It is the annual season of unbridled optimism for most NFL franchises (sorry, Jets). One reason is that crop of bright, shiny draft picks that has just arrived. The simple fact is that most organizations and fan bases get a little too enamored of the players they selected. Disappointment often sets in later. The Dallas Cowboys are not really different from most clubs, with one notable exception: They have been very good at drafting in the past several years. Those results, largely creditable to the not-so-secret weapon named Will McClay, give us a bit more reason to have hope that this group could work out. Already, Trysten Hill and Tony Pollard have been getting favorable reports, and Connor McGovern is benefiting from some extra reps in OTAs with the number of linemen sitting out or limited due to recovery from injury, surgeries, illness, and just trying to rest the veterans.
They say you can’t really make an accurate assessment of a draft class until three seasons have passed. Dane Brugler of The Athletic apparently subscribes to that theory, and he has put up his revised grades for the 2016 draft class. As you may recall, with the selection of a running back in the first round, the Cowboys were panned by many immediately after the fact. One such take came from Jimmy Kempski, who writes about our beloved division rivals the Philadelphia Eagles, and who has long been in a hate/hate relationship with the Cowboys and the staff here at BTB:
Looking around at the rest of the NFC East, thought the Giants and Redskins both did really well. Cowboys' draft is crap.— Jimmy Kempski (@JimmyKempski) May 1, 2016
If you want a wider look at how the Dallas draft was seen at the time, our own One Cool Customer compiled some grades immediately after it took place. The best they got was an A-, with most in the Bs and a couple of Cs.
So, with the passing of time, how did Brugler view the Cowboys and the rest of the league? Well, he gave out exactly one A+ score.
1 (4) Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State
2 (34) Jaylon Smith, LB, Notre Dame
3 (67) Maliek Collins, DT, Nebraska
4 (101) Charles Tapper, DL, Oklahoma (Free Agent)
4 (135) Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State
6 (189) Anthony Brown, CB, Purdue
6 (212) Kavon Frazier, SS, Central Michigan
6 (216) Darius Jackson, RB, Eastern Michigan
6 (217) Rico Gathers, TE, Baylor
Best player: Ezekiel Elliott
The “value” of taking a running back in the top-five picks is certainly debatable, but it made sense for the Cowboys, who viewed Elliott as the missing piece who would put the Tony Romo-led offense over the hump. Due to Romo’s preseason injury, it didn’t materialize that way, but Elliott has been one of the best NFL running backs since entering the league, surpassing 2,000 yards of total offense last season.
Best value: Dak Prescott
After trading up for Paxton Lynch didn’t work out and Connor Cook was drafted one pick before they planned to draft him, the Cowboys settled for Prescott, who along with Tyreek Hill, has been the most impressive non-top 100 pick from the 2016 class. In three seasons as the starter in Dallas, Prescott has led the Cowboys to two NFC East titles, earning a pair of Pro Bowl nods.
Biggest miss: Charles Tapper
The only player from the Cowboys’ 2016 draft class not on the organization’s roster, Tapper is the answer to the trivia question: The Cowboys drafted two players in the fourth round in 2016, the second was Prescott, who was the first player? Tapper spent more time on the injured list than on the field during his stay in Dallas and is currently a free agent.
Beat writer’s take: This draft class is remembered for running back Ezekiel Elliott being selected fourth overall. He’s emerged as one of the best running backs in the NFL. In reality, the Cowboys selected six players who either start or get significant playing time from their nine-man draft class. The Cowboys gambled on second-round pick, linebacker Jaylon Smith, who was going to miss his rookie year recovering from a severe leg injury sustained in his last game at Notre Dame. Of course, few expected Dak Prescott, a fourth-round pick, to eventually become the starting quarterback and face of the franchise. Elliott, Prescott and Smith are expected to get second contracts and considered part of the core of this young team. The Cowboys did miss with fourth-round pick, defensive end Charles Tapper and sixth-rounder, tight end Rico Gathers. — Calvin Watkins
Snicker. Rather than being “crap,” Dallas’ 2016 group is arguably one of the best the team has ever had. It is notably better than any other in the NFC East. Here are the rivals’ grades.
Philadelphia Eagles: B+
It should be noted that Brugler says that Carson Wentz may go down as the best player overall from that year, if his health holds up. Still, they were down a good bit from the Cowboys.
They only have two of their class still on their roster. The best player of the group, Kendall Fuller, was traded away to get quarterback Alex Smith. Washington gonna Washington.
New York Giants: D+
Proof that they don’t need Dave Gettleman to mess things up.
The Cowboys did a tremendous job, and there is no doubt that snagging their franchise QB in Dak Prescott for nothing more than a fourth-round compensatory pick is a huge part of their stellar grade. However, that is also a clear indication that it never hurts to be lucky, either. Remember that they tried to trade up to get Paxton Lynch, only to be beaten out by the Denver Broncos. That was a true blessing in disguise, as Brugler has Lynch listed as the Broncos’ biggest miss. Then they were reportedly looking to take Connor Cook instead of Prescott, but the Oakland Raiders saved them from that mistake, with Cook winding up getting cut due to a lack of arm talent.
One of the things that put some off about how well the Cowboys did was the use of their second-round pick to take Jaylon Smith. As we all know, he was coming off a devastating knee injury in his final game at Notre Dame, and there was no assurance he could ever play, much less return to the force he was in college. His emergence in 2018 has vindicated the risk Dallas took on him, and undoubtedly had a lot to do with Brugler rating them the top class of 2016. For a look at how some analysts thought about him, OCC also compiled some day two grades breaking out the second and third round. The most accurate assessment probably came from Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated, even if he gave it a C at the time.
If Smith comes all the way back from his knee injuries and nerve damage, this is an A grade with several pluses in front of it, as Smith looked like the best player in the draft before he got hurt. The Cowboys wanted Ogbah and Dodd, struck out, and went with a high medical risk. It’s a bit odd to redshirt a guy this high in the draft, but then again, Jerry Jones didn’t get where he is by not taking risks.
Revisionist history is just part of the landscape with draft grades, and the view of this class for the Cowboys had changed significantly less than a year after the fact. (OCC with the goodies yet again.) But the jump to best overall in the NFL, at least in one writer’s view, is truly noteworthy. The players that will still be on the roster (many don’t expect Darius Jackson and Rico Gathers to make it out of camp this year) are all in the prime of their careers, and several are huge pieces as the team seeks to find playoff success this season.
It was a tour de force for McClay and the Jones family. They deserve the praise.