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First-round excellence and second-round patience; Cowboys found the winning formula in the draft

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The front office has been doing a lot of things right lately.

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NFL: DEC 23 Buccaneers at Cowboys Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s become an expectation these days that the Dallas Cowboys will make a great pick in the first round of the NFL Draft. After an incredible track record of landing All-Pro talent over recent history, the front office has developed quite the reputation for nailing Day 1 picks. Here are their first-round selections since 2010:

Seven out of nine first-round picks have earned All-Pro honors. Take a moment to appreciate such a remarkable achievement.

Another impressive thing about the Cowboys first-round picks is that some of them are exceptional right out of the gate. It hasn’t always been like that. In 1969, Calvin Hill earned All-Pro honors his rookie season; however it took them 44 years for it to happen again when Zack Martin finally achieved that in 2014. Then, the floodgates opened as the team has accomplished that two more times over the next four years with Ezekiel Elliott and last season with Leighton Vander Esch.

The Cowboys have demonstrated excellence when it comes to drafting in the first round and that has worked out tremendously, but they’ve also employed a very sound strategy for making their second-round picks - patience.

The Cowboys love maximizing what they can get and they tend to take more chances when it comes to round two, but some of these gambles are starting to pay off.

DeMarcus Lawrence

The team took a big chance on Lawrence in 2014 when they gave up their third-round pick to move up to get him. At first, things weren’t going so well. A slow start saw him succumb to injury and miss 16 total games during his first three years in the league. And even though the Cowboys went 13-3 in 2016, Lawrence’s struggles didn’t go unnoticed. A four-game suspension to start the year combined with playing injured most of the season caused Tank to be essentially non-relevant. He only recorded one sack that year.

But things turned in a big way in 2017 when Lawrence recorded 14.5 sacks, en route to an All-Pro season. He’s now established himself as one of the game’s best defensive ends. Lawrence just signed a five-year, $105 million deal that makes him the second-highest paid edge rusher, trailing only Khalil Mack.

It took a while, but to now have a pass rushing talent like Lawrence under contract for the next several years is a great feeling. What a fabulous trade that turned out to be.

Jaylon Smith

The Cowboys took a huge risk when they selected Smith 34th overall in 2016. A gruesome knee injury suffered in the Fiesta Bowl of his final collegiate season put his football career in jeopardy. The Cowboys own doctor performed his surgery, and he gave the team an optimistic bill of health causing the team to roll the dice on him in the second round. Smith was actually fifth on the Cowboys drafted board, so to get him that late made the front office excited.

Not only did the Cowboys have to keep him on ice his red-shirt season, but in 2017 - he endured a lot of growing pains, physically and mentally. Smith’s lateral agility still left something to be desired, and as smart of a player he is, it was still his first real season out on the field. But he showed great improvement in both aspects last season, and earned Breakout Player of the Year for 2018 according to Pro Football Focus.

Smith is finally showcasing the talent he demonstrated back at Notre Dame. He’s one of the most well-rounded linebackers in the game. He is great in pursuit of the runner as he’s one of the top linebackers in the league when it comes to yards gained before he makes contact. He’s on them fast! Smith can also patrol the field well in coverage, which is a challenge for many linebackers in the NFL. And he is very effective as a pass rusher as he ranks first with a 27.8 win percentage in linebacker pass rushes. He’s a triple threat.

Not only is he playing at a high level, but he’s extremely dependable. The knee will always be a concern, but he’s making it clear that was a fluke injury as he’s showing no other indications of being prone to injury. That’s a valuable commodity to have at the linebacker position.

Connor Williams

When the team selected the Texas tackle in the second round, he looked like a great value pick as many draft experts had him going late in the first round. Williams started at left guard for the team most of last season, but he had a tough time of it early on. He endured the typical struggles a rookie would have as they are gradually picking up the nuances of the position.

While things weren’t great at first, Connors started picking it up. You could see some real growth late in the season. Now, with 15 extra pounds of muscle, Williams is ready to have a much more productive second season. Everyone can tell a big difference in Williams this year, including his head coach Jason Garrett.

“He came back here in the offseason — outstanding offseason — built his body up,” Garrett said. “He’s a bigger, stronger man than he was a year ago and I think he’s taken advantage of these opportunities.”

Williams may be the latest example of how the Cowboys grab a high upside guy in the second round who’s not quite ready to make an impact. But with a little time and development, he could end up being a valuable asset to their roster. It’s still early, but if Williams has improved enough to be a strong piece of this offensive line, this is going to be a big deal for the offense.

The Cowboys continue to put their drafting skills on display year after year. And as we can see, those skills are no longer limited to the first round. Other players like Chidobe Awuzie and the recently drafted Trysten Hill are just a couple more examples of potential second-round gems that don’t wow anyone at first, but have the ability to be valuable members of this football team as they develop. When you combine that type of patience with the first-round excellence the team has been producing - that’s nice formula for success.