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Cowboys 2016 draft class: What to do with each player on the final year of their rookie deal (Part 1)

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2016 was a great draft year for the Cowboys, but now what?

New York Giants v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The draft class of 2016 for the Dallas Cowboys was nothing short of outstanding. It had a little bit of everything. For starters, two of these picks were the top two candidates for offensive rookie of the year as Dak Prescott narrowly beat out Ezekiel Elliott for the award. And speaking of starters, five players from this draft class have solidified spots on their respective starting units, with three of them (Dak, Zeke, and Maliek Collins) holding down starting spots in all three years of their career. Six of these players have played in at least two full seasons worth of games, and when it was all said and done - all nine of the players selected played in games for the team. That’s amazing.

The great thing about such an epic draft is that the team has filled a lot of spots on the roster from three days of great decision making. The not-so-great thing is that most of these players will be entering the final season of their rookie deal and the Cowboys will have to make tough decisions to determine which ones they keep. It’s been nice to get four years of affordable rookie contracts to help lower the salary cap hits, but that luxury is nearing an end. So, which of these players should the Cowboys retain and who should they cut loose? And when is the right time to make those decisions?

In the first of this three-part series we examine the last three picks of the draft and evaluate the future of each player.

Rico Gathers (Rd. 6, 217th overall)

The Cowboys thought outside the box when they drafted Baylor power forward Rico Gathers late in the draft. Instantly, he became a fan favorite as the idea of this super athletic basketball star-turned tight end was very appealing. Rico’s dad is the cousin of Hank Gathers who some may remember died on the basketball court in a college game back in 1990.

Gathers journey with the Cowboys has been a little rocky. He didn’t make the 53-man roster initially and was the first player from this draft class to get cut. Many people thought it was too risky to expose him in hopes of stashing him on the practice squad, but Gathers cleared waivers.

In 2017, Gathers was tearing it up in the preseason. He was catching touchdown passes from Kellen Moore and Cooper Rush as he gave fans a lot of reasons to be excited about his future.

Unfortunately, a concussion sidelined him and the team placed him on injured reserve. At the time it was two years in the league and Gathers had yet to see any NFL action.

Last year, it was mystery whether or not Gathers would be in the mix for the 2018 season. Despite the retirement of Jason Witten, the team still had Geoff Swaim, Blake Jarwin, and rookie Dalton Schultz at tight end. Gather’s struggles with the details kept him low on the depth chart. And even after he was arrested for possession of marijuana right before final roster cuts, Gathers still made the 53-man roster last season. Gathers finally saw his first NFL action last season, but it was rather uneventful. He only had three catches for 45 yards.

The Cowboys tight end situation is very much up in the air right now. Swaim is a free agent and who knows if he’ll return. Jarwin looked good down the stretch last season so he’ll be given more opportunities going forward, but the Cowboys could look to the draft to find more talent at the position. Gathers is an enigma and just when you think things are going one way, they go another. He could be a star pass-catching tight end or released and out of the NFL - neither would surprise me.

Prediction: The Rico Gathers experiment is almost over. He’s got one year left on his rookie deal, but if he couldn’t earn more reps with what the team had last year, what makes anyone think he can do any better in 2019?

Darius Jackson (Rd. 6, 216th overall)

The Cowboys remodeled their running back group in 2016. After Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden handled the workload in 2015, Dallas added free agent Alfred Morris and drafted Ezekiel Elliott in 2016. But that didn’t stop them for also drafting Darius Jackson in the sixth round of the draft. Jackson had great speed and made the team his rookie season, but was released in December when McFadden was activated from the non-football injury list. The Cleveland Browns claimed Jackson off of waivers, but he never saw any action. He became the first member of the 2016 draft class to be picked up by another team. The Browns waived him a year later.

During training camp last season, the Cowboys brought him back again. He didn’t end up making the team, but the Cowboys tried to sneak him on their practice squad, however the Green Bay Packers poached him a couple days later.

After the Packers released him in October, the Cowboys brought Jackson back for a third time when they signed him to their practice squad. He was promoted to the active roster for final two games of the regular season where he had six carries for 16 yards in his only game of NFL action in last year’s finale against the New York Giants.

The Cowboys have him signed for the 2019 season for just $645,000. He’s got a legit shot at sticking around. McFadden and Morris are long gone and last year’s backup running back, Rod Smith, is a free agent. The Cowboys will look to strengthen their running back depth to help alleviate the wear on Elliott, but don’t look for DJax to be the answer.

Prediction: He’ll be fighting for a job come training camp and if better options come along, he could very easily be cut by the Cowboys for the fourth time.

Kavon Frazier (Rd. 6, 212th overall)

It’s been a strange career for Frazier. During his rookie year, he was essentially invisible. He only logged 36 defensive snaps (3%) all year. He got a little work on special teams (101 snaps, 22%), but his number wasn’t called very much and was inactive for four games.

His second season looked a lot more encouraging as he got more reps on defense, but where he started to flourish was on special teams. Frazier appeared to be on the verge of becoming the team’s new special team ace. The improvement from year one to year two looked promising for his future.

But 2018 didn’t provide the breakout some were hoping. Part of it had to do with how dependable both Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods were. But some of it had to do with the fact that he just hasn’t developed into a good safety yet. When Woods did miss time against the Seattle Seahawks early in the season, it didn’t go well for Frazier.

Frazier is solid in the running game, but bad angles such as this one will limit his effectiveness against the pass. The Cowboys don’t have any real depth behind their starters so he still remains the teams top reserve safety, but that doesn’t say a whole lot. Look for the team to continue to search for upgrades at this position.

Prediction: Let his contract play out. He’s a high-character guys and the book isn’t closed on him yet, but with three years under his belt, he’s exhibiting JAG characteristics that can be easily replaced.


Stay tuned tomorrow as we examine the next group of draft picks and determine if it makes sense to give them a second contract.