If I were to come up with a theme for the Dallas Cowboys’ 2023 NFL Draft, it would be that you don’t know what you don’t know. We all obsessed about how the team needed to go heavy on offense this year to add weapons and better protection for Dak Prescott. Instead, they would wind up with a 50/50 split, but also using three of their first four picks on defense, including their first-round pick, defensive tackle Mazi Smith. If you consider the first four rounds as the premium picks in the draft, the only one they used on offense was in the second, for TE Luke Schoonmaker. (Fun fact: Schoonmaker is Dutch for cleaner.)
Obviously, we were completely off on what the team wanted to accomplish. Looking at the draft as a whole and assuming this reflects their priorities, it is fairly clear that they were pretty content with the state of the passing game on both sides of the ball, but really needed to shore up the run game, again on both sides of the line, while filling one of the main concerns on offense, replacing Prescott safety blanket Dalton Schultz.
In that light, the team has to get a lot of credit for what they did. Start at the top. This offseason’s most important highlight was not that they filled a couple of huge needs with Stephon Gilmore and Brandin Cooks, but how they did it. The team traded late-round picks to acquire the players. This was a noticeable change from past practice, when they frankly overvalued late-round draft picks. This is likely more value than they would have gotten had they used those picks to draft late-round prospects when taken in context.
Smith was another major shift in philosophy. The last time they used a first-round pick on a defensive tackle was in 1991 to take Russell Maryland. This neglect has long been bemoaned by many fans and writers. We finally saw recognition of how important the position is. Smith has all the hallmarks of being very good, with incredible strength and great mobility. He not only has the size and skills to really plug up the middle of the line, he showed an ability to get after the quarterback, although that will be something the coaching staff will be working to improve. Most importantly, he almost demands a double team, which is going to free up someone else on the line. When you consider that much of the time he may be lined up with DeMarcus Lawrence, Micah Parsons, and Osa Odighizuwa, you can only wonder who will benefit the most.
Second-round pick Schoonmaker is much more like Schultz than either Luke Ferguson or Peyton Hendershot. He is more versatile, able to be a real factor as a receiver and capable of contributing as a run blocker. If Will McClay and his scouting staff got this right, this will help the offense. A couple of things were also interesting to see on Twitter. First, a comparison of the athleticism of Schultz and Schoonmaker:
It's more than marginally pic.twitter.com/ovLaD8DiI7— Andrew Reynolds (@AMFReynolds1) April 30, 2023
And this is something to really think about:
The Michigan TE is no joke. That ball goes behind him a lot. https://t.co/LrH0qfFzD6— BryanBroaddus (@BryanBroaddus) April 29, 2023
A quick look at some plays, such as the video in this tweet, bears this out.
Luke Schoonmaker Michigan— Erik Turner (@ErikJTurner) March 4, 2023
*Tall, lean target
*Agile releasing off the LOS
*Fluid body control
*Extension of the offensive line
*Blocking immediately pops
Gets hands inside
Constantly fighting to win hand leverage
Creates lift… pic.twitter.com/3MkpAkBWkV
Prescott is simply a more accurate passer than Schoonmaker had in college. That alone should help him be more productive as a pro.
The selection of Overshown in the third was another move to shore up the run defense, with some comparisons being made to Jayron Kearse. Dan Quinn has been very good using Kearse in a hybrid safety/linebacker role, and this could be the plan for the rookie. That would be valuable depth, as the defense tends to be less effective if Kearse is unavailable.
The Cowboys now have two Fehokos on the roster, although Simi and Viliami are not related. The newest adds depth to the defensive end position, but there has already been some chatter that Fehoko could spend some time inside as a pass-rushing DT. That is something Chauncey Golston does on occasion, so it will be interesting to see if Fehoko follows suit. If any of that happens, someone may move ahead of Neville Gallimore on the depth chart.
One thing that was not very satisfying for many was that Dallas waited until the fifth round to take an offensive lineman, Asim Richards. He was primarily a tackle in college, but as we know, the Cowboys are fond of finding college OTs they can move inside to guard. (See: Tyler Smith.) And this definitely looks like something the team is looking at. Hard.
Mike Solari, #Cowboys OL coach, confirms Dallas views Asim Richards as guard/tackle talent.— Patrik [No C] Walker (@VoiceOfTheStar) April 29, 2023
My take: Will get plenty of work at LG this summer/preseason but also a tackle for flexibility reasons (e.g., Tyler Smith).
OL help is otw. https://t.co/WI0o43JMaL
While this was less draft capital than we might have wanted to see invested in the offensive line, there are choices to be made with the picks available, and you never get all you really want. As a fifth-rounder is expected to begin as a depth player, but we saw how quickly depth can be tested last year. This may be more important a selection than it initially looks.
There was a surprise when the Cowboys traded a 2024 fifth-round pick to get the first selection of the sixth round on Saturday, and took CB Eric Scott Jr. Scott was unable to perform well during pre-draft workouts due to an injury, but he was one of the 30 pre-draft visits for Dallas, so they had their eye on him. This looks like it could be another injury special like we’ve seen them take before, including Damone Clark last year and, most famously, Jaylon Smith in the second round in 2016. He is going to be jockeying for his place on the depth chart, and will likely need to bring some value on special teams. But if he develops, he could be valuable as contracts reach their end with other corners.
From a purely emotional standpoint, RB Deuce Vaughn is in the running for the best draft pick of all time for any team. The video of his own father, Chris Vaughn, making the call to tell him he had been picked is a must see.
But he also has a real chance to be the steal of this year’s draft for Dallas. Vaughn was available in the sixth round because of his height, or lack of it. His production in college seemed more than enough to justify his selection much earlier than when the Cowboys landed him, but his 5’5” stature seemed to scare teams off. The Dallas staff made a gamble he would still be around at 212. With Tony Pollard now the featured back, the team needs a change of pace option, and the elusive Vaughn could be a great one as both a runner and a receiver. Everyone has the same comp for him.
Deuce Vaughn, eh? Fascinating. Darren Sproles 2.0 - I’d rather have him than have to deal with him.— Januarian Aquarian (@iDrewItUp) April 29, 2023
Also, if you are on Twitter and aren’t already familiar with it, get used to the term “smol,” and the saga of one man who may have manifested this pick into reality.
In round seven the Cowboys took WR Jalen Brooks. He does not seem to have much chance to make an impact, but the position is at least a valuable one to load up for camp.
What is encouraging is that in addition to fixing a problem we largely ignored with Smith, the team also covered all of the pre-draft needs we thought they had. This screenshot from our draft tracker shows how they were all crossed off by the end of the draft, and if we had any idea they were going to evolve their thinking on defensive tackle, we would have included that, too.
Thanks to the offseason moves and the draft, the team has few remaining needs, and the UDFA signings are still being reported. There is certainly going to be a lot of competition over the last few spots on the 53-man roster. A lot of good competitors seem to be in place.
But there are two positions that have not been addressed at all at the time of this writing. One is quarterback. The team takes four into training camp, but only have three on the roster. They seem to be waiting to make the decision on who to add, but they will.
On a totally random and absolutely unrelated note, Ben DiNucci is sure tearing it up over in the XFL, which is close to wrapping up its season. That’s of course where KaVontae Turpin came from to make the team last year. You know, history and stuff.
The other place they need to add someone is kicker. Tristan Vizcaino is on the roster, but they will want to have a competition. Last year, that went through most of training camp before they brought Brett Maher in to win the job, which he did well until January.
Before the draft started, most of us felt good about the Dallas roster. After, there are plenty of reasons to feel even better.