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Ranking the 3 best Dallas Cowboys draft classes since 1989

What is the best draft class Jerry Jones has ever had?

Dallas Cowboys QB Troy Aikman Photo by Brad Mangin/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

There is no perfect draft. While fans might like to believe that all nine of Dallas’ picks this year will turn into Pro Bowlers one day, no draft is perfect.

But instead of perfect, there are great drafts. Drafts where the Dallas Cowboys hit on their first-round pick, pick up a solid starter in the second round and then find some hidden gems in the later rounds. Here are a few examples, ranked:

Ranking the 3 best Cowboys draft classes since 1989

NFL: JAN 08 Cowboys at Eagles Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We are only considering players drafted in the 1989 class and later, which is when Jerry Jones took over the team. Also, the recent drafts are slightly disadvantaged because no one knows what will happen. The 2021 draft looks solid but what if they don’t pan out? It is easier to evaluate draft classes before 2015.

Now, for a little context, a “successful” draft pick includes players that switched to another team and found success there. While the rankings prioritize the time spent in Dallas, there is no penalty for the front office failing to retain them. So, players like Demarcus Ware that found success in Denver after playing in Dallas is attributed to the Cowboys' first drafting him.

We are excluding any undrafted free agent signings. So, Tony Romo’s class in 2003 will not include the signal-caller since he was signed after the draft ended.

With that said, here are some classes that just missed the cut:

  • 2016: Notable picks include Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Anthony Brown, Maliek Collins, and Jaylon Smith
  • 1992: Notable picks include Darren Woodson, Jimmy Smith, Robert Jones, Kevin Smith, and James Brown
  • 1993: Notable picks include Ron Stone, Brock Marion, Darrin Smith, and Barry Minter

3.) 1991

Notable Selections: Russell Maryland, Leon Lett, Erick Williams, Dixon Edwards, Alvin Harper, Larry Brown, and Kelvin Pritchett

The 1990s had some star-studded drafts for the Dallas Cowboys, but 1991 might be the best of them all. Because Dallas was able to build up the team around the triplets and found pieces that became significant contributors during their three Super Bowl wins.

This draft class is headlined by the three-time All-Pro, four-time Pro Bowler Erik Williams. Playing with the Cowboys from 1991 to 2000, he was a staple on the offensive line and is part of the reason Emmitt Smith still sits as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher.

But with their three first-round picks, they kicked off the draft by taking Russell Maryland (a one-time Pro Bowler), Alvin Harper with the twelfth pick who was a solid second option opposite Michael Irvin, and Kelvin Pritchett. Then in the seventh round, they took Leon Lett, whose blunders have since overshadowed his two Pro Bowl selections.

This group combined for seven Pro Bowls and started a total of 674 games. Granted, Dallas had 18 selections to find players to build the team, but it was a solid draft to advance what would soon become a dynasty.

2.) 2005

Notable Selections: DeMarcus Ware, Marcus Spears, Jay Ratliff, Chris Canty, Kevin Burnett, and Marion Barber III

Compared to the 1991 class, where Dallas had 18 picks to find talent, they only had eight in 2005. And they hit on nearly all of them. Obviously DeMarcus Ware is the headline of this group, with four All-Pro selections and nine Pro Bowl appearances.

But Jay Ratliff and Marcus Spears were staples on the defensive line from 2005 to 2012 when they both left Dallas. Ratliff appeared in four Pro Bowls and one All-Pro team as a seventh-round pick. And while Marcus Spears might not have lived up to his first-round pedigree, he started in 90 games for the Cowboys.

Chris Canty and Kevin Burnett are two examples of players that were successful after they left Dallas. While both left in 2008, neither found incredible success for the teams they played for. But starting a combined 203 games, they were solid players.

And then in the fourth round, Dallas took a chance on a running back out of Minnesota named Marion Barber. Across six years in Dallas, he never eclipsed 1,000 yards. But in seven years in the NFL, he rushed for 4,780 yards on 4.1 per attempt, including one Pro Bowl selection. He was solid.

What makes this draft fall as the number two overall is the depth. With eight picks they turned it into 14 Pro Bowls, five All-Pro selections, and 627 games started. It was a solid class from top to bottom with limited draft capital.

1.) 1989

Notable Selections: Troy Aikman, Mark Stepnoski, Tony Tolbert, Daryl Johnson, and Steve Wisniewski*

The first year of Jerry Jones’ draft oversight was arguably his best. The 1989 draft occurred during the era where teams were allotted twelve rounds to find their guys. But Dallas only had eleven picks in this draft, and they sure made the most of them.

Selecting first overall, they took the Oklahoma-born quarterback from UCLA, Troy Aikman. Aikman would then lead the Cowboys to three Super Bowl wins, amassing six Pro Bowl selections and a Hall of Fame induction along the way.

Their second-round pick comes with a heavy asterisk. Steve Wisniewski was selected with the 29th overall pick, but his rights were immediately traded to the Raiders. He would end up being a dominant guard with two All-Pro selections, eight Pro Bowls, and made the 1990s All-Decade team. But since he never played for Dallas, this one doesn’t count.

But regardless, they were still other selections that helped build the Cowboys dynasty. Such as the player Dallas selected with the pick they received in the trade, Daryl “Moose” Johnson. He was used as the blocking fullback to open up lanes for Smith, and as a reliable safety valve in the passing game. What he did earned him two Pro Bowl selections and he ended his career as one of the better blocking fullbacks of all time.

Mark Stepnoski was a dominant center for Dallas, amassing three All-Pro selections and five Pro Bowls across his career. While he eventually moved to the Houston Oilers, his best years were in Dallas.

Tony Tolbert spent his entire career with the Cowboys. With 59 career sacks, he was a second-team All-Pro player and made the Pro Bowl in 1996. He was also named to the All-rookie team following the 1989 season.

So, from the Cowboys ten picks (Steve Wisniewski is not included) in 1989, Dallas turned it into:

  • 14 Pro Bowls
  • 657 started games
  • 50 seasons in the NFL
  • One Hall of Fame Induction
  • 270 weighted average value (similar to WAR) during a time the Cowboys won three Super Bowls

These three drafts were good for different reasons. In 1991 the Cowboys used their 18 picks to cast a wide net and hit on a decent amount. In 2005, they were limited in picks but drafted players that would be the cornerstone of the mid- to late-2000s defense. And then 1989 was the year that started it all for Jerry and the dynasty that was brewing.

If there is one takeaway for the 2022 draft, it is that Dallas will not hit on every pick. Even in the 1989 draft there were four players that never made an NFL team. But as long as they can hit on the early picks, and find talent late, that is a huge success.