If you had polled Dallas Cowboys fans after the 2022 NFL draft concluded, many would have given the team a poor grade. Drafting an offensive lineman out of Tulsa University with a penalty problem in the first round, seemingly reaching on a defensive end in the second round, and fixing their wide receiver problem by selecting a wide receiver out from South Alabama University in the third round, did not seem like a promising way to address the holes on the team.
Many people felt like the Cowboys were going to take a step back in 2022. They followed their 12-win season in 2021 by releasing veteran tackle La’el Collins and trading veteran wide reciever Amari Cooper to the Cleveland Browns. They did not do anything significant to address their sudden holes in free agency, and with their draft appearing weak in the eyes of many analysts, people believed the team would fall off from their success.
Fast-forwarding to Week 18 of the 2022 regular season, and the Cowboys have done anything but fall off. They have 12 wins, and are looking to get their 13th win against the Washington Commanders in the final game of the season. What has contributed so strongly to their success this year? The draft class that was so heavily criticized just months ago. Here are some of the rookies who have made an immediate impact this season.
Round 1: Tyler Smith, OT, Tulsa
When the team selected Tyler Smith with the 24th pick in the draft, some fans felt the team had reached. Coming in at 6’5” and 332 pounds out of college, he had a lot of the raw tools you look for in the NFL. A big body who can move well, with natural strength at the position. However, he lacked some fundamentals and technique. At Tulsa he committed 16 penalties in his final season, 12 of them being holding calls. With the Cowboys leading the NFL in penalties in 2021, this selection was not well-received among fans.
The Cowboys intended on playing Smith at left guard next to veteran left tackle Tyron Smith, but when Tyron went down with an injury before the season, the coaching staff was forced to move Tyler out to left tackle. Not only has Tyler Smith managed to hold his own at the position, he has played so well that the team felt it was best to move Tyron Smith to right tackle when he returned from injury.
Smith has committed just eight enforced penalties through 16 games, and has been incredibly impressive in his rookie season. According to PFF, he has played 1,077 offensive snaps this season and has allowed just six sacks. Pretty good for a rookie offensive lineman who had been taking reps all offseason for a different position.
Where Smith really excels is in the run game. He has had several plays this year where he has showed off his ability to get down the field and clear a lane for Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott.
#73 Tyler Smith just steamrolling on his pull pic.twitter.com/sKppfdfF7u— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) December 27, 2022
Round 2: Sam Williams, Ole Miss, EDGE
There was a lot of hype in the Cowboys building leading up to the draft about edge rusher Sam Williams. Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn was really impressed with him, and owner Jerry Jones seemed to take notice as well.
Williams on the Cowboys: “They’re on me a lot. Mr. Jones said he needs another Micah Parsons. I’d love to be a Cowboy.”
Throughout his rookie season, Williams has made the most of his opportunities and has showed flashes of his talent. In a front-seven with several key players such as DeMarcus Lawrence, Dorance Armstrong, and Micah Parson, Williams has still made impactful plays. He has three sacks, one forced fumble, and three fumble recoveries.
On 14 snaps yesterday, Sam Williams had 2 sacks a forced fumble and recovery. Rookie out of Ole Miss making the most of his opportunities even beating Penei Sewell on the forced fumble! Cowboys defense is not fair— JM Football (@JomboyMediaFB) October 24, 2022
Round 4: Jake Ferguson, Wisconsin, TE
A nice surprise in the draft class was how good tight end Jake Ferguson has looked this season. His speed and athleticism has been a great complement to tight end Dalton Schultz this season. While Schultz has been one of Dak Prescott’s favorite targets the past two seasons, Ferguson has shown so much promise that the Cowboys front office might feel more comfortable letting Schultz take a bigger contract in free agency for another team.
Ferguson only has 18 receptions for 170 receiving yards and two touchdowns this season. However, his ability as an athlete has leaped off the screen in his receptions.
Round 5: DaRon Bland, CB, Fresno State
DaRon Bland might be the biggest steal in the entire 2022 draft. He has been incredible this season, producing a team-high five interceptions, despite not starting a majority of the season. Bland is a player who would likely not have had a big impact this season if not given opportunities due to injuries in the secondary. With CB’s Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis suffering season-ending injuries, the doors opened for Bland to make his impact, and he certainly has.
DaRon Bland has been one of the biggest steals from the 2022 draft. Drafted in the 5th round with the 167th pick. He’s now starting for the Cowboys and has 5 INTs on the season #DallasCowboys pic.twitter.com/VGFSTzm17H— Ernie (@es3_09) December 25, 2022
Round 5: Damone Clark, LSU, LB
Damone Clark might be the most remarkable story from the 2022 draft. Clark was incredible in college before suffering a herniated disk in his back. He was considered a second-round prospect by many scouts, however, he fell to the fifth round because many doubted he could play in the foreseeable future in the NFL. He underwent spinal fusion surgery which was, at minimum, expected to knock him out the entire 2022 season.
Not only did he not miss the entire season, but Clark was able to recover in time to be active in Week 8 of the season for the Cowboys against the Chicago Bears, and has shined since being on the field. When linebacker Anthony Barr got sidelined due to injury, Clark stepped in and made an impact. He took 67 total reps in his debut between defense and special teams, an incredible feat for a player who could have never played football again.
Since that game, Clark has continued to be an impactful player for the Cowboys defense, and is getting better every week.
One of the things I love about #Cowboys LB Damone Clark is that he doesn't miss tackles.— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) December 30, 2022
Zero missed tackles since Week 10.
Not only have their draft selections made an impact, even some of their undrafted free agents have shown promise as well. Both rookie TE Peyton Hendershot and rookie RB Malik Davis have shown flashes this season, despite not being selected in the draft.
If the Cowboys front office has not already done enough to prove they deserve the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their draft selections, then this season’s draft class has to be enough proof. Not only have the Cowboys found multiple “diamonds in the rough” with their selections, they have used their premium draft picks on talent that has not only made an immediate impact this season, but is set to continue being great for the Cowboys for years to come.