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Cowboys sophomore class: The future is bright

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Get out the shades, the Cowboys 2018 rookie class excelled.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys Training Camp
This group will help this guy.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason is now in full swing for the Dallas Cowboys. That means free agency and especially the NFL draft are coming. This is an unusual year for Dallas since their first round-pick has already been used to acquire Amari Cooper (in a trade that, in hindsight, looks to have been a great move). That means, barring what would be a costly trade to get back into the first round, they will have to get what value they can on days two and three of the draft. But if you are looking for something hopeful, you don’t have to go back any further than last April. The Cowboys took nine players, and all but one (seventh-rounder Bo Scarbrough) are still with the team - and a lot of them have already made significant contributions. Now they are coming back as veterans. Here is a look at what they have done, and what we might have to look forward to.

1st round - LB Leighton Vander Esch

The main thrust of this article is the later picks, but if you are considering the prowess of the personnel department in finding talent, you have to mention the nineteenth overall pick. All he did was make Sean Lee a backup, while being named second-team All Pro and going to the Pro Bowl. He had the third most tackles of any NFL defender, in only 11 starts. There is only one thing to worry about, and that is a “sophomore slump”. His stellar performance is going to be hard to match, but he certainly outperformed all expectations his first season. Paired with Jaylon Smith, he gives Dallas one of the best linebacking duos in the league. If he gets better, which is what you normally expect in a player’s second year, it is hard to imagine what he has in store.

2nd round - G Connor Williams

Williams became the starting left guard the day training camp opened last year. His performance was sometimes spotty, but he is a case where the second season could bring a huge jump forward. He was converted from his college position of left tackle, and was a bit undersized for his new job.

Now, he has a full offseason program to add muscle, and a year’s experience under his belt. And it is not unimportant that he should see Travis Frederick lined up to his right this year. While Joe Looney did an admirable job filling in for the ailing All-Pro, having Frederick back should boost Williams’ performance. Being stronger and having those ten starts under his belt (he missed time due to injury) should make a world of difference. Offensive linemen aren’t often seen as breakout players, but in a real sense, he may well be one.

3rd round - WR Michael Gallup

If you want a real breakout candidate, here you go. As our Dave Halprin already explained, he is your best candidate to do so on offense:

Cowboys fans know the potential the rookie wide receiver Michael Gallup showed in 2018. Gallup had 33 catches for 507 yards with two touchdowns. Those are respectable numbers for a rookie wideout, especially on an offensively-challenged team like the Cowboys. But any Cowboys observer will tell you that was not near what it could have been. For whatever reason, Dak Prescott and Gallup could not get on the same page on the long ball. There were a handful of plays where Gallup had easily beat his coverage deep but the pass from Prescott was off target. Gallup’s yards and touchdown totals could have been much higher had those plays worked out. Perhaps another offseason of work between Gallup and Prescott will tighten up those long bombs.

With injuries affecting the wide receiver group, Gallup became the WR2 for the Cowboys by mid-season, ending the year with eight starts. And now he has a new offensive coordinator, presumed to be Kellen Moore. It will be fascinating to see if Moore is better able to utilize this player.

4th round - DE Dorance Armstrong, Jr.

It was a quiet season for Armstrong, who was mostly a depth player. He did have one start on the season as other defensive ends were nicked up. Pass rushers do tend to grow a lot in their first three years. He is mostly just potential at the moment, but a player worth watching.

4th round - TE Dalton Schultz

The sudden retirement of Jason Witten, and the previous one of James Hanna, left the Cowboys suddenly short at tight end during the draft, and Schultz was taken with the team’s second pick in the fourth round. Then an injury to starter Geoff Swaim against the Atlanta Falcons in week 11 promoted him to starter for the rest of the season. His numbers were not impressive, as he was utilized as more of a blocking tight end, with Blake Jarwin getting more targets. However, he, like Gallup, may benefit if the Cowboys do become more effective offensively in the post-Scott Linehan era.

5th round - QB Mike White

The third-string QB is about as much of an unknown at this point as is possible. He was never even active for a game. Of course, we don’t want him to be, since that would likely indicate something we will not even mention here for fear of the vengeful football gods.

6th round - LB Chris Covington

Another player who was buried on the depth chart, Covington only saw the field in five games his rookie season. His most likely way to contribute will be on special teams.

6th round - WR Cedrick Wilson

Injury derailed his first season with the Cowboys. But if you remember, he got off to a great start in camp before tearing his labrum and going on injured reserve. And now, assuming he is fully recovered, he may have a great chance. Allen Hurns suffered a terrible injury, Terrance Williams may be headed out the door after he missed most of the season with his own injury problem and had a very questionable encounter with law enforcement, and Cole Beasley might depart in free agency. It certainly looks like there is a job opening for Wilson on this roster.

Summing it up

Did you notice something? Throwing out the one game Armstrong was listed as a starter, the 2018 rookie class contributed four starters by the end of the season. Normally, an NFL draft class is seen as successful if it contributes three starter-level players by the end of their rookie contracts. This Cowboys class has not only exceeded that, it also has already produced one All-Pro/Pro Bowl player.

It is already rivaling the 2016 draft, when the Cowboys got Ezekiel Elliott, Dak Prescott, Jaylon Smith, Maliek Collins, and Anthony Brown. And that draft, of course, had Dallas picking in the fourth spot, rather than the nineteenth as they did last year.

To look at it a little more closely, there was an article a couple of years ago at our sister SBN site The Daily Norsemen that looked at 20 years of draft performance. It came to the conclusion that only 20.2% of all draft picks in that period were “good” or better - with becoming an eventual starter the main factor in being considered that. One fifth of all picks. Last year’s class in Dallas is already at 44% who have met that threshold - and the article at DN only considered players with two years or more experience.

This class has already contributed a lot to the Cowboys, and if most of them have the normal growth seen over players’ first two to three years, they are just going to become more valuable. You are probably aware how young the Dallas roster is, but youth is not much good without talent. Last year’s draft class brought both to the team. It is one thing that is a true bright spot for the Cowboys moving forward.