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After further review: Cowboys’ 2022 draft haul shows they learned the wrong lesson from 2021

The Cowboys don’t seem to understand what went wrong last year.

NFL: NFL Draft Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

When the 2022 NFL Draft concluded on Saturday and we all had a clear understanding of what the Cowboys’ draft class looked like, two trends seemed to come to the forefront: players that were highly athletic, and players that had a bit of a mean streak.

In fact, the Cowboys’ draft class ended up having the eighth-highest total relative athletic score (RAS) of any team’s draft class this year, with only Jake Ferguson and John Ridgeway falling below the 80th percentile in their individual RAS scores.

Tyler Smith was known for his aggressive, physical style of play at Tulsa, at times for the worse. Matt Waletzko drew comparisons to Trevor Penning at the Senior Bowl for his physicality and demeanor. John Ridgeway won the Illinois state wrestling title in 2017. It was clear that physicality played a role in the draft strategy this year.

The Cowboys would not be alone in thinking that, as the 49ers controlled both lines of scrimmage in their Wild Card upset win this past year. That’s been a trend for quite some time in Dallas, with the perception being that the team is often too soft to advance in the playoffs. Jimmy Johnson famously labeled the organization as a country club, and Mike McCarthy’s first year with the team brought notable pushback from certain players who didn’t adjust as well to the Super Bowl winning coach’s more brusque approach to coaching.

While this is certainly an issue that has been lingering in Dallas for quite some time, and it’s admirable that they’re apparently trying to address it now, the Cowboys’ focus on getting faster and meaner misses the point. The 2021 season was a very successful one for the Cowboys, but it fell short of the lofty expectations they set for themselves. But the reason for that isn’t as simple as getting “out-physical’d,” as some would say.

Enough time has passed now that people have forgotten the details of that Wild Card game. After the Cowboys defense got bruised for 16 points in the first half, they stepped up. San Francisco was held to just one score in the entire second half, and that lone touchdown came on a Deebo Samuel run immediately after the 49ers picked off Dak Prescott deep in Dallas territory.

Aside from that one-play drive, the 49ers reached the Cowboys’ side of the field just once in the second half, and they punted on that drive. The Dallas defense certainly got beat up in the first half by the 49ers’ efficient rushing attack, but this was not a case of the Cowboys just getting run over.

The Cowboys’ shortcomings against San Francisco featured an issue that had routinely popped up several times over the last half of the 2021 season: the passing game just stopped working. There are just about a million theories as to why this happened, and we’ll never be able to pinpoint with certainty the exact reason(s), but the end result is that the Cowboys lost in the playoffs - just as they did against the Broncos, Chiefs, Raiders, and Cardinals - because their passing game was unable to score when they needed to.

That really shouldn’t be the case when you’ve got Dak Prescott at quarterback. Prescott ranks ninth among qualifying quarterbacks in EPA/play since entering the league. Prescott also had weapons in CeeDee Lamb, Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, Cedrick Wilson, and Dalton Schultz.

Perhaps the only clear and obvious sign of weakness for this offense last year was their offensive line. For those who followed along with our weekly analytics roundups, you know that Dallas routinely ranked near the bottom of the NFL in pass block win rate; they also gradually fell in adjusted line yards, adjusted sack rate, and run block win rate.

So, what have the Cowboys done to remedy all of this? They cut La’el Collins and practically packed Connor Williams’ bags for him in free agency. They did the same with Wilson before trading Cooper for essentially a late-round draft pick. Dallas proceeded to make zero effort to bring in help on the offensive line during free agency, and their only contribution at wide receiver was James Washington, who struggled to see the field in Pittsburgh.

Then we got the draft. On the offensive line, they drafted Tyler Smith, a physical tackle who’s moving to guard to help mitigate his deficiencies as a pass blocker, and Matt Waletzko, a raw prospect in serious need of technical refinement. In terms of pass catchers, they selected Jalen Tolbert, an accomplished and exciting receiver whose biggest downside is having played against lesser competition in the Sun Belt conference, and Jake Ferguson, a tight end who’s expected to compete for the backup tight end spot behind Schultz.

The Cowboys exerted a lot of effort to make big changes on offense, getting rid of three players that have been key starters for this team since at least 2018, but did little to actually replace or upgrade them. With specific regard to Cooper, Prescott had a negative EPA/play, good for 28th in the league, in 2018 prior to the trade for the receiver; Prescott was ninth in EPA/play over the second half of the year, with Cooper. In the three seasons since, Prescott is tied for 10th in EPA/play, with some of worst single-game performances over that stretch coming in games without Cooper.

To a certain degree, the Cowboys didn’t have much say over who they drafted to fix these issues. They couldn’t prevent the wide receiver board being picked over before they were on the clock, and the same goes for the top two guards being drafted before we even got to the 20’s. But the unpredictability of the draft is why teams ought to put forth more effort in free agency to fill holes, which the Cowboys did not.

If the team was convinced that Cooper, Williams, and Collins were part of the problem, that’s fair. Each of these three had their own unique criticisms, which were mostly earned. But instead of replacing them with players who are more specifically oriented towards rebooting this passing attack, it seems that the Cowboys focused on getting more physical so they can hang with the 49ers.

Only problem is they don’t play the 49ers this year. And the data suggests that efficient passing offenses play a much more direct role in winning games than any form of measuring physicality does. On some level, the Cowboys deserve credit for using the draft to fix the problem they diagnosed. But their diagnosis was incorrect from the start, and it’s hard to solve an issue without first properly identifying it. Unfortunately, the draft shows they still haven’t figured that out.

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