As the Cowboys prepare for their 63rd NFL Draft next week – the franchise wasn't officially recognized until after the 1960 NFL Draft had been held. The burning question of course is: Who will they pick with the 26th pick?
Will they trade up or will they trade down? Will they take a running back, a receiver, or an offensive lineman?
While we can speculate away, we won't have the answer to that question for another 10 days. We can take a look back at the last six decades of the Cowboys' draft record and uncover some interesting nuggets.
Today we'll focus on the first round. Unlike many NFL franchises, for the most part the Cowboys have managed not to bungle their high-value picks.
Oddly enough, Dallas has not had a first round pick in 11 of their previous 62 drafts (1962, 1967, 1980, 1993, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2009, and 2019). But they have had six drafts with multiple first round picks, including a bonanza of three picks in 1991 (1974, 1975, 1991 (3), 1992, 2005, 2008).
Of the 32 picks in the first round, the Cowboys have never picked from the following positions: 3rd, 7th, 10th, 14th, 15th, 21st, 29th, 30th, and 32nd. The most players the Cowboys have selected, over the 62 drafts combined, from any given position in the opening round is five from both the 17th and 20th picks.
Solid Drafting With The Higher Picks
Over the six-plus decades the Cowboys have made 15 total selections in the Top 10 of the first round. Three times they have made the first overall pick and they have hit on all three: (1974) Ed “Too Tall” Jones; (1989) Troy Aikman; and (1991) Russel Maryland.
They've made two picks in the second position: Randy White in 1975 and Tony Dorsett in 1977. There are no Ryan Leafs or JaMarcus Russells littering the Cowboys draft history. It isn't until you get to the 4th pick before the first speed bump is hit.
In 1964, Dallas made a deal with Pittsburgh. They would take Scott Appleton, a defensive tackle out of Texas, with the fourth pick. They would then trade him to the Steelers for receiver Buddy Dial.
Dial played three years for Dallas, posting average numbers. Appleton would never play a down for the Steelers, signing with the Houston Oilers of the AFL instead.
Dallas' other pick from the fourth position came in 2016. You might recall his name was Ezekiel Elliott. He worked out okay.
From the fifth selection the Cowboys had three solid picks in Craig Morton (1965), John Niland (1966), and Terence Newman in 2003. In the sixth spot they grabbed a great linebacker in Lee Roy Jordan in 1963. Unfortunately their pick from the sixth spot in 2012 was really the team's lone Top 10 bust. Morris Claiborne never managed to live up to the billing he had coming out of LSU.
Dallas managed two solid defensive picks from the eighth slot in Greg Ellis (1998) and defensive back Roy Williams (2002). In 2011 the Cowboys drafted in the ninth slot and grabbed Tyron Smith to anchor the offensive line for a decade.
Solid Mid-Round Gold
The Cowboys selected a total of 20 players with their first-round picks between the 11th and 20th positions. With very few exceptions, they made those picks count.
From the 11th position Dallas landed Michael Irvin (1988) and DeMarcus Ware (2005). In the 12th they picked Danny Noonan (1987), Alvin Harper (1991), and Michah Parsons (2021).
With their only pick from the 13th position the Cowboys struck pure gold, drafting Bob Lilly in 1961 with their first-ever pick in an NFL Draft. Their lone pick from the 16th spot landed Zack Martin in 2014.
Drafting from the 17th position could be considered their best haul of all time. They took Kevin Books in 1985, Emmitt Smith in 1990, Kevin Smith in 1992, and CeeDee Lamb in 2020. That's a tough class to top.
From the 18th position in 1975 the Cowboys selected Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson. But their other two picks from this position did not fare so well. Neither Mike Sherrard (1986) nor Bobby Carpenter (2006) had much of an impact during their time on Dallas' roster.
Leighton Vander Esch (2018) is the only player the Cowboys have taken with the 19th pick. Rounding out the final slot in the Top 20 is a mixed bag. Dennis Homan (1968), Billy Joe Dupree (1973), Kelvin Pritchett 1991), Ebenezer Ekuban (1999) and Marcus Spears (2005) were selected at #20. Dupree and Spears were the cream of the group.
The Price Of Winning
Owing to many years of making the playoffs, the majority of Dallas' first round picks fell between picks 21-31. Of those picks only about half-a-dozen turned out to be beneficial for Dallas.
Duane Thomas was picked 23rd in 1970 and was a key piece in the Cowboys' first Super Bowl victory in 1971. Jim Jeffcoat was another #23 pick, coming in 1983, and won two Super Bowls before leaving for Buffalo.
In 1969, Calvin Hill was the 24th pick, as was Dez Bryant in 2010 and Tyler Smith in 2022. After the 24th selection, Dallas' draft fortunes have not been all that good.
Dallas' Grim History At 26
The Cowboys will, barring a trade, make their fourth-ever pick from the 26th slot next week. Their previous three have not all fared well.
Running Back Bill Thomas (1972) played one year in Dallas, was used as a kick returner, and played in Houston in 1973. Howard Richards (1981) played six seasons in Dallas as an offensive lineman, but only started in 16 games.
The lone standout at 26 is Anthony Spencer (2007). Spencer was a starter on the defensive line for four of his seven years in Dallas. Seeing how Dallas has had success drafting a defensive player at 26 and none drafting an offensive player, maybe they should focus on defense this year.
While the less said about Taco Charlton with the 28th pick in 2017 the better, the Cowboys did land Travis Frederick with the 31st pick in 2013. Before he was forced into early retirement, he was one of the better centers in team history.
Here's a full rundown of the Cowboys' first round picks from the 21st through 32nd picks over the years:
- #21: Never
- #22: 1974 – Charley Young; 1997 – David LaFleur; 2008 – Felix Jones
- #23: 1970 – Duane Thomas; 1983 – Jim Jeffcoat; 1994 – Shante Carver
- #24: 1969 – Calvin Hill; 1992 – Robert Jones; 2010 – Dez Bryant; 2022 – Tyler Smith
- #25: 1971 – Tody Smith; 1982 – Rod Hill; 1984 – Billy Cannon Jr.; 2008 – Mike Jenkins
- #26: 1972 -Bill Thomas; 1981 – Howard Richards; 2007 – Anthony Spencer; 2023 – TBD
- #27: 1976 – Aaron Kyle; 1979 – Robert Shaw; 2015 – Byron Jones
- #28: 1978 – Larry Bethea; 2017 – Taco Charlton
- #29: Never
- #30: Never
- #31: 2013 – Travis Frederick
- #32: Never
NOTE: An earlier version of this story erroneously had Micah Parsons being picked at 24 in 2021, instead of 12th in that year's draft. It also had Tyler Smith at 17th, and not 24th, in 2022 These errors have been corrected.