where they need to prove what they can do first. Even if they make significant contributions this year, those could well come in the latter half of the season. Just don’t expect any of them to duplicate the almost immediate impact of Dak and Zeke.
If we need to curb our enthusiasm about the 2016 players who weren’t on the roster but still have the advantage of a year of meetings and work in the playbook, we really need to hit the brakes on the 2017 rookie class. Yes, it looks like there are some very nice pieces to use there. But they are all pieces, not transformational players. None are likely to have anything near the impact of Prescott or Elliott. If you want a benchmark for them, then Maliek Collins or Anthony Brown are far better. And to be honest, this would be a successful draft class if five or six of them fell somewhere between Collins and Brown. Remember, Collins started fourteen games as a rookie. It is entirely possible that none of the 2017 group will have that many starts, largely due to the fact that all of them are in positions (defensive line, secondary, wide receiver) where Dallas uses a lot of rotation, and there are already incumbents to carry the title of “starter”. That doesn’t mean that they will be failures. It just means that this year’s rookies are going to have a lot harder time making a splash the way their immediate predecessors already have. Their contributions are much more likely to be incremental.
Now, having thrown around a good bit of cold water, let’s remember that this is not a Cowboys team that needs a lot of new major impact players. Last year, they certainly did. Coming off the dismal 4-12 record in 2015, Dallas was badly in need of a real jump start - and that is just what they got. After improving to a 13-3 regular season, that concept of incremental improvement actually makes a lot more sense. However, due to how things worked out, they may need a bit better. There is the need to sort out the offensive line (which does not really involve the rookies, but still looms large), the pass rush remains more hope than anything else, and the secondary of necessity is going to have a lot of new faces all on the field at once, at least some of the time. Given that Dallas was drafting at the end of each round this year, they had to lean more towards quantity than quality - and as we so often have seen, quality in draftees is not always commensurate with draft position. The Cowboys did a very good job finding some unexpected talent last year, so it is not unreasonable to hope they at least partially duplicated that. And the moves to get a couple of extra picks this year were smart, since there is always something of a lottery aspect with drafting. The more tickets you have, the better the chances of hitting on a couple.
Not having to immediately carry the load does take a lot of pressure off the rookies, and that may be a lot of help. Taco Charlton especially would likely benefit from being able to mix in with others along the defensive line. If there is going to be an immediate starter besides Charlton, it is likely going to be either Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, or Xavier Woods, and that is just a matter of numbers. Meanwhile, the current OTA sensation Ryan Switzer is likely far more effective coming in for specific situations than trying to supplant Cole Beasley as a starter.
Just be prepared for some growing pains and slower starts than we saw in 2016. Having three immediately successful starters out of your rookie class by the third week of the season almost never happens, so there is almost zero chance of seeing that happen again - even if you include Smith and Tapper. And that is fine. This is not a team trying to turn things around from a lost season. They are looking to stay the course while getting better in a few key spots. That is the benchmark to use in judging them. Not whether they can go to the Pro Bowl as rookies.