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Setting expectations for Cowboys “redshirt” draft picks of 2021

There was more to the 2021 draft class than Micah Parsons.

Atlanta Falcons v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys draft class from a year ago still has a lot to prove, as the team now prepares for a critical 2022 offseason. Micah Parsons becoming a household name in year one as an All-Pro linebacker distracted from the fact the Cowboys had six picks take a virtual redshirt season - be it for injury, placement on the practice squad, or simply the depth in front of them.

The Cowboys are one of the teams that leans on their draft classes the most, but a stronger-than-usual free agent class paired with a weak NFC East led to a 12-5 season. Dallas has their sights set on more than just a division title and first-round playoff exit this season, but will need to explore all avenues to upgrade the roster.

Mark Lane and I discussed all of this on the latest episode of Hidden Yardage on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure you subscribe to our network so you don’t miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.

For a team that likes to have their major needs addressed before the draft, the Cowboys could be relying on the bottom of their 2021 draft class to take a big step up in year two. Let’s take a closer look at where expectations should be for these players.

CB Nahshon Wright (3rd-Round Pick, 99th Overall)

The good news for Nahshon Wright is that Dan Quinn is back as the Cowboys defensive coordinator for a second season. So too is John Fassel with the special teams unit, where Wright played most of his snaps.

Wright was drafted after the Cowboys selected Kelvin Joseph in the second round, giving them time to develop such a raw player. It was actually Anthony Brown that helped sure up the position opposite Trevon Diggs, as Joseph rarely saw the field. Wright was still only able to play 17 snaps on defense before week 18, making his first start with the division wrapped up against the Eagles.

If the Cowboys address cornerback in free agency or early in the draft, it will be a sign they’re not ready to give either Joseph or Wright more snaps. This is a team building for the present, and with Joseph making the most of his limited work as a rookie, Dallas should be able to look elsewhere for roster upgrades. A second year in Quinn’s system still makes Wright a valuable backup with great special teams contribution. Wright’s length and range could make him an option at safety as well, where the Cowboys are currently much more thin than they are at cornerback.

New York Giants v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

LB Jabril Cox (4th-Round, 115th Overall)

Jabril Cox was unfortunately lost for the season to an ACL tear in October, putting an end to a rookie campaign that began with plenty of hype. Cox was considered one of the steals of this draft as a member of LSU’s 2020 national championship team.

Again, the Cowboys were able to use a free agent signing to provide depth without Cox, as Keanu Neal was a contributor along with Parsons at linebacker this season. This is still a position that needs another reliable starter, possibly a veteran presence to work with their young talent.

Cox may be another scheme fit under Quinn, but it’s unlike the Cowboys to hand a starting role to a player with almost no experience. The Cowboys upgrading the interior of their defensive line would go a long way in finding more snaps for Cox, helping him make plays against the run. With the athleticism to match tight ends and running backs in the passing game, there’s a clear role for Cox moving into year two, but just how much the Cowboys will depend on him remains to be seen.

OT Josh Ball (4th-Round, Pick 138)

With offensive line being one of the Cowboys biggest needs this offseason, getting nothing out of fourth-round rookie Josh Ball is frustrating. Ball was drafted as a developmental tackle that fell due to off-field concerns, but the traits to be a potential starter are there.

A year of NFL practices and a professional strength program could help Ball realize this potential in year two. The Cowboys certainly didn’t have to play Ball before he was ready, as Terence Steele became the reliable backup tackle to Tyron Smith and La’el Collins.

The Cowboys weakness up front is on the interior, and addressing it through the draft should be a priority. Doing so would mean trusting their current depth at tackle, or signing another journeyman backup like Ty Nsekhe.

Dallas could also move La’el Collins to left guard and elevate Steele to the starter at right tackle, which would immediately make Ball a much more important part of their 2022 plans.

The Cowboys passed on their next franchise tackle in last year’s draft and ended up with Parsons. Doing so again in hopes of hitting on a similar pick feels like the best strategy this year too. It’s not time to completely give up on Ball yet, as the Cowboys offensive line picture becomes a lot clearer if he’s ready to play.

WR Simi Fehoko (5th-Round Pick 179)

Wide receiver is another unexpected need for the Cowboys, and one with a player in last year’s class that could help fill it. If Dallas releases Amari Cooper and lose one of Michael Gallup or Cedrick Wilson this offseason, they’re instantly in the market for a new starter at the position.

Fehoko spent part of the season on the practice squad, a long way from earning starting reps and catching passes from Dak Prescott. Struggling to win on the outside against better competition, Fehoko’s NFL future is likely as a slot receiver. His route running and play strength will have to improve, but if Dallas adds another outside receiver, Fehoko could see more playing time.

The Cowboys also didn’t get the returns they expected from CeeDee Lamb in year two, and could play him primarily in the slot as a way to get more out of the 2019 first-rounder. The Cowboys wasted a year of Prescott’s rookie contract with limited talent at receiver, and should learn from that mistake with Prescott now occupying much more of the cap space. This makes finding a path for an unproven player like Fehoko to climb the depth chart fairly difficult.

S Israel Mukuamu (6th-Round Pick 227)

Damontae Kazee, Jayron Kearse, and Malik Hooker are all set to hit free agency, leaving the Cowboys incredibly thin at a position they haven’t valued in some time. Donovan Wilson and Darian Thompson are all the Cowboys currently have to build around, though many fans hope re-signing Kearse is a priority.

It’s no surprise the Cowboys are linked to safety prospects in the first three rounds of this draft, though Dallas hasn’t used anything higher than a fourth-round pick at the position since 2013.

Israel Mukuamu fits the physical mold to be the next hard-hitting safety in Quinn’s defense, but mainly played on special teams his rookie season. This is an instinctive player with some position flex to play both safety and cornerback, and the Cowboys drafted him expecting his best football is still to come. There’s no better time than this season for Mukuamu to emerge as a draft steal, with the Cowboys in need of safeties.

The Cowboys defense is a serious candidate to regress in 2022 thanks to the unsustainable amount of turnovers they created last year. Hitting on late-round picks and developing their own talent like Mukuamu is a must for the Cowboys to avoid this letdown.

G Matt Farniok (7th-Round 238th Overall)

The Cowboys have drafted at least one offensive lineman every year since 2018. With Josh Ball not seeing the field as a rookie, Farniok is the latest pick at this position group to see the field, getting reps at center late in the season.

While Dallas can feel good about their depth pieces at both tackle and the interior, they’re still in the market for another starter at guard and possibly center. Having this position flex with Farniok entering his second season is a positive as the Cowboys look to get back to fielding one of the league’s best lines.

Maintaining solid depth and players familiar with the scheme is a key here, and the Nebraska product in Farniok can provide both in 2022.

There are plenty of reasons the Cowboys should be taking a long look at their team building strategy this offseason. If the playoff loss to the 49ers wasn’t enough, a team determined to build through the draft is still waiting on returns from the six players listed above.

With the best case scenario for many of their 2021 picks being depth options or fringe starters, the Cowboys have needs to address in free agency if they want to continue drafting the best prospects available in April.

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