The draft is barely in the rear-view mirror but the excitement to see the new “toys” is growing by the day. In this case, it’s sometimes very easy to overlook that there are some second-year players on this roster that also deserve the love. We’ve been discussing a lot of guys that either redshirted or had little impact on the 2016 season. We certainly have high expectations this season for guys like Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Maliek Collins, and Anthony Brown in their second years. But, for this exercise let’s focus on the guys that didn’t have much impact last season and get the hype train rolling once again. We’ll start with the obvious…
Jaylon Smith, LB
This is not a fire that needs any extra gas but every week there seems to be a tidbit or two as it’s been the most anticipated debut of any Cowboy in recent memory. During the pre-draft presser, Jerry Jones stated that Smith’s nerve had fired to the point of him being able to lift his toes. Just a day or so later, Stephen Jones said Jaylon “has a great opportunity to see full regeneration as we close in on the season.” Even Will McClay was doing a bit more media than he’s used to this week and told the cast of “The Break” that Smith is “showing that explosive ability that would have made him a Top-10 pick” last year. Jason Garrett and company expect Smith to be ready to take part in the offseason program starting next week with the rookie minicamp, which is open to second-year players that were injured or didn’t play in their rookie seasons.
There’s not much more to say about Smith other than this team is counting on him to have a role carved out. If he’s anywhere close to the player he was at Notre Dame before the horrific injury, the Cowboys will be elated. He’s the catalytic defensive player that Dallas has yearned for and he’s got that ability to take over a game. Just his size, speed, and length paired with his football intelligence will be great to have manning the middle of the defense. Though it’s still a situation to monitor, it’s hard to temper that excitement for a player like Jaylon Smith.
Charles Tapper, DE
Here’s another redshirt candidate who was slowed by a debilitating back injury, which became the theme of the season for the Cowboys. Tapper wasn’t a first-round talent like Smith but he certainly was someone the front office really liked during the draft process. They were able to get him in the fourth round which is right where he was projected. Tapper was a cause for excitement last offseason because many believed the reason he was there in the fourth round was due to a scheme change in college. His 2015 tape wasn’t great and his production slipped when he was asked to play out of position. He certainly projected a lot better as a weakside defensive end in a 4-3 scheme where he could use his 4.59 speed to rush the quarterback.
Tapper’s measurable of 6’ 2” and 270 pounds fit the threshold for the Cowboys but being able to have that level of speed is impressive. Again, here’s another guy that Will McClay talked about, saying: "If he was in this year's draft, based on the measurable based on all the things people look at, he would have been considered in one of the top pass rushers.” That’s pretty high praise considering the depth of edge rushers in the first three rounds this year. The Cowboys certainly hope that Tapper will be able to make an impact as an edge rusher this season and give them a bit more juice to their rotation.
Rico Gathers, TE
To be honest, when this pick was made, there was some creeping doubt that it would turn into anything for the Cowboys. It’s quite nit-picky to criticize a sixth-round pick especially one with Rico’s athleticism but he’s had to re-learn the game of football after spending his collegiate days as a basketball player for the Baylor Bears. Also, with Jason Witten on the roster, the Cowboys have struggled to find tight ends that could perform for them. Still, that athleticism and size (6’ 8”, 280 lbs) were hard to pass up and in only one preseason highlight play, Gathers showed enough to warrant that excitement. He spent an entire season on the practice squad where he was able to learn his craft from guys like Witten and coaches like Mike Pope and Steve Loney.
Apparently, his development has been outstanding and he’s improved so much in one year that he’s a likely candidate to break through to the 53-man roster. Gathers was called “unstoppable” by Will McClay this past week and for a team that feasts on creating mismatches, this would be a huge one for the Dallas Cowboys.
Kavon Frazier, S
Another sixth-rounder that didn’t get much exposure in 2016, Frazier did his work mainly on special teams. He was another athletic freak that got the SPARQer’s talking last offseason but for one reason or another never got much of a chance. The Cowboys relied mainly on their stable of Barry Church, Byron Jones, J.J. Wilcox, and Jeff Heath last year. Frazier has a lot of qualities that could translate to a solid contributor as a strong safety. He was considered a fifth-round option that knows how to hit the ball carrier and make them pay. Bryan Broaddus has hinted at the possibility of the coaching staff not seeing what they wanted from him in 2016. They were far more impressed with Heath’s performance and believe he can become the starter if given the opportunity.
The Cowboys let the two mainstays at strong safety walk in the offseason opening up the door for open competition. Though the trust in Heath is real, Dallas still drafted a playmaking safety in Xavier Woods to add to the mix. Frazier will have an uphill battle to show he’s got abilities beyond special teams but the safety battle could be the most intriguing one to watch at training camp.