By the time the Cowboys were on the clock Thursday night, most of the names they’ve been connected to over the last three months - Chris Olave, Treylon Burks, Kenyon Green, Zion Johnson, and others - were all gone. What seemed impossible had suddenly become reality, and Jerry and Stephen Jones had to make a pick. The answer: Tulsa offensive lineman Tyler Smith.
Most draft analysts didn’t view Smith as a first-round prospect, with many projecting him to be drafted somewhere in the second or third round. Smith himself was admittedly surprised when the Cowboys picked him. So, too, were Cowboys fans all around the world, many of whom immediately derided the pick for being a reach.
Now that the initial shock has worn off, though, and clearer heads are beginning to prevail, it appears that the Cowboys actually did make the right call. Throughout this entire draft process, we’ve been hearing that it’s a very deep pool of players but fairly light on top-tier talent. That became evident when there were no trades in the top ten and only one quarterback was selected in the entire first round.
The prevailing sentiment in Cowboys Land seemed to be that one or two teams ahead of them would reach on a player, with the most likely outcome being a run on quarterbacks, and that would in turn deliver at least one of the blue-chip prospects to Dallas. But no quarterback was selected until the Steelers took Kenny Pickett 20th overall, and both of the top guard prospects came off the board much earlier than anticipated.
All of this resulted in the Cowboys getting on the clock with not a whole lot of options. Florida State edge rusher Jermaine Johnson had inexplicably fallen down the board, and linebackers Devin Lloyd and Nakobe Dean were still available, as were center Tyler Linderbaum and defensive tackle Devonte Wyatt. So let’s briefly discuss why each of those players didn’t really make sense for the Cowboys at 24:
- The most common criticisms around Johnson were that he had just one year of starting experience at Florida State and was perceived to have already maxed out as a pass rusher, offering little long-term growth
- Contrary to popular belief, EDGE isn’t a big need for Dallas. Chauncey Golston and Dorance Armstrong are both young players who have yet to reach their ceiling, or even have a chance to. Dante Fowler has shown legitimate ability before, and he’s got a history with Dan Quinn; in other words, if DQ believes in Fowler, who are we to disagree after what we saw in 2021?
Devin Lloyd & Nakobe Dean
- The issue with both of these players is that they’re off-ball linebackers, a position that already doesn’t hold a ton of value. Their value is even lower for Dallas considering they have Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox. Spending a first-round pick on a linebacker is already questionable in terms of positional value, but doing so when they likely wouldn’t be an every-down player is even worse.
- Tyler Linderbaum proved to be a pretty polarizing player for many, with some believing him to be a future All-Pro center while others think he may require a more specific scheme fit. Whispers in the last few weeks suggested Dallas fell into the former camp, and they seem to have some confidence in Tyler Biadasz after he finished the year on a high note.
- Simply put, the Cowboys don’t value interior defensive linemen enough to take in the first round. They haven’t done so since 1991, when they drafted Russell Maryland first overall. There were rumors that they might break that streak for Wyatt’s teammate, Jordan Davis, but he never got close to the 24th pick.
We can (and likely will) debate for years to come whether or not Dallas should’ve taken one of these players, but the fact remains that their process and strategy on a big-picture scale ruled them all out at 24. Therefore, the next remaining option was between taking Smith or trading down.
To the latter point, it seems as if the Cowboys did indeed field several offers to move back. Jerry declared that they received three calls from teams interested in acquiring the pick, while Stephen had this to say:
“I happen to be good friends with the team that was calling,” Stephen said. “He sent me a text right after we picked him and said, ‘Be glad you didn’t trade with us. That was our guy.’”
Bryan Broaddus of 105.3 The Fan revealed that a source indicated to him the Titans were trying to trade with the Cowboys to select Smith, while other rumors suggest the Buccaneers traded out of the 27th pick after Smith came off the board. In other words, the NFL thought very highly of Smith, certainly more than the draft experts did.
That alone was likely enough to make the Cowboys stick to their guns and take Smith, a raw lineman with all the traits and tenacity you could ask for at the position. If it wasn’t enough, though, then they may have been convinced after seeing how little other teams (with higher draft picks) were receiving in trade downs ahead of 24. That’s undoubtedly a reflection of the NFL’s perception of this class as a whole, and it’s entirely possible that the Cowboys didn’t get an offer to trade down that would have been worth it for them.
Instead, they drafted a lineman in the first round, something they have a great track record with doing. The Cowboys were similarly criticized when they selected Travis Frederick 31st overall in 2013 - then-draft analyst and eventual Raiders GM Mike Mayock declared “I had a third-round grade on this guy.” It might not be realistic to expect Smith to reach Frederick’s level of play, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Cowboys’ process in making this pick was fundamentally sound.