The Dallas Cowboys made nine selections in the 2017 NFL Draft this past weekend, with seven of those being on the defensive side of the ball. What the front office was saying in the lead up to the draft rang true; this draft set up well for them to draft defense.
With the additions of the nine draft picks, there will be some pretty great training camp competitions this year. While many think as many as three of the new rookies will start come week one of the NFL season, I think it's more likely that it doesn't happen.
Pro Football Reference lists each team's starters year by year, based on who started the most at a given position. Based on that reference material, let's look at how often a Jason Garrett-coached team has started a rookie.
2016 - Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Anthony Brown, and Maliek Collins
Ezekiel Elliott was a day one starter because he was the best option for the job coming out of training camp. Incumbent Darren McFadden was on the Non-Football Injury list and had he been healthy, would have likely been a reserve anyway. Alfred Morris didn't and doesn't have the same ability as Elliott. That one was a no-brainer.
Dak Prescott, Anthony Brown, and Maliek Collins all are listed as players that started for the Dallas Cowboys in 2016 and all were due to injury.
Prescott took over for the now-retired, but then injured, Tony Romo.
Anthony Brown filled in for Orlando Scandrick in the slot and for Morris Claiborne on the outside throughout the season.
Collins didn't start the season as the starter and only saw 17 snaps (30%) in the opener against the New York Giants. By the end of the season though, he was seeing greater than 60% of the snaps on a regular basis.
2015 - La'el Collins
La'el Collins was the only rookie to start for the Dallas Cowboys in 2015, according to Pro Football Reference, but again, he didn't begin the season as the starter. He actually didn't even play in the season opener.
It wasn't until week two that he was inserted into the starting lineup, for Ronald Leary.
2014 - Zack Martin and Anthony Hitchens
2014 marked the beginning of a career that is going to be littered with 1st Team All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors; that was when Zack Martin was inserted as a day-one starter on the Dallas Cowboys offensive line.
This was just a continuation of the rebuild of the offensive line that had been taking place over the previous several years. He was a no-brainer day-one starter then.
Anthony Hitchens was the other rookie considered a starter. A closer look at his game-by-game snap counts reveal that he didn't start until week 3. The first two weeks of the season, he only played 8.6% and 16.3% of the defensive snaps respectively. Eventually he became a regular player for the defense, but he still wasn't THE established middle linebacker for another season or two.
2013 - Travis Frederick and Jeff Heath
Travis Frederick, like Zack Martin above, earned his starting job during training camp and became a week one starter and the team hasn't looked back since. He's been everything they hoped he'd be when the team selected him in the first round in 2013.
Frederick has brought an intelligence, leadership, and stability to the offensive line that has allowed them to become the best unit in the league.
Jeff Heath was also listed as a starter for the Dallas Cowboys, according to Pro Football Reference. Heath, though he is the GOAT, struggled to find regular playing time until midway through the 2013 season.
Heath didn't see more than 30% of the defensive snaps until week eight of the season and that was related more to the ineffectiveness of the defensive backfield that gave Heath a shot.
Heath is now getting a chance to compete for a starting safety spot in this, his fourth year.
2012 - Morris Claiborne
Morris Claiborne was the lone rookie from the 2012 draft class to be a full-time, day-one starter.
I think it's safe to say that his draft position helped during that season, because in 2013 we saw Orlando Scandrick become the other starting corner in base situations -- alongside Brandon Carr -- and Claiborne was brought in during nickel situations.
Claiborne was the beneficiary of being the sixth overall pick and, while his game got a lot better as his time with the Cowboys went on, it was rough in those early years. He struggled with confidence and injuries. Perhaps he was forced into the lineup a bit too soon.
2011 - Tyron Smith and Dan Bailey
In Jason Garrett's first campaign as the head coach for America's team, two players started for them as rookies. Those two players have the look of being potential Hall of Famers: Tyron Smith and Dan Bailey.
Tyron Smith's selection in the top-10 of the 2011 NFL Draft started the overhaul of the Cowboys offensive line that is now the best in the NFL. Smith started on the right side of the line, then in his second year switched with Doug Free to the left tackle spot.
Dan Bailey has been darn near automatic for the Cowboys through the years and has been either #1 or #2 in the HISTORY of the NFL in field goal percentage.
What It Means for the 2017 Rookie Class
There has been an infusion of talent on both sides of the football. Taco Charlton, Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Xavier Woods, and Marquez White are all set to compete for defensive snaps for the Dallas Cowboys.
The problem is where are they going to get them?
Charlton could be a day one starter along the defensive line, but I think he is going to have to earn it. The line is deep with veterans and second year player Charles Tapper is coming back as well.
The defensive backfield may have some turnover this year, but if we know anything about the current group, it's a competitive bunch.
Anthony Brown, Orlando Scandrick, and Nolan Carroll make up a solid veteran group that isn't going to give anything to anyone. Jeff Heath has been solid throughout his career and has experience. The coaching staff and front office are hoping Heath will seize the safety spot alongside Byron Jones.
While it's easy to begin penciling rookies into the starting lineup, as Coach Garrett told each rookie, there's a lot of work to do.
They're gonna have to earn everything.
2020 RB Options for the Cowboys if Things Turn Ugly With Ezekiel Elliott
The Dallas Cowboys could have a Le'Veon Bell-type situation on their hands in regards to Ezekiel Elliott. It's been reported Zeke is contemplating a holdout until his financial demands are met by way of a contract extension. This could put the Cowboys between a rock and a hard place.
Ezekiel Elliott is technically still under contract for two more seasons because of the fifth-year option he carries as a former first-round draft pick. Threatening to hold out seems a little premature, but Zeke has the Cowboys by the short hairs right now, meaning the leverage is on his side.
This is a situation that could, unfortunately, turn ugly, and quickly.
The Cowboys have several other mouths to feed and Zeke may not be at the top the list considering his continued immaturity issues off the field. His on-field production is undeniable, but so are the red flags that keep popping up. It may be time for Dallas to look for his successor and fortunately, the 2020 running back draft class is a pretty good place to start.
Let's take a look…
Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin
Jonathan Taylor (5'11", 219) would probably be the ideal candidate to replace Ezekiel Elliott for the Dallas Cowboys. He is one of the more productive collegiate running backs expected to enter the 2020 NFL Draft and has the intangibles that are eerily similar to Zeke as far as size, speed, and power are concerned. Unfortunately, that likely makes him a top 10 selection, putting him out of reach of the Cowboys.
Taylor doesn't come without his warts though. As a true Junior, he's seen a lot of action in his three years as the starting RB for the Badgers. That wear-and-tear is a cause for concern because it could lead to durability issues once in the NFL. He also has struggled with his ball security. He's put the ball on the ground 12 times in the last two seasons, which will need to be cleaned up at the next level. But, there's no denying his talent.
D'Andre Swift, Georgia
D'Andre Swift (5'9", 215) is one of my favorite RB options in the 2020 draft class to replace Ezekiel Elliott if things turn ugly with the Dallas Cowboys. He doesn't have the same kind of production as Jonathan Taylor and is still somewhat under the radar because he's been stuck in a committee with the Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, and Elijah Holyfield the last two years. But mark my words, he will be the next great RB to enter the NFL out of Georgia. Swift could be as ideal of a candidate to replace Zeke as there is.
Dallas likes an inside runner with zone vision as well as someone who can be a threat in the passing game, and D'Andre fits the bill. Despite being a little smaller in size than Zeke, he still possesses the power to run inside. Then throw in his receiving ability, 32 catches for 297 yards and three touchdowns last season, and you have someone who is more than capable of replacing #21's offensive production. He's projected to be a late first-round pick, which could put him within striking distance of the Cowboys.
J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State
J.K. Dobbins (5'10", 214) could be someone who is already on the Dallas Cowboys' radar as a potential Ezekiel Elliott replacement. They seem to have a liking for Ohio State running backs (Zeke, Rod Smith, Mike Weber) and could turn to another Buckeye to carry the rock. Dobbins, an all-purpose back and native Texan (Houston, TX) checks all of the boxes the Cowboys typically look for in their featured back.
Dobbins has the size, speed, and vision to be a featured back in the NFL. He has rushed for over 1,000 yards his last two seasons while splitting time with Mike Weber and has averaged about 200 receiving yards during that time span as well. He's not the most physical back, but he keeps moving his feet upon contact. He also needs to improve in pass protection in order to become a true three-down RB in the NFL. But his vision, shorter area quickness, elusiveness, and patience as a runner are all top-notch.
Travis Etienna, Clemson
The breakout season of Quarterback Trevor Lawrence, unfortunately, overshadowed the Heisman-worthy year Travis Etienna (5'10", 200) had in 2018. In his first year as a starter, he rushed for 1,658 yards and 24 touchdowns, all the while averaging an impressive 8.1 yards per carry. If he can follow that up in 2019 he could become the most coveted back in the 2020 draft class and become a really intriguing option for the Dallas Cowboys.
Etienna will probably need to add a little bit more "good weight" and muscle to his frame if he wants to be considered a featured back in the NFL. If he can accomplish that and not lose any of his elusiveness or speed he should climb up draft boards. If not, he may not be of much interest to the Cowboys because they already have a similar RB in Tony Pollard. He does possess plug-and-play talent though, making him a potential Ezekiel Elliott replacement.
Najee Harris, Alabama
Najee Harris (6'2", 230) is yet another big, physical running back who has had to remain patient and wait his turn at Alabama, but 2019 could be his breakout season. With Bo Scarbrough, Josh Jacobs, and Damien Harris ahead of him on the depth chart the last two years, Najee saw limited playing time. But, when he did receive the opportunity to showcase his skill set he didn't disappoint. His physical talent could make him a top-5 running back come draft time.
Despite his limited playing time last the two seasons, he averaged over 6 yards a carry. He rushed for a career-high 783 yards and four touchdowns on just 117 carries in 2018 and should easily surpass those totals this season. In doing so he should become one of the more sought after RBs in the 2020 draft class. With the Cowboys, as Zeke's potential replacement, his physicality would pair nicely with Tony Pollard's slashing style. A Harris/Pollard duo could be just as productive as the Cowboys running game has been in the past.
The above five running backs are all potential Ezekiel Elliott replacements who I really like and will likely receive the most national attention due to the programs in which they play. But, they are only a few in what looks like a really strong 2020 RB draft class. Here a few honorable mentions you should also keep a close eye on as well.
- Cam Akers, Florida State
- Eno Benjamin, Arizona State
- Kennedy Brooks, Oklahoma
- Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Vanderbilt
- Kylin Hill, Mississippi State
I believe any of these running backs mentioned above at any point in the article could be in play for the Dallas Cowboys if they choose to play hardball with Ezekiel Elliott over his want for a contract extension. The 2020 running back draft class has a plethora of potential starters and this could be in the back of the Cowboys mind when they're determining where they want to spend their money. Paying top dollar for an RB might not fit in their budget, even for one as talented as Zeke.
Do you like any of these potential RBs as replacements for Ezekiel Elliott?
Cowboys Draft: Reviewing Kansas DT Daniel Wise
Throughout the post draft media process, the Cowboys' decision makers have been adamant that they found multiple draft-able players in undrafted free agency this year. Each of which, of course, will have an opportunity to compete for a roster or practice squad spot this summer.
One of those players who almost certainly had a draft-able grade despite fall through all seven rounds, is Kansas defensive tackle Daniel Wise.
At 6'3" and 290 pounds, Wise projects as a 3-technique in the NFL, and should compete for that very role on the Cowboys defense. Wise is not an overly bendy or athletic player, but he has a good initial quickness which allows him to penetrate gaps well. Wise plays with excellent effort, having the type of motor that I'm sure Rod Marinelli valued highly during the pre-draft evaluations.
A strong and powerful interior presence, Wise can offer some upside as a pass rusher as well. He has quick, active, and heavy hands. When combining his hands with his get-off, Wise is a real threat as a pass rusher. Maybe his most impressive pass rushing quality, however, is the effort which he plays with. Never giving up on a play, you'll have to block Wise until the final whistle or he will threaten for effort sacks.
In college, Wise was often asked to be a two-gap defender from the 5-technique, but that's just not where he'll be at his best. Rather, he should be used in the role the Cowboys likely envision for him, allowing him to play with power at the point of attack and disrupt the running game.
But what are Daniel Wise's chances of even making the team?
The Cowboys made a concerted effort to improve their defensive line this offseason, specifically on the interior. By adding free agents like Kerry Hyder and drafting Trysten Hill 58th overall, Dallas has improved what was considered a weakness during the postseason a year ago.
Not all of these talented defensive tackles will make the team, though, it's simply a numbers a game. And cutting an undrafted free agent will certainly be easier to do than cutting someone who will be owed real money, or was acquired through premium draft capital.
Regardless, Daniel Wise will have the chance to prove his worth during training camp and the preseason. And based on how he projects through his college tape and physical attributes, he'll likely make those final decisions very difficult on the Cowboys' staff.
Pre-Draft Visitors Highlight Dallas Cowboys 2019 Rookie Class
The Dallas Cowboys are "officially" adding 21 rookies to their roster, eight of which they drafted and the remaining 13 are undrafted free agents. The number of rookies the Cowboys are bringing in isn't all that surprising, but what did surprise me was how many of them were pre-draft visitors.
You may or may not know, but the NFL allows 30 allotted pre-draft visits for each team around the league. Teams don't have to use all 30 visits of course, but the majority of them take advantage of the opportunity and generally use up all 30 visits. It's a chance to introduce these rookies into the atmosphere they could be playing in and work them out in more of a one-on-one basis.
The Dallas Cowboys of course are known as a team who take their 30 pre-draft visits very seriously. Over the past several years they've drafted several players who were brought in for pre-draft visits, and 2019 was no exception.
I've said it before and I'll say it again, paying attention to the Dallas Cowboys 30 pre-draft visits is a good idea because the odds of them drafting one or more of them is pretty high. That's why I decided to run a pre-draft tracker this year, and because of it I was able to confirm 27 of the possible 30 pre-draft visitors for the Cowboys.
Here are 2019 pre-draft visitors currently on the Cowboys roster:
- DT, Trysten Hill
- RB, Tony Pollard
- RB, Mike Weber
- WR, Jon'Vea Johnson
- CB, Chris Westry
If you're doing the math, 5 out of 30 equates to 17% of the players the Dallas Cowboys brought in as pre-draft visitors. But, if Dallas only brought in 27 that percentage rises to 19%. To say that the Cowboys value these pre-draft visits would be an understatement, at least as far as 2019 is concerned.
The first three of Trysten Hill, Tony Pollard, and Mike Weber were of course all draft picks and have the best chance to stick around on the final 53-man roster, but I wouldn't rule out Jon'Vea Johnson and Chris Westry. Both were draftable players, but somehow fell through the cracks right into the lap of the Cowboys as UFAs.
I don't really know if it's a good idea the Dallas Cowboys are so transparent with how valuable the treat these 30 pre-draft visits. We've seen teams time and time again trade up right in front of them to draft a player the Cowboys could've possibly been eyeing, and this year was no exception.
After drafting Running Back/Wide Receiver Tony Pollard with the first of their fourth-round draft picks, it looked like the Dallas Cowboys had their sights set on small school Defensive End/Defensive Tackle John Cominsky out of Charleston with their second pick in the fourth. Unfortunately, the Atlanta Falcons traded up a spot ahead of them to draft Cominsky.
This of course isn't the first time the Falcons have done this, which begs the question as to how they knew the Cowboys could have possibly been targeting Cominsky. We can throw a conspiracy theory out there that Atlanta might have been inside source, but that's highly unlikely. More plausible theory is they were paying attention to Dallas' 30 pre-draft visitors as well.
It may be time for the Dallas Cowboys to deploy a little more smoke and mirrors when it comes to who they bring in for pre-draft visits in the future. But regardless, there's no denying the Cowboys pre-draft visitors highlight their 2019 rookie class.
Are you surprised the Dallas Cowboys added so many pre-draft visitors to the roster?
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