Most of the 2018 NFL Draft class is heading into their fourth seasons, and for most of those the final year of their original rookie contracts. The Dallas Cowboys still have many of their 2018 picks on the roster today; how has their importance and value changed since entering the league?
Expectation is generally driven by where you were drafted, and rightfully so. A 1st-Round pick is a disappointment if they don't quickly emerge as a starter, while a 7th-round pick is a success if they can just make the roster after a year or two.
Over time these players are soon defined by more than just when they were drafted. It's still a factor, especially when it comes to expectations and judgments, but after three years there's a lot more to consider about a player's worth.
As a reminder, here's how the Cowboys' 2018 draft class originally looked:
- 1ST – LB Leighton Vander Esch
- 2ND – G Connor Williams
- 3RD – WR Michael Gallup
- 4TH – DE Dorance Armstrong
- 4TH – TE Dalton Schultz
- 5TH – QB Mike White
- 6TH – LB Chris Covington
- 6TH – WR Cedrick Wilson
- 7TH – RB Bo Scarbrough
Only six of those nine players are still on the team, which is actually not bad after three seasons compared to some other draft classes. None of the three who are no longer with us, White, Covington, and Scarbrough, are significant players for any other NFL roster.
As for the remaining six, we've definitely seen some shifts in value from when they were drafted. Here's how I'd rank those players today in terms of their status with the Cowboys going into 2021:
1. WR Michael Gallup
Without question, Gallup is the most accomplished of these players over his first three seasons. While Vander Esch did sneak into the Pro Bowl as a rookie, Gallup has had sustained success and will likely be a top free agent in 2022 if the Cowboys don't re-sign him.
Preparing for losing Gallup, especially coming off his 1,000-yard season in 2019, likely factored into Dallas' choice to draft CeeDee Lamb last year. And unfortunately for Michael, Lamb's presence cut into his 2020 production and likely will again affect him in this contract season.
Even if catches, yards, and touchdowns aren't what they could be, Gallup still makes noise with his strong ball skills and tough catches against tight coverage. He's a favorite target for Dak Prescott and will benefit from having QB1 back in the lineup for more than just five weeks.
There are essentially three starting receivers in the modern NFL and Gallup is certainly one of them. He could easily be WR2 for many other teams and perhaps even the top receiver if given a chance. He's a big part of what makes the Cowboys' offense so potent in 2021.
2. G Connor Williams
After two years of criticism and calls for a replacement, Williams emerged in 2020 as one of the better guards in football. He's now delivering on the promise of a 2nd-round pick as a capable starter and could be in line for a second contract next offseason.
Connor's play should only improve in 2021 with his continued development and the return of his fellow starters. The fact that he graded well last year given the chaos around him on offense is impressive, and opportunities for success will only increase with Tyron Smith back beside him and growth from Tyler Biadasz at center.
3. TE Dalton Schultz
Schultz stepped up after Blake Jarwin was lost for the season and was one of the most productive tight ends in the NFL. While we don't know who will be the starting TE in 2021, Schultz will at least be an exceptional backup who Dallas will likely work hard to utilize in various packages.
On Friday I proposed that Dallas could try to flip Schultz for a draft pick sometime in the next few months, assuming of course that Jarwin is back and clearly the better player. Whether it's on our roster as a trade asset, Dalton definitely has value and should help the Cowboys in a meaningful way this season.
4. LB Leighton Vander Esch
After a brilliant rookie year where he exceeded expectations and even made the Pro Bowl, Vander Esch has fallen hard the last two seasons. Injuries wrecked his 2019 season and clearly were still in his head at times last year, plus Leighton struggled with the scheme changes brought in by new Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan.
Dallas declined to pick up the 5th-year option on Vander Esch's contract, meaning he could become an unrestricted free agent in 2022. But the Cowboys have stated they are interested in re-signing Leighton depending on how things go this year.
If Dan Quinn puts Vander Esch in a better position to succeed, and if the kid's body doesn't betray him again, a lot could happen this year to change the situation. While everyone's ready to hand the LB position over to Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox, there's still room for Vander Esch and even Jaylon Smith to restore their reputations and remain important figures on this defense.
One bounce-back season probably won't be enough to earn Vander Esch the kind of second contract he might've expected three years ago. But if he gets one at all from the Cowboys at this point, that would be a real achievement given where we currently stand.
5. WR Cedrick Wilson
While only the fourth receiver on the depth chart, Wilson has delivered with a few big games in his career when he gets enough balls thrown his way. That intriguing offensive potential, plus his value as a kick and punt returner, have made him a great 6th-Round pick.
The Cowboys valued Wilson enough to keep him on a $2.18 cap hit as a restricted free agent in 2021. He's the one WR reserve they can really trust to step up and perform if anything happens to one of their big three.
In fact, assuming Michael Gallup does depart in 2022 free agency, it wouldn't be a shock to see Cedrick earn another contract from Dallas to join Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb as a top-three WR next season.
6. DE Dorance Armstrong
It's somewhat surprising that Armstrong is even still here after three quiet seasons. But with the Cowboys going through a lot of one-year free agents and other projects at defensive end, Dorance has survived with a cheap rookie contract and the occasional flash as a pass rusher.
At this point, Armstrong's presence beyond training camp and the preseason is far from certain. With DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, rookie Chauncey Golston, and free agent pickup Tarell Basham all virtual locks for the roster, Dorance has to worry about younger prospects like Bradlee Anae and Ron'Dell Carter pushing him out of the way.
That said, Armstrong could've been cut earlier this year if Dallas wanted to pocket nearly $1 million in cap space. He's still here so the team must see some value in him, and he should get every opportunity to compete this summer for a roster spot.