For a team that’s generally praised for its work in the NFL draft, the Cowboys have had a rough history with their second-round picks. Over the last three decades, their yield from this valuable commodity has been dreadfully low and one of the major contributors to the team’s lack of championship success. After a few positive signs lately, could they finally be breaking the cycle of disappointment?
Why do we cap this at three decades? Well, the issues seemed to start after the selection of Hall-of-Fame guard Larry Allen in 1994. In fact, some have even dubbed the Cowboys’ second-round woes as “The Curse of Larry Allen,” given they obtained arguably the greatest guard in NFL history in such surprising fashion.
But even for several drafts before getting Allen, Dallas was in its bag with second-round picks. It started in 1988 with linebacker Ken Norton Jr, one of their defensive leaders for the first two Super Bowls of the 90s. It continued with household names like fullback Daryl “Moose” Johnston in 1989 and safety Darren Woodson in 1992.
Even some of the less reputable picks from those years were still solid contributors. Linebackers Dixon Edwards (1991) and Darrin Smith (1993) were starters for Super Bowl teams. wide receiver Kevin Williams (1993) was a solid backup to Michael Irvin and Alvin Harper and a return specialist.
The Cowboys even drafted some NFL icons who made their mark with other franchises. In 1989 they drafted guard Steve Wisniewski, who became an all-time great with the Raiders, but then traded him in the move that led to Moose being drafted. There was also the well-known selection of receiver Jimmy Smith in 1993, who didn’t catch on due to injuries but went on to have a storied career with the Jaguars.
What a sharp contrast it’s been since then. Starting with the selections of RB Sherman Williams, TE Kendell Watkins, and G Shane Hannah in 1995, the Cowboys suddenly developed impotence with their second-round picks. They haven’t all been bad, such as LB Randall Godfrey in 1996, OT Flozell Adams in 1998, G/C Andre Gurode in 2002, and DE DeMarcus Lawrence in 2014. They’ve also landed a few solid supporting talents like LB Kevin Burnett, TE Anthony Fasano, and CB Chidobe Awuzie.
But the misses far outweigh the hits for a long time now. Some of these failures have been circumstantial; the talent was there but either the fit, opportunity, or injuries derailed the potential. Or in some cases, Dallas took fliers on guys with red flags and then found out exactly why they were available in the second round.
Linebacker Sean Lee is a classic example of this. When healthy, the 2010 second-rounder was easily one of the best linebackers in football. His play diagnosis and versatility both against the run and pass were elite. But Lee’s inability to stay off the injured list, which was seen in college as well and led to his lowered draft stock, haunted the Cowboys throughout his career.
The same happened with linebacker Jaylon Smith. While the team got a couple of strong years out of him, Smith’s body also broke down about as quickly as he received his second contract. That brief stint of Pro Bowl play wasn’t a great return on the 34th overall pick.
Tight end Martellus Bennett proved his talent once he finally got out of Dallas but had to get out from under Jason Witten’s shadow to blossom. The inability to find a consistent role for Bennett, even back when the Cowboys were desperately trying to institute a two-TE system, made it a failed pick.
The saga includes the personal issues of guys like QB Quincy Carter, WR Antonio Bryant, and DE Randy Gregory that got in the way of their talent. That has reared its head again recently with CB Kelvin Joseph, who may not make it past training camp in 2023 in just his third season.
Of course, others have just been flat-out busts. Tony Dixon, Soloman Page, Jacob Rogers, Bruce Carter, Gavin Escobar, and Trysten Hill were guys who just never seemed to put it together on the professional level. Some found backup work or starting jobs on bad teams but hardly proved worthy of where they were originally drafted.
While the Joseph pick in 2021 is still a black eye, Dallas has seemingly improved on this trend. They stole Trevon Diggs in 2020 with the 51st overall pick, who is now one of the top corners in all football. They also picked up Sam Williams last year, who’s already flashing exciting potential in the pass-rush rotation. They also got some solid years out of Connor Williams and Awuzie from more recent drafts.
This improvement has to continue if the Cowboys want to push beyond the borderline of contender status. We certainly don’t expect every second-round pick to be a Larry Allen, Darren Woodson, or Trevon Diggs, but they have to start getting more consistent returns on this significant draft asset. Hopefully, with the 58th overall pick in 2023, Dallas can avoid adding to their general second-round disappointments.