Sometimes, a conclusion is so apparent that "the wisdom of the crowds" nails it by consensus. In other cases, we'll see convergence - individual minds independently arriving at the same conclusion. Whether a case of the former or latter, the 2022 Dallas Cowboy draft class has reminded many of the team's 2018 edition, and for good reason!
Dallas entered the 2018 draft with some clear positional targets (most especially WR and LG) that intersected nicely with the strengths of the prospect pool, and between those expectations and team prospect visits it wasn't hard to guess how the opening rounds would go. Indeed, Dallas started with a favorite prospect, then snatched up LG and WR at good value, and finally spent Day Three collecting names that continued to offer reasonable or better value while checking off boxes.
This time around? OL, WR, and DE were all seen as priority positions for the Cowboys, and that's exactly where the team went over Days One and Two before adding plenty more solid need+value selections the rest of the way. How did Dallas do? Your mileage will vary, depending on what you think of each player for whom you have a personal "take" (there's a pretty wide range for many of them) and how strongly you buy into consensus media boards if you don't. Broadly speaking, as in 2018, this class makes it pretty easy to imagine some help arriving where the roster needed it, though without an ideal max confidence level.
For the pick breakdowns, there are two traits of each selection that we can objectively take a stab at rating in the present: value, and fit. Value will be labeled poor/solid/strong relative to the range of "market" expectations, and Fit will assign unclear/good/great (there is no such thing as a "bad" fit coming out of the draft) ratings based on what we can project about scheme fit and/or how the player meets the needs of the team. Also look for an Overall summary plus a stab at the Rookie Year Expectation.
Want to check out past "unwrapping" editions? Conveniently, the list begins with 2018! Click the links below:
The Draft Picks
Round 1, Pick 24 (overall): Tyler Smith, LT/LG, Tulsa
Value: Solid (looked Poor at first glance)
This is the first-round equivalent of Kelvin Joseph last year - that is to say, someone who was not noted much in the media throughout the draft process and only really began to draw whispers of going higher than expected in the week or so leading into the draft. That's the thing about "risers" - they're always to some degree a surprise when they're taken, and thus there will always be a mixed bag of reactions to the pick. Sometimes you get a Byron-Jones-type surger who steadily climbs following the combine and thus has an opportunity to cement his elevated grade in the public mind by Draft Day; and sometimes you get the quiet riser. Smith was very much the latter, only blipping on the radar very late in the process, too late to avoid drawing a wide reaction of "reach" the moment he was taken. But as with Joseph, the post-draft response has helped bring us up to speed: Smith had the attention of a number of teams picking later in the first round, and reportedly the Titans inquired about trading up to 24 specifically to grab him. Not everyone had this spot within his "proper" range, but more than enough did for this to check out. We definitely do not need to take Jerry Jones and his press conference sheet of paper for their word on this one!
Time will tell whether Smith proves to be a decade-long answer at LG or not. Going by that projection alone, the fit and need would be more "good" than "great" given that Smith is so young, raw, set to transition positions, and coming from a lesser college program. Though he might end up hitting the ground running as well as expected from the likes of Zion Johnson and Kenyon Green, Smith is not on paper as confidently plug-and-play as would be preferred. One way he does suit Cowboy fan desires at the position is with the power in his game - Smith is big and strong, brings ample anchor to his game, and is fully expected to be a mauler with his run blocking. This is a potential answer to opposing DTs who have been able to bully their fair share of win reps against the Dallas interior! Why the "great" designation, then? Because Smith also brings the capacity to fill in at LT or even prove the long-term successor there when Tyron Smith's time comes to a close. The beauty of getting this dual combination from one player is that the Cowboys aren't banking on any one result - if the veteran TSmith thrives for many more years to come, TSmith Jr looks to have his own useful place; if Sr sticks around but continues to miss time, Jr could be in the mix to slide over and cover temporarily but effectively; and if Sr's end comes sooner rather than later, by that time Dallas should have a decent handle on whether Jr can slot right in or whether the team should make a fresh LT investment. Meanwhile, the Cowboys still would have room to make "swing" OT investments that might develop to starting caliber without having to dedicate too much roster space to OL contingencies. The Cowboys are already telegraphing this to some degree with its talk that Tyler Smith is a "left side player" - his preparation will focus on a split between LG and LT, to be certain.
Overview: More than usual, this will come down to the development
Smith is one of those rookies who most begs for fans to put prior notions of "value" aside. It's easy to buy so strongly into the ranking gospel that we forget how much our takes have been programmed by media lists, as opposed to being the product of independent thinking. In other words, had Smith been talked up throughout the draft process as a mid-first-round prospect, despite no change to his underlying profile he would have magically been seen as a "value" prospect rather than the "reach" some have labeled him. This is far from the case in general - fans can very much tell the difference between a Micah Parsons, a Jabril Cox, and a Devin Harper linebacker prospect, for example, and will defy a given ranking when it doesn't seem justified. It's also worth considering that some players aren't built for precise consensus: teams that focused on evaluating Smith as a LT prospect would naturally be more down on him than those that embrace his OG potential; likewise, a team that believes he isn't just a pure OG prospect but has legit LT upside with the right development would value him more. None of those takes is innately right or wrong, and thus Smith's "accurate" value range is simply wider than that of many prospects. What is clear is that Smith more than most is less about what he is now than what he has the potential to be. He is no tip top prospect because of the work needed, but his odds of success are better than most given the full profile. It's not for nothing that many have already observed that Smith on paper strikes a Larry-Allen-type vein, with the same uncertainties (at the time) and loads of upside that still of course must be tapped to matter. The biggest ding on Smith has been the number of penalties he has drawn, but some have strangely treated it as a given in his game going forward. Perhaps he would never be able to manage at LT without his fair share of holds, but that is why LG is set as his present and maybe future - and it isn't hard to figure that the differences between LT and LG could make a world of difference in his penalties and much more.
Rookie Expectation: Get used to the sight of Tyr. Smith/Tyl. Smith next to each other on the line in 2022
Barring the rookie completely flopping in camp, we already know the team has him penciled in to start at LG immediately. We shouldn't forget that the Cowboys have a high floor young veteran in the mix (Connor McGovern) there, but the new guy will beg his reps to begin his evolution. The Cowboys will open camp with that intent, and likely feel good knowing McGovern is ready to step in if Smith truly isn't ready. The bigger question is whether Smith can polish his LT game enough to seriously be in the backup LT mix right away, and at present any attempted projection on that would really just be an open guess.
Round 2, Pick 56 (overall): Sam "De" Williams, Edge, Mississippi
Williams was always going to be a more divisive prospect than most, given his combination of very high end pass rush potential (teams always want more of that), present warts on his on-field game, and past off-the-field troubles. Some would rank him lower or perhaps off the board entirely, others would be ready to snatch him if he fell farther than expected, and still others would fall in love. It was always safe to say that Williams was going to be taken by someone on Day Two, and while the Cowboys took him at the top of his probable range there's a strong chance it was "act now or forever hold your peace".
Dan Quinn seems to love this guy, and Cowboy fans have been alerted to that for a while now. It was basically a given that Dallas would take Williams if given the chance at the appropriate spot - only another team cutting the Cowboys off would have kept this predictable match from coming to fruition. The Cowboys very much needed some additional pass rush juice in the wake of Randy Gregory's departure, and Williams brings exactly that. His run defense thus far has left much to be desired, but recent Cowboy schemes have managed such types just fine (think Robert Quinn, and even Gregory himself) and there is a bullpen of guys with assorted traits ready to rotate in and allow Williams to at least start off as a situational piece.
Overview: Were I the sort to bet on the NFL draft, this would have been a perfect payout opportunity
DE Williams (it's too hard to resist putting both letters in caps...and if he pans out, it'll be tempting to go full Tecmo Super Bowl and write him up as "DE Cowboys") sure seems to like the idea of being both a Cowboy and Quinn disciple. In a perfect world, his past troubles were all misunderstanding and/or forgivable immaturity and there will be nothing in that area to be concerned about going forward - we can't know that to be the case, but if it's otherwise the Cowboys have demonstrated their ability to assist troubled young players. Let's hope it begins all football and stays that way forevermore; we'll pivot as needed otherwise. As a player, between his tools and tape and productivity Williams isn't far from ideal in terms of his pass rush profile. His scouted negatives revolve around his ability to handle the run game and misdirection - as of now, over too many snaps he probably would be exploited by offensive coordinators.
Rookie Expectation: Third downs and late-game opposing comeback spots are his to lose
Motor and effort don't seem at risk with Williams, so it appears that he needs only to keep his nose clear to have his place ready and waiting in the Edge rotation. We could even expand this section to beyond 2022: if all goes well, watch/hope for Williams to mirror the career path of Minnesota's Danielle Hunter. Hunter began as a Day Two dedicated pass rusher (beginning by putting up 18.5 total sacks over two non-starting seasons) and reached his first payday still regarded as more specialist than all-around Pro Bowler, and then immediately blossomed into a complete player and star.
Round 3, Pick 88 (overall): Jalen Tolbert, WR, South Alabama
This selection has "Michael Gallup redux" written all over it. As in the 2018 draft, the Cowboys had their eyes on receiver prospects from any and all rounds, and it was a matter of "when" the team would take a WR as opposed to "if". As with Gallup in '18, Tolbert was considered to be an appealing second/third tier WR prospect who was part of a strong class - and as in '18, rather than force a selection at the position the Cowboys waited for the right prospect at a the right pick. This doesn't appear to be an outright steal - Tolbert strikes as more of an "everyone likes him" prospect versus one at least some teams would fall in love with, and thus was always a good candidate to go later in his tier or bucket - but there is enough to work with here that most evaluators see a future easy contributor obtained at a point in the draft when projectability starts to fall off.
The Cowboys had a clear desire to add another young talent to the WR corps, ideally one who might be able to compete for the WR3 job immediately, and Tolbert provides precisely that. Huzzah! That's the need end; the "fit" here is a little more open-ended, as Tolbert isn't a prospect whose physical traits leap off the page. As with predecessor and now-teammate Gallup, Tolbert looks more about the sum of his quality parts: good-but-not-great height and length, speed but not a burner, mobility without explosion or dime cuts, big hands and competitive high-point catching without hands of glue, etc. What is interesting is that, on paper, the Cowboys would have been most in the market for a true slot threat; as something of a Gallup clone, Tolbert seems best suited to line up on the outside. Perhaps the plan is staring right in front of us: with this extra piece of insurance (the first being James Washington) to help initially fill in for any missed time by Gallup before then offering extra vertical-threat help on the outside, Dallas is now set up to utilize CeeDee Lamb primarily from the slot in three-WR sets. Stay tuned!
Overview: Rinse and repeat
Another comp I've seen mentioned a few times for Tolbert is Marvin Jones, and such a career outcome would make this pick more than worth the price. The likes of Jones and Gallup are not suited to serve at a team's top receiving threat, but they can and will produce as key parts of a productive receiving group. There likely will be quiet stretches at times, but sooner or later these types make their plays and see their numbers add up. It would be shocking for Tolbert to blow past expectations, making this less about upside, but it's equally easy to foresee him playing his part and in doing so helping broaden a roster in a cost-effective fashion.
Rookie Expectation: Why not dial up Gallup for this item too?
Watch for Tolbert to land somewhere between the rookie-season productivity of Jones (18 catches/201 yards/1 TD) and Gallup (33/507/2), with variance coming more from available target volume than anything else. Jones had to compete in a fairly crowded room with Andy Dalton throwing him the ball; as was the case for Gallup, Tolbert should be seeing his passes from Dak Prescott, though back in 2018 the Cowboys were looking for any WR to step up and thus had plenty of targets waiting to be seized. In Tolbert's case, he might actually tally more numbers early in the year while Gallup is out or shaking off the rust - if Tolbert is to break out in his sophomore season the same as these other names, watch for him to increase his efficiency as his volume quiets once the hierarchy settles in. Don't count on him taking a major target share from the start and never looking back...
Round 4, Pick 129 (overall): Jake Ferguson, TE, Wisconson
If there seems to be any lingering sentiment that the value wasn't reasonable on Ferguson at 129, that likely has more to do with some would-have-been nice values (e.g. Cade Otton at 106, Charlie Kolar at 128) getting within range of the Dallas pick before ultimately coming off the board than any issue with Ferguson going in this spot. It's not a surplus value in this case, but as with three of the four Cowboy picks thus far this was the team taking the plunge on the early side of the proper range for a prospect as opposed to reaching.
It's funny how life works sometimes - Tolbert drew some Gallup talk from national media evaluators, even before becoming a Cowboy, and likewise more than one major media person drew a parallel from Dalton Schultz to Ferguson before the TE had the star attached to his name. In both TE cases, the prospect offered suitable-but-not-standout physical tools plus solid tape as a receiver and blocker without being exceptional at either. As Cowboy fans have seen, Schultz has made a receiving living as an outlet and attacker of gaps in zone coverage, and that is precisely what Ferguson brings to the table. This means each on paper is better suited to Dallas's system and scheme than he would be in many other situations. Different strokes for different folks, and whereas mobility limitations surely dragged the grades down in the eyes of other teams those limitations are not an issue for the Cowboys. Ferguson has to prove that he can block well enough to eventually ascend to a starting role, but he is a natural successor to Schultz if one ends up needed, right on down to fitting the team's timeline (TEs routinely need a year to get going before showing their true quality).
Overview: Teams can never have too many natural fits
Many teams with different schemes surely valued Ferguson differently, but that matters not regarding the Cowboys. A position lacking in depth and a long-term succession plan for a young vet on a one-year deal now has an on-paper match good to go, and it only cost a Day Three selection to obtain. The one Dallas-specific blemish is that Ferguson doesn't quite have peak Wisconsin (i.e. gritty, high-end blocking, etc) running through his veins and like Schultz projects to be more acceptable blocker than blocking weapon, but if he can pick up enough zone-beating tricks he'll do well enough.
Rookie Expectation: Keep the expectations low and enjoy the bonus if it ends up better
As mentioned above, Tight End more than any other football position begs an active "redshirt" season before careers really launch. With Ferguson intended to help some through the air and in the trenches without being a master in either area, that should apply all the more to him. Anything above Ferguson making the roster and helping on special teams in 2022 would simply add to 2023 confidence, but should not be demanded.
Round 5, Pick 155 (overall): Matt Waletzko, OT, North Dakota
This is a tough one to peg! On the one hand, you have a guy with UDFA-at-best weaknesses in core strength, leverage, technique, and college competition. On the other hand, Waletzko offers prototype physical traits, from big-time height and length to an enviable "spider graph" of his workout performance. That placed his prospect grade all over the map and meant some would see this as a steal leading the way for Dallas's foursome of fifth round picks - while others would peg this as too early.
The Cowboys needed depth on the OL, and while Smith's potential versatility offered part of the solution there adding a developmental prospect to the mix was also a good idea. Waletzko has a ton of work to do in the weight room and with his technique, but he appears to be an even more extreme version of the "OT starter kit" type prospect that was once Terance Steele. There is enough to work with here that even just so-so progress could offer a useful backup piece, and even just that would be a success at this spot for this need.
Overview: Build him up, buttercup!
The potential camp competition between Waletzko and last year's developmental OT prospect Josh Ball should be an interesting one to watch. Ball's rookie season was a medical washout, meaning that the two will operate from a fairly equal standing at least to begin. That is, unless Dallas already sees some writing on the wall with Ball and picked Waletzko with the intention of replacing Ball completely. Either way, the million dollar question will be whether Dallas could actually turn to one of these players for a start or more in the as-usual event that Tyron Smith misses some time. Does Dallas intend to exploit one more year of McGovern and gamble that Tyler Smith could handle that role in the short term? Is the team hoping that the numbers game will stack the odds towards a decent solution emerging? Or is this a setup for a major problem if/when TSmith is out?
Rookie Expectation: Try to make the 53, rook!
With Waletzko's upside, it might be asking too much to hope to sneak him onto the practice squad. At the same time, it's also asking a lot for him to be ready to take the field as a rookie, even over limited snaps. Perhaps the sweet spot, then, is for one other true backup LT option to emerge, allowing Waletzko to make the roster as a planned weekly inactive who can become active in the event of injury?
Round 5, Pick 167 (overall): DaRon Bland, CB, Fresno State
Bland is a classic Day Three Cowboy selection - that is to say, a projected end-draft or UDFA prospect who brings just enough to the table that a minor "reach" to a round when there are still some familiar/desirable names available isn't an outright sin (but might leave fans with some feelings of regret for perceived missed opportunity). Yes, Bland is not a standout on paper, and yes, Dallas might want to reconsider taking prospects of this sort ahead of other target names that could drop off the board before the team's next pick, but once the lottery portion hits around this point teams are not sacrificing much value to take the guys they have an eye on.
Taken literally, this isn't unclear in its entirety - Bland is a defensive back in a sport in which teams always need DBs, and he offers enough speed and length (Dallas's favorite defensive buzz word) into the mix that Dallas's interest can be understood. But Bland doesn't offer kit-level traits, nor was he a standout on the college tape, nor is it even entirely clear what Dallas hopes for from him. Is he a pure CB the team thinks it can develop? Does Dallas buy into Bland's potential fit at Safety? Is positional versatility the answer for him? Or is he simply expected to be a dedicated special teamer, outside of emergency situations?
Overview: Most likely will be forgotten before long, but every once in a while we get a surprise
While Bland's profile is close to befitting his name, dismiss him at your own peril. Given the appeal in the names to follow, and the report that Dallas had Bland included among its fourth-round-grades on its board, we can assume that the team believes he has something real to offer. If I had to guess, that something is that Bland is a dyed-in-the-wool "football player" who might be able to grind and "feel" his way to a role.
Rookie Expectation: Flip a coin between special teams and the practice squad
What's this? Was that John Fassel grinning it out with Stephen Jones in the War Room when Bland was selected? I think so! That might be more telling than anything else we might try to interpret at this stage.
Round 5, Pick 176 (overall): Damone Clark, LB, LSU
It wouldn't feel like a Dallas draft class without a pick of a prospect recovering from a medical situation whose healthy grade would have had him off the board much earlier! Whether or not the Cowboys are too keen on these types, in this case it made a world of sense to roll the fifth round dice on such a guy, especially when the team had four such picks available for use. Be warned: some have breathlessly talked Clark up as an apparent second round talent and thus a huge profit potential with a return to health, and while there is no doubt that some opinions feel that way others saw later Day Two or early Day Three as his proper "healthy" draft slot. Clark's if-healthy profile is not as agreed upon as some have made it sound. Thus, this draft spot is probably more "appropriate" than huge bargain given the health question marks - and still, this is a guy who with a full recovery would instantly project to offering a good deal more than usual from the typical prospects taken in this part of the draft.
Things are a bit light in the linebacker room for the Cowboys at present, and thus any addition of someone who might stick was welcome. And Clark isn't just "someone" - he is another traits/spider graph prospect who offers Dallas's idea of the ideal size+speed+reach combination to plug away on the inside. Clark had to earn his way onto the field given LSU's usual strong roster, and over his relatively limited track record he displayed instincts and read errors (especially on misdirection and play action) that will need coaching. But Clark is also a hard worker and character guy, including being the recipient of LSU's coveted #18 jersey. Just get him onto the field...
Overview: Wait 'til next year. Probably.
Yes, there has been word from certain usual front office suspects that Clark might make it back before the 2022 season wraps up, but we've seen before where that road leads. It is worth noting that a procedure like the spinal fusion Clark received tends to reveal most resulting recovery complications and overall recovery timelines sooner rather that later, meaning that Dallas probably has a pretty sturdy outlook that Clark's recovery is "so far, so good" and a positive prognosis. But it *is* "spinal fusion", a scary enough name to beg sticking to low expectations that can be left to be proven wrong. There's no need to get ahead of ourselves!
Rookie Expectation: Bark bark woof woof (the PUP list), plus any recovery being too late to offer help in this calendar year
Not much else to add here - perhaps give Clark the "out of sight, out of mind" treatment until he forces himself back into the spotlight?
Round 5, Pick 178 (overall): John Ridgeway, NT, Arkansas
Ridgeway reportedly is Dallas's only pick with a team-centric grade lower than round four, though he still fits the bill for an actual late fifth rounder and offers more individual quality than most in the round given the devalued nature around the league of NTs and 1-Tech DTs. These guys used to go higher when they were more needed, but the flip side of lower demand means investments are more likely to offer a positive return. There is a low likely ceiling to Ridgeway, but at the same time it's easy to envision him clogging up in the middle.
Last year, the Cowboys finally broke the glass on drafting a real, bona fide NT in Quinton Bohanna. A big guy among big guys, Bohanna saw a decent share of snaps in 2021, though more out of necessity than because he had earned them. Bohanna had been expected to need polish to his game, and it isn't a given that he is a multi-year answer for the Cowboys in the NT role. Enter Ridgeway. He doesn't bring quite the same size to the table as Bohanna, but he was more accomplished on the college field and appears more ready to hit the ground running in the NFL. It seems wise that the Cowboys have two guys with somewhat different particulars to their makeup on hand - this way, the team can work them both and seek out the better fit for what the rest of the defense most needs.
Overview: The tide has turned
There are some Cowboy fans who continue to pound the table for every notable NT prospect out there in a desire to see the team lock down the run game. While there is nothing wrong with holding interest, and some technical NT prospects offer enough versatility to defy the position's devaluation, the reality is that this is a part-time position directly akin to what we have seen happen with "SAM" linebackers. Both used to be full-time starting positions, both were primarily of value for run defense at a time when more offenses ran the ball a majority of the time than not, and both are now much closer to "optional" than defense-defining. Indeed, while the Cowboys have rarely been outright "strong" against the run for a fairly long time, the team has often kept opposing running games decently contained without even having a true NT on the roster! That being said - it always felt like a missed opportunity to dispose of the position so completely, especially with the draft annually offering some mid-to-late round "finds" there. Why not try occasional lesser investments that might pay off? That is precisely, and finally, what Dallas's selection of true NTs in consecutive years represents. Unlike Rod Marinelli's, Dan Quinn's defense has a place for a NT, and the Cowboys first added Bohanna and now have joined Ridgeway into the competition. Competition! Imagine that, the team actually having multiple beefcakes with some progress duke it out for a role on the team? The lower investment means we get to focus on the potential value here - there is minimal downside to taking these shots.
Rookie Expectation: In the DL rotation or off the roster entirely
There is really no need for Dallas to hold on to multiple NTs, excepting the practice squad of course. Let Bohanna and Ridgeway fight it out for one true big-man role, and if one were to handicap the odds there right now it would probably look pretty even. One item in Ridgeway's favor: he is remarkably similar to last year's FA addition, Brent Urban, who was imported specifically to help boost the run defense. The idea was that Urban could flex to any DT role and even 5-Tech (aka 3-4 DE), offering a NT-flanking option for a three-man front any time Quinn wishes to use such a look. Ridgeway is bigger than Urban but plays similarly, and if Dallas's has some three-man-front looks in mind there just might be room for Bohanna at the nose and Ridgeway to his side.
Round 6, Pick 193 (overall): Devin Harper, LB, Oklahoma State
The Cowboys like to finish their draft classes by snatching up what would have been a priority UDFA or two, and that appears to be the case with Harper. Given that typical practice, this is mostly a "solid" verdict, adjusted given that the Cowboys usually utilize seventh round picks for this purpose rather than sixth rounders. Not much to get caught up with, either way! But there is no doubt that Harper, a five-year college player who didn't start full time until this past season, is an UDFA-level prospect with regards to consensus boards.
Harper brings physical traits packaged with very limited starting experience and many a mention of flawed defensive reads. A guy who can move very well and execute his tackles, but can't be counted on to know where he needs to be and avoid mistakes? Sounds like a classic special teamer! There is only so much room for dedicated special teams types, which is the "unclear" side of this, but the Cowboys like at least one linebacker to be a fairly standout coverage guy and there's no reason to spit on this choice if that is the intent. And who knows - maybe with more experience Harper could actually become a usable backup linebacker too?
Overview: Wrapping it all up
Last year's final selection, Matt Farniok, was a prototypical example of an end-draft flier on a grinder who just might have the goods to develop into a quality positional depth piece given time. Harper is essentially end-draft Type II, a near-certain dedicated special teamer who is easy to root for but a long shot to ever see non-fill-in positional snaps. Best of luck to you in training camp, Devin!
Rookie Expectation: Special teamers are needed
Whereas Farniok was a true roster longshot at this time a year ago, Harper's odds of sticking are much more decent. Fassel and the Cowboys will go into camp with a good idea of how many special teams contributors they will want to carry into the regular season, and Harper will be given his chance to crack into their number.
Overall Draft Class Summary
Ticking off those boxes! That's really the theme of this draft class: achieving goals while letting the draft come to the team. While the process doesn't always work out that way, it appears that this is the typical outcome the Cowboys have settled on targeting in a typical year during the Will McClay era.
While opinions will always differ, lets just line up what on paper the Cowboys did with each pick:
Tyler Smith - appropriate value (16th on the team's own board, a target by other teams in the same area of the draft) that is expected to offer a "need" upgrade a secondary starting role in 2022 (check 1) while potentially offered backup and successor possibilities at a Core 5 position (check 2)
DE Williams - appropriate value for a player who couldn't be counted on to last on the board much longer, offers priority-type skills at a Core 5 and "need" position
Jalen Tolbert - consensus BPA value projected to immediately help a Core 5 position that had a hole at a high-snap depth role
Jake Ferguson - appropriate value at a secondary position with shallow immediate depth that also require a starter's replacement for 2023, bonus that the prospect is largely a prospect clone of the current starter
Matt Woletzko - seemingly appropriate value for a Day Three Core 5 prospect with strong developmental traits, overlapping with Smith as potential long-term answers at said position
DaRon Bland - classic priority target minor "reach" who offers some traits at a Core 5 position if he surprises over time and strong special teams potential in the meantime
Damone Clark - worthy dice roll on a Day Two talent who fell due to a medical question mark, offering (if he recovers successfully) possible immediate starter help at a secondary position that might need it in 2023
John Ridgeway - appropriate value to increase competition at a devalued position that merits a cost-effective investment
Devin Harper - classic priority target minor "reach" who offers traits at a position that could always use more numbers and is a natural fit to offer special teams help from its depth guys
The path to contribution is pretty apparent for each one of these, and in many cases immediate. As a bonus, no spots on the team that were sorely needing at least another body didn't get one; of course, there were standout "upgrade opportunity" positions that didn't receive investment, but those would have required an early pick and thus taken away from somewhere else. Once we were corrected on Smith's grade/value to NFL front offices, we could see that Dallas didn't make any reaches until late and even those were minor at best, and there were a lot of pieces acquired at the most valuable NFL positions - a practice that is fast becoming a Cowboy norm.
None of this means this was a home run or top marks class. On paper it wasn't, and even if things largely work out as hoped this would be more of a roster-strengthening class than a roster-defining one. But let's not forget that part of what created the Dynasty Cowboys was its fair share of roster-strengthening drafts. Some have argued that "a team that stays out of free agency and focuses mostly on the draft cannot afford average drafts", but I think the true goal for a such franchises is to always obtain some real help annually, avoiding "bad" classes in the process. Mix enough solid, good, and great classes together, and you'll have a strong roster top to bottom. Keep in mind that the majority of teams that utilize non-draft tools for roster additions don't actually see a net positive result from those efforts, so it isn't as if the Cowboys are falling behind from the typical team that spends in free agency and thus must make up ground.
The setup is there for this to be a class that boosts the roster in 2022 and beyond. That's what most matters at this "on paper only" stage, and the rest of the job falls to the coaching staff and the prospects themselves to cultivate talent into production.
Notable UDFA Signings
When it comes to UDFAs, one's best bet is to "follow the money"; that is to say, make the most note of guys whom the team thought well enough of to guarantee real compensation. Beyond that, it's a crapshoot - excepting guys added at major hole positions, especially on special teams. See below!
Markquese Bell, S, Florida A&M ($215K total guarantee) - Bell might be the most obvious "watch" Cowboy UDFA signing in years. He was a member of the team's prospects visit list, he plays a position where the team could use more talent and has little in the way of longer-term investment, many had given him a rock solid Day Three grade and had expected him to be drafted, and he received one of the top UDFA payouts this year. As always, nothing is guaranteed, but Bell should probably be given fan attention equal to that of the fifth round picks.
Alec Lindstrom, C, BC ($112.5K total guarantee) - Lindstrom is the other Cowboy UDFA whom many had assumed would go in the draft, and for that alone he stands out. A solid guarantee, a profile that speaks to both his potential and also why he went undrafted (limited size and physical traits but plenty of quality college performance and positional "smarts"), and this being another position where Dallas could use depth improvement means Lindstrom will be in the roster mix.
James Empey, C, BYU ($110K total guarantee) - It's curious that the Cowboys made two notable guarantees at the same position, especially when the first prospect already has so much going for him, but we can guess that at least one scout has placed a bet here and the team agreed enough to put him into the mix.
Jonathan Garibay, K, Texas Tech - With the release of Greg Zuerlein, the Cowboys kinda sorta really needed a kicker. And many of the team's fans wanted to see Dallas draft one, especially given the team's Day Three picks stockpile. And so the team...didn't draft a kicker. Failure? Hardly! Perhaps the Cowboys were as interested in Cade York as most every fan was, but he was grabbed in round four and that was just too early to take the plunge. That meant back to the drawing board, and signing Garibay as an UDFA is a worthy consolation prize. Garibay hardly missed any kicks in 2021 and has demonstrated a huge leg, meaning that he just might be Brett Maher with acceptable-or-better accuracy! The biggest ding to his profile is that he only "started" in college for a couple of seasons, and the uncertainty of such a short track record lengthens the odds here.
A Thought On BPA
There seems to be a common misunderstanding regarding the nature of Best Player Available: many take the phrase literally, as meaning that there is always one single best-graded player left on the team's board and that if followed the team is obligated to always take the absolute top-graded guy each and every time.
It doesn't quite work that way. It helps to know what it looks like to truly depart from "BPA", and that is to hone in so much on a position as to depart significantly from one's board in order to address a desire. This can be seen most often when a team appears locked into a particular prospect at a spot, only to lose out on him (often to a team trading up) at the last moment. If the process is BPA, the team pivots to the other best guys (yes, usually plural) under consideration; if not, we'll see the team move on to the next name at the same position, even if there's really no way that the team could see the prospect as around the top remaining grade at that point.
To illustrate this, we can look to a snapshot provided by Peter King regarding the process taken by the Baltimore Ravens (a famously strong-drafting franchise that demonstrates a BPA mindset time and again):
Entering round four, in order, the Ravens prioritized three players: Faalele, Armour-Davis and Iowa State tight end Charlie Kolar. But it wasn’t that easy. DeCosta was torn entering the room. Armour-Davis was more of a need, and even though the grade on Faalele was higher, the GM felt a run at cornerback coming.
DeCosta believes that being a general manager is not simply about reading the grades and picking by them. There has to be a feel involved. They prioritized Faalele because he had a slightly higher grade; he and North Carolina QB Sam Howell were the highest-graded position players for Baltimore at the start of round four. (The Ravens don’t need a quarterback, so they wouldn’t have taken Howell.) For DeCosta, Armour-Davis was key because you can’t have enough corners, and he was their best corner left.
While the higher grade (Faalele) won out with the opening pick in this situation, King makes it clear that Baltimore first pondered whether, strategically, it made more sense to go to the next guy. Amour-Davis would be no reach, but literal BPA is simply too rigid to suit effective drafting. We also see here that even Baltimore will eschew a clear higher grade (Howell) if the position truly is not presently worthy of investment - as long as the guy taken instead is worthy. There is no doubt that Baltimore's process exhibits a practical BPA process, and we shouldn't interpret picks that don't follow BPA to the letter as non-BPA drafting.
There are two ways this applies to the Dallas Cowboys. The first is that it isn't a reach or BPA-defying to select, say, Travis Frederick, just because the media consensus (in his case, it was actually just the grade from a handful of teams) has presented him that way. Dallas's draft board that leaked after the fact revealed that, indeed, to the Cowboys Frederick had been the BPA that time around. So it goes with a Tyler Smith: just because most of the media had him as only a Day Two guy doesn't mean the Cowboys did too, and indeed according to the team's board he merited BPA-worthy consideration where he ended up being taken.
The second lesson to take here is, again, that teams aren't defying a BPA mindset when they consider multiple prospects with similar grades - as long as the grades are close enough. With the leak of the top of Dallas's 2022 board pointing to the higher ranking (and grade) of Lewis Cine over Smith, this could be taken to mean Dallas "reached" for need. But, looking at Smith's place on the Dallas board, we see that it took remaining prospect #2 over remaining prospect #1. That's certainly no reach! And taking DeCosta's strategy lesson to heart, it isn't hard to imagine what the Cowboys had in mind when it chose Smith over Cine: with the other two worthy OL prospects (Johnson and Green) already selected and with DB Daxton Hill also still high on the team's board, Dallas knew it had to take Smith then and there or else would likely get shut out from 2022 help at LG it could believe in. With Cine and Hill playing a position that is a lesser priority around the league and also a position Dallas wasn't pressured to add to in 2022, there was a reasonable chance that one could slide into Dallas's trade-up range (or even into Dallas's lap at #56) - the Cowboys might be able to have their cake and eat it too! Even if both got snapped up, as eventually unfolded, that wouldn't put a hit on the team's roster-building; losing Smith along with his other perceived plug-and-play IOL prospects, on the other hand, would have had a major impact.
Semi-aside: this potentially answers the question presented at the end of this recent BTB article. Strategically, it makes all the sense in the world to go with the drying-up position over the one with multiple options that might stick around in the range of your next pick, and passing on Cine does not in any way indicate the Cowboys "ignoring" Safeties.
-It's curious that so many consider the AJ Brown trade to be such a brilliant front office move. Make no mistake, I'm not criticizing the move in the least: there's plenty of sense it it. But the Eagles invested a mid-first-round pick and more for the right to then pay a Tier 2 WR1 beaucoup bucks - it's a cost-neutral type move at best, and odds are any team would have had it available for the taking if desired. So why is this a "genius Howie Roseman" move that has led to it being regarded as part of the strong Philadelphia 2022 draft class? After all, the Cowboys made a virtually identical move when it added Amari Cooper, and at the time (after 2018 wrapped up and Cooper demonstrated his fit) the trade was generally treated more as a successful one rather than a brilliant one, with plenty of people rightfully pointing out that from a pure roster-building-efficiency mindset it wasn't impressive at all.
-Roseman knows what he's doing, but some seem to go looking to talk up his excellence as point-of-fact no matter the context or results. We see the same thing with Indy GM Chris Ballard. Both clearly are adept at general NFL roster-building, but it's interest how wide the gap is between how each is described relative to the Cowboys front office despite remarkably similar results in recent years. That's not me talking up Dallas so much as questioning the extent of the praise given to these two.
-Not to make anything remotely close to a confident point but more for something to chew on, here is a stab at quantifying the value gained or lost in the draft relative to options available at given picks (click here for the full article):
Dallas's placement in this case involves quantifying the Smith pick as a decent loss, so the results come out that much better-looking if Dallas has the right idea with him.
-Speaking of prospect consensus, for posterity purposes why not record which players were on the consensus short list for each Cowboy pick? Whether coming back to this specific list or some other, it wouldn't hurt to have a record of which prospects Dallas "should" have taken to hold up to and compare to the real deal once we've seen enough seasons pass to make such a judgement (roughly in preferred order):
#24) Jermaine Johnson, Devin Lloyd, Tyler Linderbaum, Daxton Hill, George Karlaftis, Devonte Wyatt (not much consensus beyond Johnson)
#56) Travis Jones, Nakobe Dean
#88) None (felt like a worthy BPA)
#129) Darian Kinnard, Isaiah Likely, Khalil Shakir *or* aggressively use 5th rounders to trade up for Perrion Winfrey, Cade Otton, or Charlie Kolar
-There are some criticisms of the Cowboy franchise that seem to have a point, and still others that are unquestionably smack on point. But there are some that are much more meme than notion of substance, and one of those is that the Cowboys operate is a fixed, inflexible fashion. It's so apparent that that has not been the case over the full course of the Jones ownership that there's no reason to get into the particulars there, but even during this past decade of relatively stable process we can see tweaks in approach when we bother to look. This year's draft served to hammer that home - for one, Dallas zagged hard from its recent tendency to stick to prospects from Power 5 schools. For another, there is no consistency regarding how Dallas drafts relative to consensus BPA - 2020 blew a lot of minds for how often the Cowboys grabbed consensus values, then 2021 included a bunch of minor and major by-consensus reaches, and then 2022 largely went down the middle of the fairway. The Cowboys have also bounced around in terms of how much they've leaned into athletic traits, emerging as a "SPARQ"-centric team for a stretch before moving away from that focus the past couple of years...before veering hard into athletic traits once again in 2022. One recent tendency that continues to hold is Dallas largely avoiding draft trades, up or down. Is that the next habit to break that we should watch for?
-The draft class grades for the Cowboys are rather all over the map. Some liked or even loved it, a few hated it, and plenty thought is was pretty average. Higher grades tended to go to teams with higher slots and/or more picks to spend, so that seems fine on Dallas's part. Football Outsiders does an annual GPA of report cards (going back to the mid-2000s!), for reference, and the Cowboys placed 23rd with a fairly large Standard Deviation.
-Dallas's two worst grades relative to the person doing the evaluation came from ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr (tied with the Patriots for the worst class) and USA Today's (tied with the Patriots for second-worst). Given that Kiper is a prospect (not draft) expert who only does mocks and grades because it's expected of him, and given that USA Today has a longstanding relative bias against the Cowboys (they always have the team lower in their Power Rankings than most or all others), color me unconcerned.
-Conversely, the Cowboys got an A- from another longtime draft entity that has held an unapologetic dislike of the Cowboys for just as long: Walter Football. Given that WF puts more effort into team sources and actual drafting (rather than just a prospects focus) than almost anyone else and that WF has no reason to go out of its way to paint a rosy picture for Dallas, it doesn't hurt to see a good grade from there. Specifically, the site offered praise of Dallas's later picks, including explicitly citing the Cowboys as being one of three standouts on Day Three. Winner winner chicken dinner!