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How Cowboys rookies might help fix weaknesses from ‘21 Wild Card loss

A closer look at the loss that sent the Cowboys into this offseason, and if they learned from it in the Draft.

NFL: JAN 16 NFC Wild Card - 49ers at Cowboys Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Cowboys draft has been analyzed in all directions, and there’s a cautious optimism that the team added enough talent to at least repeat as NFC East champions. Easily rolling through the division last year made little difference in the playoffs, as the Cowboys lost their home Wild Card game to the 49ers.

San Francisco took advantage of some obvious struggles the Cowboys were going through on offense leading up to this game, but also did a great job exposing Dallas’ weaknesses to put an untimely end to the 2021 season at AT&T Stadium.

The Cowboys won’t be relying on just their rookie class to better prepare them for a high-stakes game like this, but they have used the Micah Parsons pick from a year ago as an example of finding players to build around in unlikely ways. Sure, Parsons was a a first-round pick with high expectations, but emerging as a star on the Cowboys defense in year one was a very pleasant surprise.

Do the Cowboys need any of their 2022 picks to have a Parsons-like season, or is the strength of this class in it’s numbers to provide depth while counting on free agents like Dante Fowler or James Washington to contribute?

Mike McCarthy admitted he sensed a nervousness over his team before that playoff loss, and their draft class in response to it put a premium on prospects that play with an edge and bring the physicality that the 49ers shocked the Cowboys with.

Here is a best-case scenario for how a few of the Cowboys picks could have changed the outcome of that game, in the alternate universe known as the depths of the current NFL offseason.

OL Tyler Smith

The writing was on the wall for the Cowboys moving on from Connor Williams this offseason, and their lack of attention towards the offensive line in free agency set up the need for a guard as the 24th overall pick. What did come as a slight surprise was taking Tyler Smith, who the Cowboys were happy to see still available, grading him over Kenyon Green and Zion Johnson.

In the loss to the 49ers, the Cowboys were taken out of their run game not only by a strong defensive line but the early deficit they fell into. In Dak Prescott’s effort to throw the Cowboys back into the game, he was sacked five times, with Williams failing to pick up a stunt on the first. The Cowboys left guard also had a holding call that erased a big play to CeeDee Lamb, and a false start that led to a punt. What makes the Smith pick even more interesting is that he dealt with his own inconsistencies in pass protection and penalties at Tulsa, but the Cowboys are counting on his upside in the run game to make an impact.

Smith is at his best climbing to the second level to dig out linebackers, something the 49ers make very difficult for opposing offensive lines with a freakishly athletic defensive front. It’s not fair to say that Smith would make no impact in this game though, as his move to guard should help the footwork issues on his tape at left tackle.

If the Cowboys don’t do better to protect Prescott and spark their run game this offseason, the pick will be deemed a total failure, and Smith is their most important piece to this puzzle.

DE De Williams

You can almost picture Dan Quinn flipping his hat backwards and standing on the Cowboys war room table to get De Williams in Dallas. The Cowboys took Williams in the second round after losing Randy Gregory this offseason, but Quinn was a fan of Williams from the start after attending his pro day.

The Cowboys did not sack Jimmy Garoppolo once in the playoff loss, only putting game pressure on the 49ers quarterback during their late rally. Garoppolo’s 16 completions were the second fewest he had in any win last season, not counting the snowy playoff game at Lambeau Field where the 49ers escaped without scoring a single offensive touchdown.

Williams will immediately give the Cowboys some flexibility on the defensive line, in a rotation with Dorance Armstrong and Parsons. Not only would this be a welcome change from the mostly static fronts the 49ers offensive line handled with ease, but Williams’ athleticism and change of direction ability would have been valuable against Deebo Samuel.

Samuel made arguably the biggest play of the game for the 49ers, scoring on their first play from scrimmage after a fourth quarter Prescott interception. The elusive run from Samuel was sprung by Parsons being reach blocked, Armstrong getting caught up in pursuit, and Tarrell Basham getting thrown to the turf at left end. It would be rare for a rookie edge defender to eat into the snaps of any of these players too much next season, but if given a chance Williams can line up in multiple techniques and beat blockers with agility.

WR Jalen Tolbert

This pick has been marked as a fan-favorite for many, and it’s easy to see why. Tolbert has come off well in interviews, put up numbers in college, and addressed a major need for the Cowboys all as a high-value third-round pick.

The image of Tolbert’s new quarterback, who personally did some recruiting before the draft, having only Connor Williams and Terence Steele to check the ball down to is a damning one the Cowboys should use as the motivation for fixing their pass attack.

But seriously, with Tolbert’s quick-twitch ability and smoothness to create separation on underneath routes, he’s a top candidate to fill the role as a scramble drill target for Prescott. Where Lamb and Gallup’s touches should mostly come in the scheme of Kellen Moore’s offense, Tolbert may be best off-script, attacking every ball in the air with an alpha mentality.

Tolbert also helps the Cowboys challenge defenses vertically with his long speed, something that would have been welcomed against the 49ers. San Francisco played a mix of aggressive defenses that pressured Prescott, as well as soft coverages that dared Dallas to run the ball against their front. Adding Tolbert to the mix gives opponents yet another option to be prepared for.

DT John Ridgeway

John Ridgeway joins Carlos Watkins, Quinton Bohanna, Chauncey Golston, Osa Odighizuwa, Trysten Hill, and Neville Gallimore at defensive tackle for the Cowboys. This is a position they haven’t used a first-round resource on, but the Cowboys deserve credit for building depth here without any player on a big contract. Similar to De Williams, Ridgeway is strong in pursuit with the ability to push the pocket. His initial punch and strong base allow him to flow with plays down the line, disengaging and rallying to the ball to make tackles.

It may be somewhat of an uphill battle for Ridgeway to see the field as a rookie, but his flashes in run defense are something every team covets no matter their opponent - especially a 49ers team that ran 37 times for 169 yards in the playoff win.

Even with this glass half full approach to how the Cowboys potentially see their rookies stepping up in 2022, it’s clear the Cowboys felt their team was close and simply ran into a rough matchup with the 49ers. So they spent two picks on the offensive line and added a receiver with starting potential in the third round.

The Cowboys also know defense can be a quarterbacks best friend (looking at you, Garoppolo), and added more high upside prospects to be coached up under Dan Quinn.

The year-to-year matchups are impossible to predict in this league, so it’s anybody’s guess if the Cowboys will get a shot at playoff revenge against the 49ers, but Kyle Shanahan’s team played on an entirely different level for much of this contest. The Cowboys have put the work in through the draft to make sure the same isn’t said about their next playoff game, hoping for an even longer wait this year to field tough offseason questions about using free agency and trades to also improve the roster.

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