This is the week of the NFL Combine, in case you haven’t noticed. It is accorded some significance since it is the first event of the offseason. Teams will gather to take an up close look at the participants, most of whom are going to be taken in the NFL Draft, which is about two months away. We are going to see live tweeting of things like height, weight, and the always fascinating hand size. 40-yard dash times will be judged as impressive or disappointing. And on and on. This is always a big event for the Dallas Cowboys, who rely as heavily on the draft for roster building as any team in the league. That goes hand in hand with what can only be described as an aversion to making any big moves in outside free agency.
They have certainly done well of late. The last three first-round picks for them are CeeDee Lamb, Micah Parsons, and Tyler Smith, all immediate starters who have proven they deserve their jobs. It has counterbalanced the annual bargain-bin free agent approach. The Cowboy have now been to the playoffs two years in a row, a not insignificant accomplishment in a league where churn applies to who gets into the postseason year to year.
However, the team clearly is still trying to get over the hump. They have not been to the NFC championship game, much less the Super Bowl, in decades. The argument that they are not properly using all the tools available to them is not new. And this season, they are at risk of trying to do too much with the draft resources available. Frankly, those resources are just too limited.
Being well below the midpoint of available draft capital is in itself a bit worrying. Dallas sits 27th in the draft order, although they will draft 26th overall thanks to a forfeited pick earlier in the first round. They sit a bit higher in this ranking due to the three compensatory picks they have, but those are in the fifth and sixth rounds, which are hard to turn into quality players.
Further, last year is an object lesson of just how easy it is for one wrong thing to offset a bunch of good ones. Take a look at the 2022 draft class for Dallas and how they fared.
Round 1, pick 24: OT Tyler Smith. He came in and became an immediate starter in the wake of the Tyron Smith injury, and performed well. He is the future at left tackle.
Round 2, pick 56: EDGE Sam Williams. He had a much more limited impact with a crowded group of pass rushers last year, but seems to have the talent to play a bigger role going forward.
Round 3, pick 88: WR Jalen Tolbert. Had no impact on offense at all, played mostly on special teams.
Round 4, pick 129: TE Jake Ferguson. Was not used a lot, but flashed some really good stuff. It appears his performance makes moving on from Dalton Schultz easy to do.
Round 5, pick 155: OT Matt Waletzko. Hurt before the season. Could be an asset as a swing tackle, but the jury is clearly still out.
Round 5, pick 167: CB DaRon Bland. Draft steal number one. Forced into playing a lot more than planned by the injuries to Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown. Will be contending for a starting job this year, and at worst is excellent depth at the position.
Round 5, pick 176: LB Damone Clark. Draft steal number two. Had surgery after the combine last year and it was uncertain he would ever see the field as a rookie. He came back well ahead of schedule and looks to be a potential starter sooner than later.
Round 5, pick 178: DT John Ridgeway. The one that got away. The team got cute and wound up having him claimed by the Washington Commanders, where he was a solid part of their defensive tackle rotation. Good pick, bad decision-making.
Round 6, pick 193: LB Devin Harper. Limited play, but you can’t say he was bad value for such a late selection.
Overall, this was a pretty impressive group. It would not be surprising to see as many as four of them starting in the opening game this year.
But that is a very hard success rate to maintain. And the glaring failure turned out to have a very big impact. The Cowboys had an issue at wide receiver all year. After failing to properly address the position in free agency with the James Washington signing and with Michael Gallup coming off injury, they were obviously counting on Tolbert to contribute more. He didn’t, and the team was forced to sign T.Y. Hilton late in the season. Hilton did much more than Tolbert, but is now a free agent. The failure to do enough at the position has now carried over to this season.
It would be grossly premature to declare Tolbert a bust. It would be equally irresponsible to depend on him to step up this year. There is no indication that the ownership is going to change its parsimonious ways in free agency and sign a wide receiver that is likely to help the situation. Based on the history of the past decade, there are signs that the plan this year will be to find wide receiver help in the draft.
There is an argument to be made that Tolbert was an exception last year, especially in light of the other players in the Dallas draft class. However, based on history, it is more likely that the rest of the class were the exceptions. All draft picks are a gamble. The Cowboys seem overdue for the odds to go against them. Complicating things is that this is not seen as a particularly strong wide receiver class. It just makes relying on a pick to fix the position more risky.
Of course, free agents are a gamble as well. They do, however, have an NFL résumé to consider. Dallas also needs to back away from looking for injured players they think are ready to come back. It is possible the success of the team this season, especially on offense, will hinge on getting at least one good receiver to field along with Lamb. Two would be better. The argument for them to open the salary cap purse strings is as strong as it has ever been. Stephen Jones has said the team is “one click” away.
What do the Cowboys have to do to get by the divisional round of the playoffs? Here’s what Stephen Jones had to say to me from the Combine: pic.twitter.com/W0cBK7nrhu— Todd Archer (@toddarcher) February 27, 2023
Well, here’s a big click for you. Go sign a quality wider receiver. They aren’t looking for a WR1, because they have that. They need a solid WR2. Then still make it a priority in the draft. This is the most important roster problem for them to fix. Many of the others are less risky to rely on the draft plus some less expensive free agent moves to fix. But wide receiver cries out for a much more aggressive approach.