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.
Which Top 10 EDGE Defenders Could Slide to the Dallas Cowboys?
Regardless of what happens with Robert Quinn, the Dallas Cowboys should still be in the market for an EDGE defender in the 2019 NFL Draft. Like quarterback and left tackle, pass rushers are held at a premium in the NFL for a reason. They are hard to come by and expensive to keep, as we all know.
There's a lot of unknown surrounding the future of the Dallas Cowboys defensive end position. Tyrone Crawford is entering the last year of his contract, Dorance Armstrong is pretty much an unknown, and no one knows what to make of Randy Gregory's future. Then there's this whole contract situation with DeMarcus Lawrence. I think you would agree there's a lot of uncertainty at the DE position.
Keeping all of that in mind, it certainly makes sense the Dallas Cowboys could be in play to draft one of the EDGE defenders with their first selection in the second-round of the 2019 NFL Draft. That's why today I decided to share with you my Top 10 rankings in the hopes that one of them will slide right into the lap of the Cowboys at 58.
Here's my Top 10 EDGE rankings:
- Nick Bosa, Ohio State
- Brian Burns, Florida State
- Josh Allen, Kentucky
- Clelin Ferrell, Clemson
- Montez Sweat, Mississippi State
- Chase Winovich, Michigan
- Jachai Polite, Florida
- Christian Miller, Alabama
- Ben Banogu, TCU
- L.J. Collier, TCU
You may or may not have noticed, but Rashan Gary and Charles Omenihu didn't make the cut for my Top 10 EDGE defenders. That's because I project them as defensive tackles in the NFL, although they could play a hybrid DE/DT role similar to what Tyrone Crawford plays with the Dallas Cowboys. You of course may disagree, but that's my take away after watching their film.
Now that we've settled why some of the names may have been omitted in my Top 10 EDGE rankings, we can get back to which of these prospects could slide to the Dallas Cowboys when they are on the clock in the second-round with the 58th overall selection.
I think we can all agree that the Top 5 will all be drafted well before the Cowboys have a chance at them. But, starting with Chase Winovich, I think each one of the next five could slide all the way to 58 with a little luck.
Of the next group of five, Winovich is probably the safest pick of the bunch. He is someone the Cowboys could plug and play as a rookie and pretty much know exactly what they're going to get. Because of that though, he's also the most likely to be gone before Dallas has a chance at him.
Jachai Polite unfortunately completely bombed at the NFL Combine, which is why he could still be in play for the Cowboys. He doesn't exactly fit the criteria (size/length) Dallas typically looks for in their DEs, but his talent is undeniable. He falls into that category of risk/reward, much like Randy Gregory in 2015.
If you've read any of my previous work, you know that I may big a fan of Christian Miller. He is one of my "pet cats" in this year's draft class and would be a great fit with the Cowboys. Unlike Polite, he fits Dallas' DE type to a "T". The only concern with him is his injury history, but I'd be ecstatic if he's the selection at 58.
That brings us to the two TCU EDGE defenders. A lot of people have L.J. Collier ahead of Ben Banogu, but I personally like the latter better. Regardless of how I have them ranked though, either one of them would be a good fit with the Cowboys. Fortunately, Dallas should know all about them since they played right down the road in college.
Which of these EDGE defenders would you like to see the Dallas Cowboys?
Cowboys Draft Target: Virginia Safety Juan Thornhill
NAME: Juan Thornhill
JERSEY: No. 21
RECRUITMENT RATING: 3-star
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Juan Thornhill possesses an intriguing skill set that should get him on the field early as a rookie. He projects best as a free safety in the NFL, but his background as a cornerback could cause teams to give him a look there as well. He is a capable of starting at either position, which should only add to his value.
Thornhill shows good range on film and seems to always be in the hip pocket of receivers on vertical shots down the field. Does well in coverage underneath as well. Gets into position to take away lanes. At his best in zone coverage. Has really good instincts and understanding of route concepts. Ball hawk. Has the mentality that he's the one being targeted on throws and out fights the receiver for the ball.
Possesses good athleticism to make open field tackles. Takes good angles in pursuit and is well-balanced when arriving at the ballcarrier. Has some pop through his pads, but is more of a cut down tackler. Can quickly close the distance and will drive through a runner's legs to finish. Will fight through contact in the box and shows a good stout anchor at the top of route stems.
Juan Thornhill has good, but not elite range and his lack of burst could limit the system he plays in. Because of this he might not be suited to play the single high/deep safety position on a team that plays a lot of Cover-1. This could make him more of a scheme reliant free safety in the NFL.
Shows a little tightness through his hips. This makes him a little slow when opening up and transitioning to deep throws. His ball hawking mentality can sometimes get him in trouble. Needs to show a better understanding of when that is acceptable, because he can hang himself out to dry sometimes. Can be fooled with play-action and bait routes. Needs to show more discipline.
Inconsistent as a tackler. Has a tendency to drop his head and go to low when trying to make a tackle. Needs to improve his aiming point and technique. Needs to also improve attacking blocks near the line of scrimmage. Doesn't necessarily have a slight frame, but could stand to add some more strength/muscle. It could help him when working in the box.
Juan Thornhill's skill set and versatility to fill several roles in the Dallas Cowboys secondary could be too intriguing to pass up, especially if you add in his ball-hawking ability. In Kris Richard's defense, he could probably start at either safety or cornerback as a rookie. He has the desired height, length, and athleticism Richard desires in his defensive backs, and has played both positions during his time at Virginia. He could continue to do so with the Cowboys.
As a pure safety prospect, he would pair nicely with Xavier Woods, giving Dallas two athletic and rangy safeties on the backend of their defense. He can play deep or in the slot against mismatch tight ends. He's solid around the line of scrimmage as well, but needs to clean up his attack point as a tackler in order to become more consistent. No matter how you slice it though, he's an upgrade over Jeff Heath. For the Cowboys to secure his services, they would likely have to take him 58 overall with their second-round draft pick.
Cowboys Draft Target: Nebraska RB Devine Ozigbo
NAME: Devine Ozigbo
POSITION: Running Back
CONFERENCE: Big Ten
JERSEY: No. 22
RECRUITMENT RATING: 3-star
By the end of the season, Ozigbo had rushed for 1,082 yards and 12 touchdowns in 12 games. He became Nebraska's first 1,000-yard rusher since Ameer Abdullah in 2014. He also ended with an average of 6.98 yards per carry, which put him at fourth in the Big Ten among players with at least 100 carries.
Devine Ozigbo looks the part of a prototypical NFL running back. He has a well muscled/thick frame, with a strong lower half. He is a physical runner capable of playing in a power/gap or zone blocking scheme, but probably projects best as a zone runner. Has the skill set to be a three-down player, with starting potential. Low tread on the tires, only 419 career carries at Nebraska.
Ozigbo runs with good patients on film, "slow to, fast through", which gives his lineman time to secure their blocks. Runs with good power and leg drive, but also has nimble feet with the elite ankle flexion that allows him to make quick lateral cuts to evade defenders. Finisher in short yardage situations. Shows good vision. Waits for defenders to commit to their run fits before hitting the cutback lane. Has surprising burst and elusiveness for a RB his size.
Can be a threat in the passing game both out of the backfield and split out wide. Has shown the ability to run basic route stems when split out wide. Is a solid hands catcher and has shown he can catch passes thrown outside his frame. Quickly goes from receiver to runner and is surprisingly elusive in the open field. His size helps him in pass protection. He has a strong punch and long arms to keep defenders at bay, but also understands how to absorb contact.
One-year wonder? The lack of production at Nebraska might be the biggest concern about Devine Ozigbo as a running back prospect. He had to finally transform his body in 2018 to get on the field, but found success once that happened. Can he maintain that kind of discipline in the NFL? There are also concerns about his long speed.
As a runner, Ozigbo may be only a zone runner in the NFL. Might be scheme dependent. There are times on film where he struggles with his vision, especially when there are multiple offensive lineman pulling. Will also struggle with his reads at time. Better when his reads are clearly defined pre-snap. Takes time to hit top speed and it looks lackadaisical at times. Might take time to adjust to the speed of the game at the next level.
In the passing game he has struggled with passes thrown at a high velocity. Has double caught, bubbled, and dropped a number of high velocity passes. This could be an issue, because he doesn't have the softest hands to begin with. Needs to clean up his technique in pass protection. Will telegraph cut blocks, allowing defenders to easily avoid and pressure the quarterback. Could stand to become a better route runner to be more of a factor when split out wide as a receiver.
Devine Ozigbo is reportedly one of the Dallas Cowboys 30 pre-draft visitors, suggesting the former Cornhuskers running back is already on their radar. He would immediately become the RB2 behind Ezekiel Elliott as a rookie and give the Cowboys a formidable one-two punch to wear down opposing defenses. He possesses an intriguing skill set, but isn't the change of pace/got back many have wanted to complement Zeke in the running game.
Ozigbo is a physical runner with a surprisingly nimble feet and flexibility for a RB his size. At Nebraska, he was at his best one running inside zone plays, which just so happens to be a staple in the Cowboys zone blocking scheme. He is also a threat as a receiver out of the backfield and a solid pass protector. Overall, he has a three-down back and someone who could help lighten the load on Zeke's shoulders. He could be a steal for the Cowboys on Day 3, which is where he's projected to be drafted.
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