Unwrapping Dallas's 2019 Christmas Day

A year ago, the Dallas Cowboys had a very eventful draft weekend, going into the draft with some major holes (especially at LG and WR) that they on paper appeared to fill nicely in the draft, losing the team's long-time stalwart Tight End when Jason Witten suddenly announced his retirement between day one and day two, and adding multiple veterans by trade. It left a heck of a lot to think about, including last year's edition of this post.

The 2019 NFL draft was much more to the point for the Cowboys. Nobody departed the team, no player trades were made, and minus a first round pick there wasn't a lot of in-draft movement. This time around, the focus is on the picks!

For the breakdown, we can't know how good these prospects will end up being as NFL players (and so won't try too hard to pinpoint that aspect), but there are two traits of each selection that we can objectively take a stab at rating: value, and fit. Value will be labeled poor/solid/strong relative to "market" expectations, and fit will assign unclear/good/great (there is no such thing as a "bad" fit coming out of the draft) ratings based on what we can project about the player in the team's scheme and/or how much the player meets the needs of the team.

The Draft Picks

Round 2, Pick 58 (overall): Trysten Hill, DT, UCF
Value: Solid-to-Poor
Hill appears to have been one of the most divisive prospects in the entire pool this year, and for good reason - he has showcased a dominant skill-set for a one-gap DT, but most any profile of him included talk of how he clashed with his coaches and only started a single game in 2018. That showed in his industry rankings, which could be called anything but "consensus". Some had Hill rated as a fairly late pick (think 4th or 5th round), but others had him close or even slightly above where the Cowboys actually took him. Because it would have taken only a single team that was bullish on Hill to snatch him from Dallas's grasp, the selection can't be taken as completely poor, but there is a reasonable chance that his issues would have made him available quite a bit later.
Fit/Need: Great
It is understood that Dallas draws a stark distinction between one-gap, penetrating DTs (the so-called "3-techs") and larger "1-tech" DTs who hold their ground and ideally tie up multiple blockers. In the modern NFL and especially Dallas's scheme, the 1-tech DT is essentially a part-time starting role, with some of the role's would-be snaps (the clear pass rush ones) going to either additional 3-tech DTs or else an "edge" rusher who is moved inside. That means 3-techs are a premium position in the scheme, and Hill fits the desired traits for one to a tee. He brings instant movement off the snap, quickness and the ability to make himself "skinny" to move through gaps, strength, and a Marinelli-level motor that keeps him working play after play. In the DT superlatives of one draft magazine - where superlatives usually go to top prospects at each position - Hill was recognized as being the top DT in terms of "explosiveness" despite a fairly low grade, making that ability undeniable and impossible to miss. He may not bring what every team wants from the position, but on the field he is almost perfect for what the Cowboys desire.
Overview: Many wanted more talent at DT, and now they have it
The two positions most commonly cited as needing improvement for the Cowboys were Safety and Defensive Tackle. For whatever reason - perhaps because the on paper "value" for the Safety prospect targets appeared better at 58 - there has been a lot of dissatisfaction over Dallas going with the front seven instead of the back, but there is no doubt that a hit at this position would be just as good as at the other. It can be easily to mistaken Hill as someone who would have been available later in the draft, but the fact is that he was viewed as belonging all over the place in terms of prospect rankings and so might easily have been snapped up by some other team in love with his tape excellence. The better question is whether Hill will prove to have been a youth who simply suffered the personal struggles that comes with being that age and matures into a football junkie star...or has chronic non-football problems that ruin his career a la David Irving. Hill's potential issues are not the same as those of Irving, but that won't matter if he ends up in the same place.

Round 3, Pick 90 (overall): Connor McGovern, OG, Penn State
Value: Strong
McGovern has been on the prospect radar for over a year, as he has been opening holes for the likes of Saquon Barkley even before 2018. Having played all along the interior of the Offensive Line, McGovern appealed for teams with needs at Guard or Center, or those who were looking for versatility, and he brought strong health, good tape, and nice athleticism to the table. In other words, he could easily have gone off the board earlier and rumor has it would not have lasted more than a few more picks had Dallas passed on him. Though it seems his stock dropped just enough late in the process to render him available at 90, he was generally seen as a superior prospect than that slot.
Fit/Need: Good
The Cowboy offense is built around its OL excellence, and the team has learned the hard way the importance of depth to keep that engine humming. Injuries at LT in 2017 single-handedly caused the entire offense to malfunction, and while the line did not collapse in like manner in 2018 the interior especially could not deal with the sudden loss of Travis Frederick to go with youth/lower talent at LG and even late-season injuries to Zack Martin, leaving Dak Prescott consistently pressured. While depth is never a priority, McGovern should within a year, and perhaps before the end of camp, at least win the primary backup role all along the interior and thereby raise the floor of the entire unit. He also offers easy starter potential sooner or later, and thus gives the Cowboys all the more ability to deal with a potential departure of La'el Collins next offseason or a failure to develop by Connor Williams.
Overview: Preserving a strength can trump addressing a weakness
Understandably, eyes were on the team adding a Safety once the team's first pick went to DT, and there was some desire for more offensive skill position talent too. The interior OL did not appear to be a priority, deficiency-wise, and indeed it was not. But no team is weakness free across the board, and Dallas's defense did just fine with unimpressive Safety play a year ago. What was a big hit to the team was the OL not performing up to par, and importing McGovern is another step towards preventing that from reoccurring. Joe Looney held the fort and can cover OG and OC, but he is not going to get much better and his potential is capped, to say nothing of the fact that he would never be a solid (much less better) full-time starter. McGovern has some work to do, but he was absolutely a "BPA" choice who is far from a luxury. Truth be told, he might be a better choice to keep the offense from dragging down than an investment at any other offensive spot would have been.

Round 4, Pick 148 (overall): Tony Pollard, RB, Memphis
Value: Poor
There is a broad consensus that Pollard was more late-round talent, and so 148 overall is somewhat early for him. Keep in mind that this slot isn't far from when the draft become more of a collection of lottery tickets, so it isn't as if the Cowboys left a lot of draft capital value on the table. Other than Wilson (see below), Pollard is probably the Dallas draftee with the least prospect acclaim, though he certainly brings some physical skills to the table.
Fit/Need: Unclear
The interesting wrinkle about this pick is that Pollard seems to overlap quite a bit with Tavon Austin. Pollard has some receiving ability, though his damage in the air is more about what he can do once he has his hands on the ball, and he has a strong track record in kick return play. Where Pollard brings more to the table is that he is technically a running back and so can line up in the backfield and take snaps, rather than being just a gadget and end-around rusher. Perhaps that broader skillset means there could be room for both Pollard and Austin on the team in 2019, though it's easy to see the two competing for one roster spot. What is beyond doubt is that the Cowboys want to have at least one football player of this sort, a versatile piece who can be explosive with the ball in his hands.
Overview: Ryan Switzer pick redux?
The context of this pick smacks an awful lot like the one around the Switzer selection. That 2017 selection also came in the latter half of the fourth round, at a time when there were still "name" prospects available at positions that fans saw at a need. Switzer also was brought in with the goal of elevating the return game while also providing a specialty weapon on offense...and just a year later he was shipped out. Austin was imported almost simultaneously, making this the third straight year that the Cowboys used a Day Three add to attempt to expand the offense. As for Pollard specifically, he appears to have a long-stride running style very similar to that of Tevin Coleman, though Pollard doesn't seem to have (or at least use) some of the agility-based "moves" of Coleman. Pollard very clearly like to make a read, plant hard, and then take off, likely limiting his ability to slip through tighter seams but also setting him up to be a breakaway threat on any well-blocked play. Dallas's offense might suit him very well.

Round 5, Pick 158 (overall): Michael Jackson, CB, Miami
Value: Solid
Jackson is an interesting case of a DB whose appealing physical skills and body rendered him a reasonably likely Day Two selection going into 2018, but whose weaknesses slowly dropped him as the pre-draft period progressed. Even still, he was a 4th round candidate, and his drop from there was likely due to him being suited for some schemes and a poor fit in others.
Fit/Need: Great
It is well established that the ideal profile for a Kris Richard type of Cornerback is height, length, and toughness to press at the line of scrimmage, and that fits Jackson to a tee. He has the size and especially long arms, and showed a lot of quality physical play both in terms of how he plays coverage and with his tackling. That starts him off as a candidate to be a piece of clay to be molded by Richard, which is a pretty nice later-round grab. Jackson's size and tackling could also make him a candidate to relocate to Safety.
Overview: More value for Dallas than for most other teams
Jackson's limitations that likely turned many teams off of him are typical of a taller and longer CB: he lacks top-end speed to recover if beaten in coverage, and lacks general quickness and agility. His ability to develop into a "hit" will come down to his technique, as he will have to be very aware of his positioning, keep good footwork, and be ready to play the ball when he is unable to keep a coverage target corralled. Luckily for Jackson, he'll have the ideal coach to guide his evolution.

Round 5, Pick 165 (overall): Joe Jackson, DE, Miami
Value: Strong
Sometimes a prospect falls simply because most teams like him but no teams love him, and that seems to be the case with Jackson. He was productive throughout his three-year college career and has ample size and length, so he has a high-floor body and track record. Jackson was seen as a potential future high pick after 2017, and still filled up the stat sheet in 2018, but he displayed likely limited upside and so plopped to what was viewed as something close to the bottom of his pre-draft range.
Fit/Need: Unclear
It's likely that the entire league struggled to establish what sort of pro Jackson would end up being. Did he have enough physical talents to thrive in college but not enough to have a place in college, do technique limitations hold back his physical prowess, does he have any growth upside left? Those are just some of the questions. With a fairly well-stocked cupboard on the edge, this wasn't much of a "need" selection, and while Jackson does have it going for him that he better fits a 4-3 defense his lack of speed or quickness off the snap doesn't render him an ideal Marinelli-style pass rusher.
Overview: A future non-star who still fills teams with non-buyer's remorse?
Jackson has the look of a prospect whose future will unfold almost entirely over his first training camp. If his limitations reveal him to be a sub-NFL talent, he'll likely be a cut at the end of the preseason; however, if he makes the team, don't be surprised if he approaches a ten year career as a solid rotational edge man. That's a pretty nice way to spend a bottom 5th rounder, on a guy who could contribute nicely for cheap and draw enough love from another team to eventually return a comp pick in free agency. If he does get cut without seeing a real game snap for the Cowboys, this price is late enough to not be a substantial regret.

Round 6, Pick 213 (overall): Donovan Wilson, S, Texas A&M
Value: Poor
It is common practice for Dallas to spend some 6th or 7th round picks on players who profile as UDFAs but whom the team individually likes and wants to secure, rather than to catch dropping "name" talents such as the next two selections. Wilson received only cursory attention in the pre-draft process, so it was a surprise to most to see him drafted at all. That doesn't make the selection a mistake, though, as again this slot was firmly in the long-odds lottery ticket phase.
Fit/Need: Unclear
One thing Wilson brings to the table is "thump", with the ability to tackle on both defense and special teams. His coverage chops are a unknown, but it is unlikely that Dallas brought him in to contribute on defense, at least any time soon. Increasing depth at a shallow position by adding someone with physical skills never hurts, but he does not seem to offer any upside to help the position on the team with coverage
Overview: Looks like a Kavon Frazier understudy
Frazier is the sort of special teamer/depth guy who is great to have on a rookie contract but is not worth retaining unless he is willing to take a very cheap second contract. With Frazier set for free agency after the year, Wilson looks like an heir apparent as a special teams ace and emergency depth option at safety. Perhaps he could do well enough to snag an active roster spot in 2019, but he could be a terrific practice squad candidate before ascending to his planned-for role next season.

Round 7, Pick 218 (overall): Mike Weber, RB, Ohio State
Value: Strong
This was another wide-range prospect who just didn't seem to turn teams on and so slid all the way into Dallas's lap. Weber had to share carries even in college, but in a program that is always quite loaded, so there were questions about how well he could handle a bigger workload. But he is also well-rounded and brings some nice speed-to-size ratio physical traits, leading many evaluators to anticipate a mid-round selection that did not come to pass.
Fit/Need: Good
Weber profiles an awful lot like Ezekiel Elliot lite, appropriate considering that they overlapped careers at Ohio State. Weber can catch and run routes out of the backfield, he holds up when blocking, has strong vision, and uses his size and basic moves well while lacking in high-end tackle-breaking or breakaway speed. In other words, he doesn't lack any Elliot positives, and his weaknesses largely mirror those of Elliot, a pretty ideal setup for an understudy.
Overview: Rinse and repeat
Dallas appeared to have a need for Running Back depth a year ago, and a year ago it spent a 7th rounder on a somewhat limited RB prospect (Bo Scarbrough) from a big college program who had still been expected to go multiple rounds earlier. Unlike Scarbrough, who was very different from Elliot, unique with his power rushing, and held back by multiple major weaknesses, Weber has a broad skill set and seemingly just lacks any exceptional traits. Dallas even more so needs a true RB backup behind Elliot who can run the ball while doing "other things", so we'll see whether an equal investment in a polar opposite type of prospect sticks.

Round 7, Pick 241 (overall): Jalen Jelks, DE, Oregon
Value: Solid
Jelks had a bit statistical year as a junior in 2017, leading some to eye him as a high-round pick. As a productive lineman with the size of a linebacker, however, Jelks was likely never to actually go that high, though his chiseled frame, length, and production appeared to set him up as a solid mid-rounder. Though there are firm questions about his NFL fit, Jelks is a pretty good steal in the cheap lottery ticket phase of the draft.
Fit/Need: Unclear
The first trouble with Jelks is that he probably fit better as an edge in a 3-4 defense, leading to questions as to whether he has the size, anchor, and/or power to hold the edge in Dallas's scheme. Unfortunately, he has limited experience lining up with his hands off the ground and in space, so his ability to serve as a hybrid-edge Linebacker is far from known. Jelks has a ton of experience (strangely, given his lack of bulk) lining up inside, and while he struggles to disengage from blockers he also appears capable of holding the point of attack against much larger men. All that means he could have no place in Dallas or even the NFL at large...or the team might have something perfect in mind.
Overview: A project pick who will need to work to stick
Unless Jelks suddenly discovers a way to add significant mass or develops block-breaking technique, it's difficult to see him as hand-in-the-ground player in the league. Is it just a coincidence that the "tweener" Jelks arrives just as former Cowboy SAM LB Damien Wilson departed? I suspect not. Watch for Dallas to first work on Jelks at the SAM role, which in this scheme does not need to operate too much in wide open space or coverage, but does need to be capable of powerfully holding up against blocking. Jelks may not be able to consistently create pressure one-on-one with a blocker, but if he uses his length and tenacity to disrupt the running game he might also find value blitzing on run-down passing plays, where he would potentially be given leverage advantages or outright holes to plunge through.

Notable Undrafted Free Agent Pickups

Mitch Hyatt, OT, Clemson
Fit/Need: Good
One of the secondary desires for Dallas in the draft was adding a prospect who could develop into a replacement for Cameron Fleming at "swing" OT, in the event Fleming is needed to start or moves on from the team. Hyatt likely will never have the strength or anchor to start full-time, but he was a leader and successful performer at one of the sterling college programs of the past half-decade, and that might enable him to serve some kind of role. As something of a lesser version of Connor Williams, Hyatt might also merit a try at OG, though that would likely only come if he first struggled on the outside.
Overview: May lack the tools, but not the personality or experience
Hyatt has seen too much success to be counted out due to a lack of exceptional physical ability. Sometimes, experience, technique, and desire are enough, and he has those in spades. Hyatt would be an ideal practice squad candidate, feeling out this next level of football while taking a stab at developing more power through professional workouts before arriving at camp next year ready to compete for the backup OT role.

Daniel Wise, DT, Kansas
Fit/Need: Great
Wise is another high-motor penetrator who has the build and quickness for Dallas's ever-important 3-tech DT role. Some insurance behind the Hill investment, along with the possibility that Wise could outright earn a role in the rotation at a cheap salary, is pretty sweet.
Overview: A nice secondary addition at the vital 3-tech DT position
Wise was a name on many minds as a good mid-round investment, and his clear fit as a one-gap tackle makes it interesting that nobody tried an in-draft investment. Wise very easily could have been a later-round backup plan for the Cowboys in the event that it didn't find the right guy in the earlier rounds, so securing him without having to use a pick could pay off nicely.

Overall Draft Class Summary

It's very understandable that the Cowboy 2019 draft class would feeling underwhelming. No first round draft pick keeps the fans from enjoying the most common mocks that focus on the first round (while keeping the best prospects out of Dallas's hands, naturally), and a late draft slot means that the certainty of each pick actually made would be that much lower. To top it off, Dallas wasn't looking hard for the more eye-grabbing skill position types, instead directing most of its attention to the trenches along with some defensive secondary and Tight End looks. Less glamor equals less of a brimming positive feeling.

On top of all that, the team had one of the franchise's all-time-great classes in 2016, and followed that up with two straight drafts when it lined up all of its premium picks with the depth of the entire prospect pool to perfectly match up positional needs and value. With proven excellence in the medium-term past and on-paper success most recently, the Cowboys had a lot to live up to, even though it didn't need to for this to be a successful group.

Ultimately, all that matters is acquiring contributors, and the team appears to have done that, at least as well as we can know at this stage. The two biggest opportunities to upgrade the lineup were at 3-tech DT and Safety, and Dallas's top pick went to a guy whose personality questions and weaknesses dropped him in overall rankings but left him a perfect fit for the scheme, checking off one box. Even a late 3rd round pick is too uncertain for an investment at the other "need" (safety) to be a strong on-paper upgrade, so filling both desires was never really an option.

Instead, Dallas made a high-value addition to the team's most important unit - a unit that requires more pieces, both in the starting lineup and in depth, than any other football unit. Preserving that strength in a cost-efficient way is of the utmost importance, and that was accomplished.

As for the rest of the class, while no single player can be counted on to stick and contribute there are so many appealing profiles, some as fits for the team's scheme and others in terms of quality as football players, that's it's easy to imagine a couple of "finds" emerging. Should Hill and McGovern do their jobs, and those other finds emerge, this would prove to be another successful overall class.

What About The 2009 Comparison?

It's perfectly natural to worry about the Cowboys suffering the same awful results from this draft class as it did in 2009, a group that set the franchise back by failing to provide at least some needed cheap depth. No first round pick due to trading for a receiver, a low draft slot, some picks that weren't obvious consensus "best available" ones - there are some surface similarities. So, how is this class different?
1) The 2009 prospect pool as a whole was pretty terrible - the first round proved to be pretty weak, setting a tone that ran up and down the draft list, and the middle rounds in particular did not offer as many "hits". Dallas was searching with quantity over quality in a draft in which there were not many successes to even stumble into.

2) Dallas actually executed its 2nd round pick this time around - part of the trouble in 2009 was that the team moved further down (with a trade that was a net loss for the team according to the traditional pick value chart), thus lowering the limited quality for "hits" even more than it was already been set for. The team's eventual top pick, LB Jason Williams, did not bring the tools of a Trysten Hill (hence the draft class's moniker of being the "special teams draft"), who has the ability to be a thriving starter. OT Robert Brewster, a second 3rd round pick, did not offer the on-paper value of Connor McGovern, and that showed in the lack of results for Brewster. And it all went downhill from there.

3) Will McClay wasn't steering the prospect scouting, as he is today - McClay was in the front office at the time, but as the Pro Scouting Coordinator, and so Dallas didn't possess the remarkable and proven-effective evaluation asset that it has today. It's easier to imagine better results from the later picks with McClay helping to call the shots. All hail!

None of these points guarantees better-than-2009 results, but for now I'll take my chances, and within a few years we'll have a good sense of whether these advantages betrayed us or not. Keep a close eye on training camp, and listen for talk of some rookies asserting themselves and seizing roles and opportunities.

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