Cowboys fans have been spoiled in recent years by some exceptional draft classes, and that made this year’s draft class feel more disappointing than it really was. In reality, the Cowboys returned so many starters and had so much depth entering this year that it would have been really hard for many of these rookies to actually make a difference in 2023.
Having said all that, some rookies did make a huge impact, while others fell well below their expectations. Now that the season is over, let’s evaluate each rookie’s full body of work and where their needle is pointing for next year.
iDL Mazi Smith
Mazi Smith became the first defensive tackle to be selected in the first round by Dallas since 1991, and the beefy run-stuffer immediately got fans excited. But a combination of factors contributed to an underwhelming rookie year. For starters, veteran Johnathan Hankins absorbed a majority of snaps on run downs, leaving little work for Smith to get his feet wet.
There is also the general learning curve for interior defenders, as it often takes a year or two for these players to really adjust to the NFL. Making matters worse was Smith significantly cutting down his weight, which robbed him of the heft and strength that made him dominant at Michigan. All in all, Smith had a tough time making an impact in his rookie year, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see him make a jump next year.
TE Luke Schoonmaker
Arguably no rookie had a better shot at becoming an impact starter heading into training camp than Luke Schoonmaker, as the athletic tight end was competing with two second-year players with minimal experience and no incumbent starter. But Schoonmaker started training camp late due to a re-aggravated injury from college, which set him back in the ramp up process.
That, combined with Jake Ferguson’s rapid ascension to one of the league’s best at the position, meant Schoonmaker never really had a chance. He did get a good amount of reps and finished with nine catches on 15 targets for 72 yards and two touchdowns. Going forward, though, Schoonmaker is likely going to be stuck behind Ferguson as the secondary tight end on this roster.
LB DeMarvion Overshown
At a certain point in training camp, it became evident that DeMarvion Overshown was going to have a large role in this defense right from the jump. Then, he tore his ACL in the preseason and it ended his rookie year before it ever had a chance to get started.
Of all the rookies on this list, Overshown has the best chance of making a huge leap next year, just because of what his expectations will be. The Cowboys also have a clear need at linebacker, as safety Markquese Bell logged plenty of snaps at linebacker this year. Overshown’s recovery from a pretty serious injury will, of course, be a huge point of emphasis, but the Cowboys are going to be counting down the days until they get him back on the field.
EDGE Viliami Fehoko
Viliami Fehoko never saw the field this year, spending all of his time either on the inactive list or on the injured reserve. He was drafted out of San Jose State as a bit of a tweener, and the Cowboys sought to work him into a similar role to that of Chauncey Golston.
It’s worth noting that Golston will be entering the final year of his rookie contract next year. If the Cowboys can get some work in for Fehoko and they like what they see, that might play a role in their handling of Golston’s contract.
OL Asim Richards
Asim Richards saw minimal time on the field this year, suiting up for eight games in total and playing on offense in five of those games. All five of those games saw Richards come in when the Cowboys pulled their starters in blowouts, with Richards spending time at left tackle, left guard, and right guard.
That versatility is a big reason why the coaching staff likes Richards, though they understood he was still a bit raw coming out of college. Richards likely profiles as a depth piece next year, with the ability to play multiple positions making him very valuable.
CB Eric Scott Jr.
Eric Scott Jr. never saw the field this year, finding himself inactive for every game. That wasn’t necessarily a surprise, as Scott seemed like an obvious candidate for a de facto redshirt from the moment he was drafted, especially with all the veterans in this secondary.
Scott did flash a ton in the preseason, though, and his ability on special teams suggests that he’ll likely see some action next year. Scott is still in the category of a developmental player, but the upside seems solid.
RB Deuce Vaughn
No rookie generated more hype during the preseason than Deuce Vaughn, which made it easy to get upset when he didn’t live up to those outsized expectations. The Cowboys clearly wanted Vaughn to have a role in this offense - he had 25 touches in the first five games - but it became clear that the moment was too big for him, no pun intended.
That isn’t to say that Vaughn has no future; in fact, his stellar preseason proved he can play at this level. But looking good against second- and third-stringers is different from looking good against first-stringers. Vaughn should have another shot at earning a role in this offense next year, especially with the two running backs who were ahead on the depth chart - Tony Pollard and Rico Dowdle - seeing their contracts expire this offseason.
WR Jalen Brooks
Jalen Brooks didn’t see a whole lot of action, only suiting up for seven games. Most of his offensive snaps came in garbage time of blowouts, but Brooks made a name for himself on special teams and received several shoutouts from the coaches during the course of the season.
Brooks also showed off some of his ability as a blocker on offense, easily recording the highest run-blocking grade for any Cowboys skill player. Brooks saw just six targets in the passing game, but he caught every single one for a total of 64 yards. It was a very small sample size, but Brooks showed enough to generate some excitement around his future.
G T.J. Bass
T.J. Bass entered training camp as a likely practice squad candidate, but showed enough to earn his way onto the roster. Now that the season is over, Bass has solidified himself as the most trusted depth piece on this offensive line.
In Weeks 14 and 15, Bass showed his ability to come in off the bench and play either guard spot, and he earned his second career start in Week 18 with Tyler Smith out. Bass didn’t always play at a high level, but his performance clearly improved over the course of the year, and now projects to be a core element of this depth chart.
FB Hunter Luepke
Hunter Luepke was a popular pet cat in training camp, and he secured a roster spot that lasted all year long. Not only that, but Luepke was active for every single game and frequently saw action. The Cowboys mostly used him as a traditional fullback, but they also experimented with lining him up at tight end, running back, and even in the slot.
Luepke also showed off an ability to be more than just a blocker, though he was very good at that. Luepke carried the ball six times for 19 yards with a touchdown and also caught three passes for 18 yards. Mike McCarthy had a lot of success with another versatile fullback, John Kuhn, back in his Packers days and it looks like Luepke could be the next.
K Brandon Aubrey
It’s not often that a player gets named to both the Pro Bowl and first team All-Pro list in their first year in the NFL, but that’s exactly what Brandon Aubrey just did. The former soccer player had the best year of any kicker in the league, not missing a single field goal until Week 18. He was also perfect on field goals from 40+ yards out, an impressive feat.
Aubrey did struggle in his final two games, missing a field goal against the Commanders and an extra point (albeit an extra long one) against the Packers. But the level of consistency is still inspiring, and the Cowboys should feel very good about their kicker moving forward.
LB Tyrus Wheat
Tyrus Wheat started out on the practice squad this year, but he got the call up early on. Wheat primarily worked as a special teamer, and he performed so well in that role that he remained an active player until the playoff game. He finished the year with the ninth most special teams snaps on the team despite not playing in a game until Week 6.
Wheat also saw minimal action on defense, mostly in blowouts, and recorded two tackles on the year. He’s likely not going to be in the mix for much action on defense next year, but Wheat seems to have emerged as another young and reliable special teamer.