The Cowboys saw Leighton Vander Esch come back from the same injury, and re-signed the 2018 first-rounder to a new deal this offseason.
“The crazy thing is, at the Combine, Dallas’ medical staff was the one that told me,” Clark said. “When they told me, I was shocked. I’m like ‘Whoa, maybe y’all got the wrong person.’”
That’s an understandable attitude. Clark started all 12 games for LSU last season, finishing fourth in the entire country in tackles with 135. He even participated in the Senior Bowl in February, where he was named the best linebacker in attendance
“I played the whole year and felt perfectly fine,” he said.
But there were the Cowboys, calling to inform Clark that he had a herniated disc in his spine that would require surgery. After initially hearing from them, Clark turned toward spine specialist Dr. Robert Watkins, who would eventually perform his surgery at the end of March.
“I went out and got a second opinion, and Dr. Watkins said the same thing,” Clark said. “It’s crazy that this is the team that drafted me. So I already feel comfortable here.”
The Cowboys themselves have plenty of reason to be confident. Team officials have stressed that the two injuries aren’t exactly the same, but Leighton Vander Esch did undergo the same procedure following the 2019 season, when his own neck injury forced him to miss seven games.
“Just on the injury front, going through the experience with Leighton and there were a couple of other comparables,” said Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy. “I mean yeah, that was definitely part of the discussion leading up to the decision.”
Vander Esch missed six games in 2020, but that was due to a broken collarbone, not his herniated disc. He played a full season in 2021 for the first time since his rookie year, tallying 77 tackles and four tackles for loss.
As he works his way back from his own injury, Clark acknowledged that learning about Vander Esch’s situation has only made him more confident than he already was.
Jalen Tolbert has a golden opportunity to start his rookie season with Michael Gallup still rehabbing from ACL surgery.
The Cowboys face the challenge of replacing both Cooper and Wilson in the passing game. While they did add veteran James Washington in free agency, part of the responsibility will land on third-round pick Jalen Tolbert (88th overall) .
The South Alabama product might not directly replace either Cooper or Wilson, but he’s talented and versatile enough to do a bit of what each of them did well. He’s unpolished as a route-runner, but he’s long (6’1”), quick and can do damage as a deep threat or on underneath routes.
“He doesn’t make many defenders miss in a phone booth, but he does have the burst to split defenders after making the catch on screens and shorter throws,” Nate Tice of the B/R Scouting Department wrote. “His ball skills will be useful in the red zone and on contested catches where he can utilize his length and body control.”
Expect the 23-year-old, who logged 1,474 receiving yards last season, to add another explosive element to the Cowboys’ passing attack.
Tolbert may lack consistency early, but the big plays should come often enough for him to be a factor as a rookie.
Anything is possible with a mock draft this far out, like the Cowboys taking a first-round safety.
Round 1, Pick 26: S Jordan Battle, Alabama
What better way to start off a mock than with the ‘Boys going off-script. Yes, they take a safety here at the end of the first round in Alabama’s Jordan Battle.
Battle is the selection here for a couple of reasons. First, let’s start with his talent. At 6-1, 210 pounds, the hard-hitting safety had a very good junior season, recording 85 tackles, three pass deflections, and three interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns. He also graded very well according to PFF, grading 4th among safeties in defense (88.0), and 5th in coverage (89.7).
Coming up next offseason, the front office may need to think about making an upgrade at the free safety position. Current starting free safety Malik Hooker was just re-signed to a two-year deal this off-season, so he’s getting his shot at a long-term deal. However, even last season, he did just decent. He had 44 tackles and one interception while grading fairly well in run defense (75.8), and not so well in coverage (65.5).
Meanwhile, backup Donovan Wilson is set to hit the market next offseason as well. Adding the college star would shore up the safety position for years and provide a scary duo with Jayron Kearse which may make quarterbacks think twice about throwing deep.
Noah Brown has been a mainstay of the Cowboys receiving corps, but faces some tough competition this offseason.
The big issue facing Noah now is the potential second-year development of Simi Fehoko. A 5th-round pick in 2021, Fehoko was carried on last year’s roster and only dressed for five games. But if the young prospect is now ready to start contributing more, that could be real trouble for Brown.
While keeping six receivers on the official roster isn’t abnormal, having them all active for gamedays would be difficult given the 46-man limit. If Brown doesn’t push his way into the top four, and if Dallas is committed to giving Fehoko some playing time, he might not get to suit up at all.
At this point there’s not much developmental juice left to squeeze in Brown. He’s 26 and a finished product by general NFL standards. Noah has his ways to contribute and has earned new contracts based on that, but he’s probably not a guy who you’re going to protect on the 53-man roster if he’s not dressing for games.
One factor that could help Brown make the roster, at least temporarily, is the projected absence of Michael Gallup early in the season. If Gallup’s recovery from ACL surgery does continue into September, Noah could hang onto his spot for a month or so until Michael’s ready to play.
Even then, though, the NFL’s new practice squad rules could work against Brown. Dallas could release him at final cuts, avoiding his contract becoming fully guaranteed, and then try to sign him to the practice squad and call him up for a few games during Gallup’s absence.
NFL Power Rankings 2022: Offseason 1-32 poll, plus players who benefited most from the draft and trades - Todd Archer, ESPN
Micah Parsons will still be asked to do a lot this season.
Post-free agency ranking: 9
Player who benefited most from draft: LB Micah Parsons
The Cowboys want to keep the versatility that helped Parsons win the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Owner Jerry Jones has referred to Parsons’ position as a “Micah player.” He can be a linebacker. He can be a pass-rusher. Had the Cowboys not selected Sam Williams in the second round, they would have kept that plan in place, but Williams presents the Cowboys — and Parsons — with more options. Williams goes into a pass-rush pool with DeMarcus Lawrence, Dorance Armstrong and Dante Fowler Jr. Parsons can continue to move between positions with ease, especially with Leighton Vander Esch’s return via free agency and Jabril Cox’s return from injury. — Todd Archer
CeeDee Lamb may be too important to lose on special teams as the Cowboys new number one receiver.
The reason is that Lamb is moving into the No. 1 receiver role, replacing the traded-away Amari Cooper. And wisely, the Cowboys recognize that that job is almost infinitely more important than who is in charge of fair catches, returns called back on penalties and one (one!) return of longer than 20 yards.
They haven’t pulled Lamb off the field on special-teams just yet. And with Ced Wilson gone via free agency, they don’t have him as a convenient answer.
So it is quite possible the Cowboys will have a new featured punt returner this season.
Can cornerbacks Trevon Diggs do it? Sure, but if the idea is to take some burden off a heavy lifter who is a full-time player, well, the same rule that would apply to Lamb should apply to Diggs. Nahshon Wright was involved last year; is he any sort of a threat with the ball in his hands? James Washington hasn’t a history of doing so. Tony Pollard is made to return kicks but not punts.
It’s not a major hole, because - as we’ll keep arguing, it’s not an impact position - but it’s a hole. Dallas needs somebody who can at least field the ball safety, and injury risks aside, it’s a waste of Lamb and Diggs’ time to ask them to do it.
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