You might still be putting 19 down when you write the date, sometimes it takes a few weeks to settle in, but we are officially in the year 2020. That means that we are dealing with expiring contracts for some people (players the Cowboys have picked up over the last few years) but notably the players drafted by the team in 2016.
Per the NFL’s current Collective Bargaining Agreement rookies that are drafted are given four-year contracts. Players taken in the first round have fifth-year options, but the majority of a draft class sees their deals expire after their fourth season with a team.
This means that the Dallas Cowboys are dealing with their 2016 Draft Class - a majority of them at least - needing new deals. This class drastically changed the future of the franchise and many have rated it among the best in franchise history.
The Cowboys picked up several notable starters, plus key role players, from this class and obviously came away with franchise centerpiece Dak Prescott. This buries the lede a bit as the team also drafted Ezekiel Elliott in 2016 (as well as Jaylon Smith), but there was a lot to the nine picks.
First Round: Ezekiel Elliott, 4th overall, 56 games played
There has perhaps been no draft debate among Cowboys fans like what the team should have done with the fourth overall pick four years ago. It gets somewhat forgotten now, but with Tony Romo coming back from an injury at the time there were many people petitioning to find a way to land Jared Goff or Carson Wentz with this selection. There was also a big argument made for picking cornerback Jalen Ramsey.
Dallas chose to theoretically extend the Tony Romo era and give him an elite runner in hopes of rekindling the success that the team had had two years prior with DeMarco Murray. While there was an interesting case to make that they should have waited on say Alabama’s Derrick Henry (something Bob Sturm did recently at The Athletic) they chose to draft Ezekiel Elliott.
Since joining the Cowboys, Zeke has earned two rushing titles and helped the team win an NFC East title both times that he’s done so. The draft class has won a playoff game together and been to the Divisional Round twice, but they are now operating with a new head coach in Mike McCarthy so things will surely be at least somewhat different in year five.
It’s fair to wonder what Jalen Ramsey could have been for the Cowboys, he might not have had a falling out anywhere besides Jacksonville. The Cowboys have believed in Zeke every step of the way and look ready to have him serve as the center of their plans for the foreseeable future.
Second Round: Jaylon Smith, 34th overall, 48 games played
While the Ezekiel Elliott pick seemed like a “win now” move for the Cowboys, their next selection exhibited a lot of patience. It was unknown whether Jaylon Smith would ever play football again when he entered the draft, thankfully he’s managed to put together an impressive career already and we’ve only just begun the year 2020.
Like Elliott, the Cowboys rewarded Smith with a second contract with the team entering last season and view him as cornerstone member of the franchise. He served as a captain for the squad last year, and while public perception of him definitely dropped throughout the season, there is hope that Smith can return to his 2018 form under new defensive leadership.
It was fun to imagine what Smith would look like next to Sean Lee but his greatest football has come next to Leighton Vander Esch. There is a lot to like about Smith and his personal journey is very admirable, hopefully the best is yet to come.
Third Round: Maliek Collins, 67th overall, 61 games played
Had Maliek Collins been drafted in almost any other year he would be beloved by Cowboys fans for feeling like an incredible success. He’s had to deal with being the fourth-best player from his class though, but he’s definitely been the most productive defensive tackle on the team overall in his time with the Cowboys.
Dallas has chosen to continually avoid putting premium resources into the defensive tackle position and players like Collins have rewarded their faith in Rod Marinelli’s ability to get the most out of other options. He’ll likely get paid by someone else in the offseason, but he certainly had a nice stint with the Cowboys over the length of his rookie contract.
Fourth Round: Charles Tapper, 101st overall, 2 games played
Everybody remembers who the Cowboys took with their fourth-round pick in 2016, but the one before the one we always talk about was actually Charles Tapper.
Unfortunately, things never materialized for Tapper and the Cowboys, injuries had a lot to do with it. This pick was almost Connor Cook though so it has quite a history tied to it.
Fourth Round: Dak Prescott, 135th overall, 64 games played
Whenever you land a franchise quarterback it is an incredible utilization of a draft pick. Having that be true of a fourth-round selection is just absurd.
Dak Prescott has started every game for the Cowboys throughout his entire career and has put together a solid résumé through four seasons in the NFL. We can debate the merits of his accomplishments all day long, but the reality is that he is very soon likely going to become the highest-paid player in franchise history.
Prescott did something that many thought was going to be impossible for so long. He helped the Cowboys transition into a new future from the Tony Romo era. He is one of the game’s bright young stars and hopefully will continue to grow and develop under Mike McCarthy.
Sixth Round: Anthony Brown, 189th overall, 56 games played
The Cowboys would go on to say goodbye to literally their entire starting secondary after this class played their rookie season and Anthony Brown was a big part of why they had confidence moving forward. In many ways, he was an Orlando Scandrick-type discovery for them.
Brown missed a large amount of time in 2019 and before then found fans calling for Jourdan Lewis to play over him, but he was a very good player for being a sixth-round pick. To find a player of his caliber, at any position, in the sixth round, was great scouting by Will McClay and all the rest.
Sixth Round: Kavon Frazier, 212th overall, 44 games played
There were some that thought that Frazier would become an in-the-box safety that could deliver punishing blows to offensive players that dared to cross him. That never really came together, but he did develop into an interesting special teams player.
Like Brown, the Cowboys saw Frazier essentially miss the 2019 season and had to find other options at safety behind him. He had potential, and perhaps the best is still yet to come for him.
Sixth Round: Darius Jackson, 216th overall, 4 games played
Who could ever forget Radius? There was a lot of back-and-forth between the Cowboys and Darius Jackson for a few years, and prioritizing Lance Dunbar over him is something that we will never understand; however, with Ezekiel Elliott ahead of him it’s not like Jackson was ever going to see legitimate work.
The Cowboys never really utilized a running back in complementary fashion next to Ezekiel Elliott while Jackson was on the team. It’s possible that he could have been something like we saw Tony Pollard be at times last season, but that potential was never realized.
Sixth Round: Rico Gathers, 217th overall, 15 games played
Did you know that Rico Gathers played basketball? He did. In college. At Baylor!
Rico Gathers divided a lot of Cowboys fans early on and continually served as this point of people not believing that the coaching staff was doing everything that they could to get the most out of players. Gathers had enormous athletic potential and we saw that live out on a football field in rare moments, but ultimately he could not be trusted to be a full-time tight end in the NFL. It happens.
Using a sixth-round pick on a project that could potentially pay off big for you is a smart idea so kudos to the Cowboys for giving it a whirl. They couldn’t have predicted a legion developing behind Gathers which made things all the more complicated, but sometimes that happens.