Cowboys need instant impact from rookies after 2023 class flopped

Against the backdrop of ‘all-in,’ the hangover of another playoff collapse and the usual hype that envelops the Dallas Cowboys, a key question looms with the countdown to the NFL draft:

Can the Cowboys regain their draft mojo?

They could surely use a banner draft class after losing five starters this offseason and barely causing a ripple during free agency.

Then there was last year’s class. Underwhelming.

Mazi Smith, the first-round defensive tackle, was hardly the envisioned run-stuffer and melted away pounds in the process. Luke Schoonmaker, the second-round tight end, never emerged as the expected replacement for Dalton Schultz and caught just eight passes while dealing with a foot problem. And from the Dept. of Really Bad Luck, promising third-round linebacker DeMarvion Overshown had his rookie season wiped out after tearing an ACL in training camp.

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‘With their performance in the first year, the whole group did not measure up to, say, a lot of other people’s draft class,’ Jerry Jones, the Cowboys owner and general manager, told USA TODAY Sports recently. ‘But they’re not through.

‘We can have some of that draft come up and be outstanding this year.’

We’ll see. In the meantime, the Cowboys, holding the 24th pick in the first round, have some significant holes to fill. They need players in the trenches – on both sides of the ball. Longtime left tackle Tyron Smith and center Tyler Biadasz are gone. They are weak against the run in the middle of the D-line, as the Packers exposed in the playoff meltdown. Tony Pollard left after rushing for 1,000 yards and catching 55 passes in 2023, making it a given that they’ll draft a running back at some point.

The Cowboys may be ‘all-in’ for winning big while riding a 28-year drought since playing for a championship, but without some impact reinforcements ASAP the challenge confronting coach Mike McCarthy while on the last year of his contract gets even tougher.

More pressure with this draft?

Jones doesn’t characterize it as such. Never mind your lying eyes.

‘We just need to continue doing it as well as we’ve done in the past,’ Jones said.

That’s hardly hopeful spin, even coming from the optimistic hype man who signs the checks.

According to Pro Football Reference, over the past 10 drafts the Cowboys are tied with the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers for the most players selected, six, who have earned first-team All-Pro honors. The Kansas City Chiefs are next with five (although star tight end Travis Kelce, who was drafted in 2013, is not in the tally).

During that same span, Dallas drafted 14 players who earned Pro Bowl selections, which tied Baltimore for second-most in the league. The Detroit Lions, having selected an eventual Pro Bowler in 11 consecutive drafts (and two rookie Pro Bowlers in 2023 in running back Jahmyr Gibbs and tight end Sam LaPorta), have chosen 16 players in the past 10 drafts who earned Pro Bowl nods (including honors while playing for other teams).

The Cowboys’ All-Pro roll call from the past 10 drafts includes DaRon Bland (2022 draft class), Micah Parsons (’21) CeeDee Lamb (’20), Trevon Diggs (’20), Ezekiel Elliott (’16) and Zack Martin (’14). Eight other draftees, including Dak Prescott and DeMarcus Lawrence, have Pro Bowls on their résumés.

In other words, the Cowboys, with Stephen Jones positioned as executive vice president of personnel and Will McClay in an essential role as vice president of personnel, have consistently stocked the roster with premium talent.

The dots also connect to the issues the Cowboys are currently facing in managing their salary cap. As stars emerge, so does their worth on the market. Jones has repeatedly maintained that he will extend Prescott, who is heading into the final year of his contract. The team also needs to strike extensions for Parsons and Lamb.

It’s the reality of NFL Moneyball: Pay up or watch them walk away as free agents. That’s why nothing helps manage a tight salary cap like impact from draft hits playing on rookie contracts, buying time for decisions on the bigger deals in the future while allowing more cap dollars to be used to keep the stars – or at least some of them.

Jones knows. And now?

‘I’d like this draft class to do what that one didn’t,’ he said, comparing to last year’s crop. ‘That is, be more productive in their rookie year.’

That, too, should be listed with the ‘draft needs’ for the Cowboys.

This post appeared first on USA TODAY