Now that the Cowboys’ 2018 season is over, proper evaluations can be conducted on the team. One of the more prominent sentiments around this team is that, while the loss to the Rams in the divisional round was a disappointing end, this young roster has a bright future. A lot of that has to do with the great crop of players Dallas drafted in 2018. Now that they’ve all had a full rookie year with America’s Team, let’s evaluate the Cowboys rookies.
Leighton Vander Esch
Stat line: 140 tackles, two tackles for loss, two interceptions, seven passes defensed, 85.6 PFF grade (#5 LB)
It’s hard to think that this was once a controversial pick for the Cowboys. With the 19th overall pick in the draft, Dallas took Leighton Vander Esch, the neck-roll-wearing linebacker from Boise State. While he was certainly good in college, some fans and analysts opposed the selection because they felt the Cowboys should have taken a wide receiver like Calvin Ridley instead.
But Vander Esch went on to lead the team in tackles despite only starting 11 games. Not only did he lead the team in tackles, but he finished the year with the third most tackles in the NFL. Vander Esch quickly became a fan favorite and did something unthinkable: eliminate concerns about Sean Lee missing games. Together with Jaylon Smith, Vander Esch has formed one of the very best linebacker duos in the league and has solidified himself as a legitimate Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate. He also made second-team All-Pro and the Pro Bowl.
Stat line: 12 games started, six penalties, 57.3 PFF grade (#52 OG)
When the Cowboys took Connor Williams with the 50th overall pick, the reaction was a lot more positive than it was for Vander Esch. Williams had been an offensive tackle at Texas but would move to left guard, a position of need for Dallas. Graded as a first-round prospect, the pick was labeled a steal and the return of the Great Wall of Dallas was assumed.
Reality hit when the season began, and Williams began having issues with holding up against stronger defensive tackles. Given his relatively small frame - 6’5” and 310 lbs - this was to be expected. After starting the first eight games of the season, Williams went down with an injury, and during his absence backup guard Xavier Sua-Filo was impressive. Williams came in against the Eagles at right guard when Zack Martin temporarily went down, and he played admirably in the role. Williams started the last four games of the season, including the playoffs, and was noticeably better than he had been. Strength is still a question, but getting a full offseason’s worth of work in the Cowboys’ strength and conditioning program should help him address those issues. One area he proved very adept at was when he was asked to pull; he showed good footwork getting out in front of plays. While he wasn’t the immediate success some thought he would be, Williams’ late-season success proved that the ceiling is still very high for him.
Stat line: 33 catches, 507 yards, 15.4 yards/reception, two touchdowns, 62.7 PFF grade (#85 WR)
The Cowboys waited until the third round to address what many considered to be their biggest need by taking Michael Gallup from Colorado State. He set multiple school receiving records and was a finalist for the Biletnikoff award as a senior, displaying crisp route running and good ability as both a deep threat and picking up yards after the catch.
It took some time for Gallup to get integrated into the Cowboys’ offense in addition to sitting behind Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson (remember him?) on the depth chart. However, throughout the course of the year, Gallup became more and more involved. He frequently found himself open deep but the chemistry with Dak Prescott just wasn’t there most of the time. His number of targets did gradually increase and his production went up, culminating in a breakout game against Los Angeles in the divisional round loss where he had six catches for 119 yards, both season highs. In fact, Gallup had the eighth most receiving yards among rookie wide receivers in 2018. This, combined with his upward trend throughout the year, has created a lot of optimism around him as the second wide receiver opposite Amari Cooper going into next year.
Dorance Armstrong Jr.
Stat line: 13 tackles, one tackle for loss, three QB hits, 1⁄2 sack, 53.7 PFF grade (#97 EDGE)
With the first of their two fourth-round picks, the Cowboys took Dorance Armstrong Jr. from Kansas. At the time, the Cowboys didn’t know if Randy Gregory would be reinstated into the league or how Taco Charlton would improve going into his second season, so they hedged their bets by taking the raw and athletic defensive end who put up solid numbers in college before suffering from a misguided scheme change in his senior season.
During training camp and the preseason, Armstrong was starting to turn heads and impress fans and coaches alike. However, Charlton was doing the same and Gregory was allowed to play football again, which naturally sent Armstrong down the depth chart. The rookie didn’t get much of an opportunity to play, which explains his barely-existent statistics. As it stands, Armstrong represents solid depth along this defensive line, but is largely an unknown commodity. With Charlton’s progress seemingly stalled, Armstrong may see more playing time in the coming year.
Stat line: 12 catches, 116 yards, 9.7 yards/reception, 60.7 PFF grade (#45 TE)
With their next fourth-round pick, the Cowboys filled a need they didn’t know existed prior to the draft by selecting Stanford tight end Dalton Schultz. At 6’5” and 260 lbs, Schultz’s skill was blocking, particularly in the run game. Stanford effectively used him as a sixth offensive lineman and he opened up holes for both Christian McCaffrey and Bryce Love in college.
Schultz took a similar path to Gallup in that he didn’t get much use early on in the year, but came on strong to finish things out. The first half of the season saw Geoff Swaim emerge as the top tight end on the team, but after he got injured, Dallas called on both Schultz and Blake Jarwin. While Jarwin served as the primary pass catching tight end, Schultz also grew in that regard while at the same displaying his better-than-most blocking skills. The tight end position is still a bit of a question mark heading into the offseason, but Schultz seems to have cemented his status as a solid TE2 for this team.
Stat line: N/A
The Cowboys spent their fifth-round pick on Mike White, a Western Kentucky product who the now GM of the Raiders, Mike Mayock, listed as one of the top ten quarterbacks of the 2018 class. Dallas already had a backup quarterback in Cooper Rush, but White was meant to compete with him for the spot and ensure Dallas had the best possible backup.
In the end, the Cowboys kept both Rush and White and never once activated White for any game this year. It was to be expected, as any scenario in which White, as a third-stringer, would have to play would mean disaster had struck.
Stat line: N/A
A sixth-round pick, Chris Covington was an intriguing player. As a freshman at Indiana, Covington was the backup quarterback and ended up playing six games due to the starter’s injury. After that, though, Covington was converted to linebacker, and in his senior season he notched 85 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, three sacks, five passes defensed, and a fumble recovery. He was given the award for best defensive player on his team that year for his efforts.
Yet, it was still only three seasons playing the position with only one year as a full time starter, which may have contributed to him being just a sixth-rounder. As such, Covington was inactive for almost every game of the 2018 season, and injuries in the preseason kept us from getting any real glimpse at his talent. But with Damien Wilson’s contract expiring this offseason, Covington may get a bigger opportunity with Dallas next year.
Cedrick Wilson Jr.
Stat line: N/A
The Cowboys further strengthened the Boise State pipeline when they took Cedrick Wilson Jr. in the sixth round and added one more name to their receiving corps. His father won a Super Bowl with the Steelers and in his two years at Boise State, Wilson Jr. caught 139 passes for 2,640 yards and 18 touchdowns. His athleticism and big play potential (26% of his catches in college were for 25 or more yards) made him intriguing, but his lone two years at a major college after previously being a JUCO transfer was a small sample size.
In training camp with the Cowboys, Wilson was starting to turn some heads with his route running skills and catch ability. In fact, our own Cole Patterson raved about the potential Wilson brought to this receiving corps. However, Wilson re-aggravated an injury from his senior season in early August when he tore his shoulder labrum. He left training camp to get surgery and sat out the season on the injured reserve. If he can come back healthy in 2019, Wilson has the chance to make the rotation.
With the Cowboys’ final pick in the draft, they took Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough and fans immediately started drooling at the thought. The idea was that Ezekiel Elliott would wear down defenses and then Scarbrough, a big bruising back, would come in and punish defenders with his downhill running style.
However, that never happened. Scarbrough had a rough preseason and didn’t show the vision that Dallas wants out of their running backs, so Scarbrough was among the final roster cuts. He spent a month on the practice squad before being waived and finished the season on the Seahawks’ practice squad. It seems as of now that he was the Cowboys’ one true miss in this draft class, but given that it was just a seventh-round pick, it’s not too much of a blow for this team.