Damone Clark isn't the first rookie linebacker to join the Cowboys and have to spend most of his rookie year worrying about an injury. But with only a 5th-round pick on the line, Clark's recovery and future create a low-risk, high-reward scenario that shows Dallas may be getting smarter with its draft gambling.
Earlier this year, Clark was diagnosed with a herniated disc in his neck which required fusion surgery. The procedure took place about a month before the 2022 NFL Draft and naturally affected Damone's draft stock.
How much did it hurt? Clark fell to Dallas at the 176th pick despite being one of the better LB prospects in the class. NFL.com had Damone ranked as their fifth-best LB overall and 63rd overall at any position. The injury likely knocked Clark out of being a Day 2 pick, perhaps even a late 2nd-rounder based on pure potential.
In times past the Cowboys might have been so enticed by Clark's talent that they'd have used their 4th or even a 3rd-round pick to secure his rights. But perhaps their last experience with that kind of gamble taught them a lesson.
Of course, I'm talking about Jaylon Smith. Back in 2016 Smith was one of the elite prospects of his class but suffered a devastating knee injury in his final college game. That dropped Jaylon from a potential top-five overall pick to where the Cowboys eventually scooped him up early in the 2nd Round.
To be clear, Smith's perceived talent and upside coming out of college were on another level from Clark's. The same NFL.com analyst who projected Clark would be an “average starter” believed that Jaylon would eventually become a “perennial All-Pro.”
Unfortunately, Smith never validated that hype. He was never selected once to an All-Pro team and only went to a single Pro Bowl. After a brief period of high-level play from 2018-2019, Jaylon quickly fell apart and was released by the team during the 2020 season.
Six years earlier, Dallas took Sean Lee in the 2nd Round despite recovery from a torn ACL. While Lee did prove himself as one of the top linebackers in football when healthy, he could rarely stay on the field consistently enough to help the Cowboys prosper.
There are plenty of other modern examples of 2nd-round gambles that Dallas has taken on players with red flags for physical or other reasons; Randy Gregory, DeMarcus Lawrence, Gavin Escobar, and recently Kelvin Joseph. But the lost opportunities when these guys don't work out, failing to add long-term starters and reliable contributors with your 2nd-round pick, has had a demonstrable effect on Dallas' roster through the years.
Unlike when whiffing on a 2nd-rounder, nobody is going to bat an eye if Damone Clark doesn't work out. Some years 5th-round picks don't even make the team without an injury issue; the perceived loss in this scenario is dramatically different.
This is a much safer move for the Cowboys. If Clark does eventually become a starter or even just a consistent rotation player, they've had a big win with the pick. Rather than eating the risk by taking Damone where his talent might've dictated, Dallas mitigated it by waiting and letting him fall.
The team has stated that they think Clark return in 2022 and contribute. Hopefully they won't need him to do much with Micah Parsons, Leighton Vander Esch, and Jabril Cox as their primary LB core for this season.
That's the beauty of this situation. Damone Clark is a 5th-round flyer with no heavy expectations. Anything he provides the team now or in the future is gravy; almost all profit with minimal investment.
Hopefully it's a sign of a new and safer draft philosophy for the Cowboys.