The Dallas Cowboys potentially needing first-round pick Tyler Smith to start right away at left tackle is just one example of the type of high expectations they’ll have for first- and second-year players to contend this season. Whether or not this is a team rebuilding on the fly, or going through a a total overhaul, could be determined quickly depending on how their nine picks pan out in year one, with the preseason already showing some promising signs for later-round picks.
With the preseason now behind the Cowboys and all focus shifting towards the opener against Tampa Bay, let’s take another look at how the Cowboys 2022 draft class is ready to fill roster needs.
The immediate reaction to the Cowboys drafting Tyler Smith was not a very positive one from Cowboys Nation, with the added benefit of him filling in at tackle while starting at guard doing little to sell the pick. Now, with hardly any left tackle reps and a lingering ankle injury, the Cowboys rookie could have massive shoes to fill with Tyron Smith out.
Tyler Smith has played well at left guard, and if the Cowboys have seen enough in the run game to keep him there they’ll be falling back on their only tackle options on the roster all offseason. Josh Ball, Matt Waletzko, and Aviante Collins all got work against the Seahawks, but this group has struggled to give any of the Cowboys QBs time to throw.
If Smith has to prove he can be a starting left tackle much sooner than the Cowboys prepared for, they’ll also need an option at guard. Connor McGovern and Matt Farniok are both swing options should Tyler Biadasz anchor down the starting center job, but neither give the Cowboys what Smith has shown at left guard this preseason.
No matter what position Tyler Smith lines up at, he’s going to go through his growing pains, but never getting a chance at guard before moving to tackle provides a huge risk for the Cowboys critical 24th overall pick.
The Cowboys second-round pick was a favorite prospect of defensive coordinator Dan Quinn during the draft process, and Quinn has made good on this by getting the rookie plenty of reps this preseason. Sam Williams beat first-round pick Charles Cross at left tackle against the Seahawks for a sack, and has shown off a rare mix of speed and power in all three games.
Defensive end could be the Cowboys deepest position, which makes it even more impressive that Williams has stood out enough to warrant snaps. This Cowboys defense is not one an opposing team wants to get in long down-and-distances against, with the speed of Micah Parsons, Dorance Armstrong, Dante Fowler, and Williams all at their disposal.
The Cowboys defensive interior has look improved against the run this preseason too, giving a pass rusher like Williams more opportunity to see the field. Williams can set the edge against the run himself, and even play inside where Dallas has Osa Odighizuwa and Carlos Watkins.
The Cowboys sold the Randy Gregory departure as the move that opened up re-signing Armstrong and adding Fowler, two defensive ends for the price of one. Now the Cowboys have three legitimate right side players here, with Williams ready to do whatever he can to keep this Cowboys defense among the league’s best.
Expectations for third-round pick Jalen Tolbert have been unfairly high since his arrival, entering a wide open competition at receiver for the Cowboys. Having just moved on from Amari Cooper and Cedrick Wilson, the chance for Tolbert to work his personal connection to Dak Prescott was evident right away.
Just how much Tolbert has been held back by playing with backup QBs throwing him the ball remains to be seen, but his route running and ability to beat defenders to the ball have been an issue. Tolbert will learn quickly he can’t rely on blowing past defensive backs at this level like he did on vertical routes at South Alabama, but having his speed on the field is still a positive for the Cowboys offense.
Tolbert’s ability to clear out defenders and open up throws to CeeDee Lamb or Simi Fehoko is still valuable, but he has a long way to go if he wants to stay on the field when both Michael Gallup and James Washington return. The Cowboys have taken great strides at receiver all through training camp with new faces getting acclimated, possibly giving them the benefit of time that all third-round picks need - Jalen Tolbert being no exception despite the glaring positional need.
The Cowboys cutdowns prior to the Seahawks game included a slight surprise with veteran tight end Jeremy Sprinkle. This was seen as good news for UDFA Peyton Hendershot making the final roster, but also a sign of what the Cowboys are looking for at the position.
Valuing receiving ability over in-line blocking, the Cowboys have seen rookie Jake Ferguson fill in nicely for starter Dalton Schultz this preseason. Moving the pocket and targeting these tight ends are simple ways the Cowboys can make up for a suspect offensive line in pass protection, with Schultz and Ferguson both ready to be big parts of the passing game.
Ferguson has good run-after-the catch ability and finds openings in zone defense well, and if given enough snaps could be the reason the Cowboys move on from Schultz after playing out this season on the franchise tag.
Matt Waletzko was back from an injury scare against the Seahawks, playing 46% of the team’s snaps at tackle. Waletzko was supposed to be needed competition for Josh Ball at swing tackle this offseason, but the training camp setback gave Ball more job security than he’s earned at this spot. Waletzko still isn’t ready to see many meaningful snaps, but his length and movement ability in pass protection is hard to find on this roster currently.
Ball’s best plays have come as a downhill run blocker, but the Cowboys desperately need tackles that can keep their franchise QB upright. Waletzko could be called on to fill in at left tackle or for Terence Steele on the right side, getting the same “on the job training” that a first-round pick like Smith will have as an immediate starter.
Already, DaRon Bland looks like the steal of this Cowboys draft class. The cornerback out of Fresno State has pushed second-year players Nahshon Wright and Kelvin Joseph, by fitting like a hand in glove in Quinn’s system.
Bland is a lockdown corner in man coverage, with the length and physicality to reroute receivers down the field. Bland’s game is the perfect complement to Trevon Diggs and his ability to take the ball away on the other side, forcing his way into the secondary rotation in a way that could lead to the Cowboys moving on from Wright or Joseph.
Against the Seahawks, Bland flashed in run support and isn’t afraid to throw his body around. The Cowboys have a surplus at the nickel position with Jourdan Lewis, Anthony Brown, Jayron Kearse, and Israel Mukuamu all capable of playing here. Bland was projected as a potential nickel player, but has looked more than strong enough on the outside to play corner in any set.
The Cowboys are no strangers to making redshirt picks. In 2021 they did it with Josh Ball and Simi Fehoko, in hopes of seeing both get on the field this season. Linebacker Damone Clark is this year’s down-the-road pick, though the Cowboys are optimistic the LSU linebacker can possibly return later this season.
Unlike the Tyron Smith situation, the Cowboys aren’t relying on Clark playing at all in 2022 though, adding veteran Anthony Barr while Leighton Vander Esch and Jabril Cox have returned to form.
The Cowboys have a bright present and future at defensive tackle. Second-year players Osa Odighizuwa and Quinton Bohanna have been two of their best players here, with Chauncey Golston, Carlos Watkins, Trysten Hill, and Neville Gallimore also in the rotation.
This doesn’t leave much of an opening for rookie John Ridgeway to see the field, but there is more than enough to work with from his college tape at Arkansas to make 2022 a developmental year for Ridgeway. Seeing the most snaps he has all preseason against the Seahawks, the Cowboys are trying to get Ridgeway ready to play as another run defender, but face a good problem to have with established depth at the 1-tech position.
With the Cowboys keeping Micah Parsons on ice this preseason, rookie Devin Harper has eaten up valuable snaps at middle linebacker. Looking natural at the position, Harper’s speed and pursuit angles make him hard to block out of a play.
When the Cowboys do want to play defense with traditional linebackers on the field, they have proven names like Vander Esch and Barr, but a player like Harper could help in other packages - especially when Parsons is lined up at defensive end.
To have any path for a sixth-round pick to make an immediate impact says a lot about the turnaround Dan Quinn has made with the Cowboys defense, not needing Harper to be a star but just a reliable depth piece in year one.
The Cowboys offensive line situation with Tyler Smith is their most pressing need with the regular season upon them, but if they do get it fixed, they have a deep rookie class mostly ready to contribute. The Cowboys added late-round depth at positions of strength that have stayed healthy this offseason, potentially found a surprise starter in DaRon Bland, and a defensive end in Sam Williams that can help make this defense elite.