The Dallas Cowboys’ season unfortunately came to a bitter end in the playoffs, which means it’s time to look forward and say what 31 teams say every season: better luck next year. The Cowboys have several things going for them right now, not the least of which is their crop of talented players who just completed their rookie seasons. Let’s see how each of them did.
OL Tyler Smith
Maybe now we’ll learn to stop criticizing the Cowboys’ first-round draft picks. Just a year after Micah Parsons made everyone (including yours truly) look foolish for hating on his selection, Tyler Smith endured similar criticism and subsequently shut everyone up.
Smith spent almost the entire offseason learning to play left guard, and then moved back to left tackle - his position in college - the day before the season opener. While Smith did eventually rotate back in at guard later in the season, he spent the majority of the year at left tackle. And Smith massively outperformed his expectations, too.
Was it perfect? No, not by a longshot. Smith led the team in penalties with 15, more than the next two most penalized Cowboys combined. That was a major issue for Smith in college, and it continued into his rookie year. Smith also led the team in pressures (40) and sacks (6) allowed on the year; Connor McGovern was second in both categories with 23 pressures and two sacks.
That said, there is still plenty to feel good about with Smith. He made strides as a pass blocker throughout the year, not giving up a single sack in his final five games. Smith was also consistently dominant as a run blocker all year, helping pave the way for one of the most efficient running games in the league. Smith also put up some good tape going against this year’s sack leader, Nick Bosa.
Smith was always going to be a work in progress as a rookie, but it’s easy to see why the Cowboys fell in love with him in the draft process. Assuming both Terence Steele and Tyron Smith are back with the team next year, the younger Smith is likely heading back to guard. But for the first time in a long time, Cowboys fans have a great reason to feel good about life after Tyron.
EDGE Sam Williams
A lot of people expected the Cowboys pass rush to fall off a cliff after losing Randy Gregory in free agency, but that wasn’t anywhere close to happening. In fact, they fielded a unit so utterly dominant that there were hardly any snaps to go around for an impressive rookie by the name of Sam Williams.
Let’s be clear, though: Williams has the potential to end up as the best player in this whole rookie class. Not once did he play on even half the defensive snaps in a game, and Williams averaged just 27% of snaps on the full season. Despite that, he finished sixth on the team in pressures with 22, ahead of the likes of Chauncey Golston and Neville Gallimore. He also recorded four sacks.
Williams generated pressure on 11.5% of his pass rush reps this year. For context, Micah Parsons set the league ablaze with an 18.4% rate, while DeMarcus Lawrence’s 12.3% is much closer to what’s considered really good pass rush work.
Williams also showed off his skills as a run stopper, too. He finished with more run stops than Gallimore, Quinton Bohanna, Carlos Watkins, and even Johnathan Hankins. He routinely shot into the backfield and disrupted plays regardless of whether they were runs or passes.
The only reason Williams didn’t play more is because the guys he was sitting in favor of - Parsons, Lawrence, Dorance Armstrong, and Dante Fowler - all finished in the top four of pressures on the team. It’s hard to justify the rookie playing over those guys with the seasons they had, but going forward Williams is primed for a massive breakout.
WR Jalen Tolbert
This was easily the biggest disappointment of the draft class, and possibly the entire season, for the Cowboys. Jalen Tolbert was billed early on as a potential difference maker as a rookie. The team’s confidence in him was a motivating factor in not upgrading the receiver room more, but when the season began Tolbert was on the inactive list.
He eventually made it onto the field when Simi Fehoko went down for the year, but Tolbert never played more than 25 snaps in a game. He was targeted just three times, catching two passes for a total of 12 yards. It’s telling that the team opted instead to court Odell Beckham Jr. and later sign a very seasoned T.Y. Hilton instead of giving Tolbert more run in games.
After such a disappointing rookie year, Tolbert will have a lot to prove going into 2023.
TE Jake Ferguson
Jake Ferguson didn’t have the highest of expectations coming into the year, but he quickly emerged as the top tight end behind Dalton Schultz, beating out veterans like Sean McKeon and Jeremy Sprinkle. Coming out of Wisconsin, Ferguson was mostly known for his blocking, and that was the case for his rookie year; Ferguson was blocking on 74.5% of his offensive snaps throughout the year.
When Ferguson did have a chance to work as a pass catcher, though, he really shined. On the year, Ferguson caught 19 of his 22 passes for 174 yards and two touchdowns. He also finished second on the team in yards after the catch per reception, behind just Tony Pollard, showcasing his impressive speed with the ball in his hands.
Ferguson’s rookie year wasn’t anything special, but he does make for an intriguing decision for this front office. Schultz spent the year on the franchise tag, and it’s unclear what the team will do with him going forward. But Ferguson’s solid first year might be encouraging enough for Dallas to feel comfortable moving on.
OT Matt Waletzko
Matt Waletzko was expected to fill in as a crucial depth piece for the Cowboys offensive line this year, and it appeared early on he was going to beat out second-year player Josh Ball for the swing tackle job. But Waletzko suffered a shoulder injury during the preseason that ultimately required surgery, thus ending his season. He should be back in the mix for that swing tackle role next year, though, as Ball did nothing to solidify himself there this season.
CB DaRon Bland
For much of the first half of the year, DaRon Bland was an afterthought. Now, though, he’s firmly entrenched himself as the second best cornerback on the roster. That’s quite a jump for the fifth-round pick who, just two years ago, was playing FCS football at Sacramento State.
Bland impressed during the preseason with his physicality, and that came in handy when Jourdan Lewis was lost for the year in Week 7. Bland stepped in as the starting slot corner and quickly overcame some initial bumps in the road to round into form. Then, shortly after Anthony Brown was also lost for the year, Bland began to see reps on the outside as well. By the time the playoffs began, Dan Quinn had moved Bland to the outside full time, with safety Israel Mukuamu managing the slot.
Bland finished the season with the team lead in interceptions (five) and tied Brown for the second most pass breakups (seven). He also posted a better passer rating allowed than both Brown and Trevon Diggs. With Brown’s contract expiring this summer, and Lewis entering the final year of his as well, it will be interesting to see how Bland’s emergence affects those decisions.
LB Damone Clark
Damone Clark is an incredible story. He was a likely second-round pick after a strong final season at LSU, but spinal fusion surgery leading up to the draft scared teams away. Dallas ended up selecting him near the end of the fifth round, and Clark was widely expected to spend the year on the NFI list while recovering from surgery.
Clark had other plans. He was activated off the NFI list and made his season debut in Week 8 against the Bears, immediately getting thrown into the fire when Anthony Barr was hurt. Later in the season, he stepped back into a starting role when Leighton Vander Esch was injured. Clark ultimately started five games in 10 appearances and finished with 47 tackles and two forced fumbles.
There were times where Clark definitely looked like a rookie, and pass coverage was a clear problem area for him. But Clark also looked the part of the dominant run stopper he was in college. Both Barr and Vander Esch are set to be free agents this summer, but the Cowboys likely don’t feel as pressed to keep them both after the strong start Clark displayed.
LB Devin Harper
When Devin Harper was first drafted, many raved about the value he would add to special teams. Early on, that’s exactly how John Fassel used the rookie. Harper played on a majority of special teams snaps through the first three games of the season, but then suffered an Achilles injury that ultimately ended his season. He should be in line to resume his key role on special teams next year.
TE Peyton Hendershot
As an undrafted free agent, Peyton Hendershot faced long odds to even make the roster. But just like his fellow rookie tight end, Ferguson, he beat out veterans to make the roster and settle into a TE3 role in an offense that developed a strong affinity for three tight end sets.
Unlike Ferguson, Hendershot wasn’t known as much of a blocker in college, but he was still tasked with plenty of blocking assignments throughout his rookie year. He was blocking on nearly 62% of all offensive snaps, but generally made good on his pass catching opportunities. Hendershot caught 11 of his 16 targets for 103 yards and two touchdowns. He also had one carry, which he took for a two yard touchdown.
Hendershot also had some rookie moments - a badly bobbled pass turned into an interception, and he was penalized six times between offense and special teams. But Hendershot demonstrated exceptional focus and work ethic to overcome those moments and improve as the year went on. The Cowboys have a solid, young tight end duo between he and Ferguson moving forward.
S Markquese Bell
Markquese Bell was the Cowboys’ prized undrafted free agent signing, and many expected him to be drafted in the sixth or seventh round. Bell’s unique skillset saw him deployed in a hybrid role - not unlike that of Jayron Kearse - during the preseason. Ultimately, Bell was a frequent member of the inactive list, and he primarily played special teams when he was active. That’s to be expected with how deep this safety group was this year, but Bell brings a lot of potential in this defense into 2023.
RB Malik Davis
Malik Davis entered training camp with long odds of making the roster, but an impressive preseason landed him a practice squad spot after what must have been a very difficult decision between he and veteran special teamer Rico Dowdle. But when Dowdle landed on the injured reserve in mid-October, Davis was called up.
While Davis primarily played on special teams, he ended up seeing quite a bit of action on offense throughout the year, both in garbage time of blowouts and when injuries to Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard pushed him up to RB2. In total, Davis carried the ball 38 times for 161 yards, scoring one touchdown. He also caught six of his seven targets for 63 yards; all but one of his receptions went for a first down.
As has been a recurring theme on this rookie report, Davis’ presence adds another dimension to several pending contract decisions this summer. Pollard’s rookie deal is set to expire, and Elliott may be ready to restructure his deal as well. Where does Davis fit in after showing his ability to be a reliable rusher for this offense? Only time will tell.
One thing is for sure, the Cowboys’ future is looking really bright with this impressive group of rookies.