FRISCO, Texas – I'm not going to be right about everything I say about the Dallas Cowboys, but I can promise you this: I'll never waste your time with instant draft grades.
We can form a lot of opinions about the decisions the 32 NFL clubs made during this weekend's draft, and we're bound to like some of them more than others. But to try to judge how well these picks will pan out 48 hours later is an obvious ploy for web traffic.
That doesn't mean we can't glean things from the decisions the Cowboys made this weekend. Draft classes are supposed to build a foundation for several years, and the way they're put together can inform us about where the Cowboys think they're going.
As I reflect on everything that happened, this is what stands out to me the most.
Finding An Edge
God bless Jerry Jones for making the job easier. If you pay close enough attention to the Cowboys' owner and general manager, he'll give you the exact type of information you're hoping to hear.
"With our defense against the running game, I've always held my breath on getting big-boyed in there," Jones said Saturday after the draft. "This is a real statement in my mind with Dan and Mike as to how we are going to address the run game when we get into the playoffs, which we are sure to have. Mike was sitting there all day going, 'Playoffs, playoffs. Remember the playoffs.'"
Jones was speaking specifically about the decision to draft Arkansas defensive tackle John Ridgeway, but I think it applies to this to most of their decisions this weekend.
To use Jones' own, wonderful terminology, the Cowboys got "big-boyed" in the playoffs. San Francisco ran for 169 yards on the ground. The 49ers' defensive front abused the Cowboys' offensive line to the tune of five sacks and a combined 45 rushing yards from the Dallas running backs.
Now, look at these draft picks. Tyler Smith tips the scale at 6'3, 325 pounds. Ironically enough, he had an issue with holding penalties, but people inside this facility will tell you those penalties were of a dominant nature – a guy taking his opponent to the ground, rather than a guy reaching and lunging after missed block. He also plays with an edge that he himself described as an "alter-ego."
Go down the list. We can't accurately predict how good any of them will be, but Sam Williams stacks up well with any of the edge rushers taken at the top of the draft – physically and from a production standpoint. Jalen Tolbert laughed when he was asked if he's a trash talker and replied, "sometimes, you've got to humble people."
On and on. Jake Ferguson comes from Wisconsin, which says all that needs to be said about the way he approaches the game. Matt Waletzko describes his game as "nasty," and oh by the way he checks in at 6'8, 312 pounds.
Then there's Ridgeway, who Jones already mentioned. At 6'5, 321 pounds, Ridgeway was asked about the edge he played with at Arkansas and replied: "If you think I played with an edge then, wait until I get to the league."
Again, I can't say for sure how good any of these guys will be as pro. But the Cowboys thought they got bullied at times last year, and they just drafted a bunch of big dudes with bad attitudes to try to rectify the problem.
Leaning Toward Need
The Cowboys' brain trust will probably balk at this, given the number of times they denied drafting for need over the weekend. Despite that, it feels like an awfully big coincidence that Cowboys drafted a player that fit their biggest needs as a team, all in a row.
"I think obviously those were areas where we could use help. I wouldn't call them musts," said chief operating officer Stephen Jones on Friday night. "I do think we felt like we could use help in those areas. We didn't know what order we would address them."
That quote, I think, helps us read some tea leaves. The Cowboys might not have prioritized a specific position, but it's pretty obvious they went into this draft with a checklist of spots that had to be addressed: offensive line, wide receiver, tight end and edge rusher.
Stephen Jones had another quote on Saturday that seems to suggest that, while they might not have entered the draft with a specific order in mind, they also knew which positions were priorities.
"I think it was just sorting through when was it the best time to get these players," he said. "If the best guy right off the bat is the lineman, then take him. If it would've been the pass rusher, then take him."
Time is going to tell how well this pays off. We know that at least one team tried to trade up for Tyler Smith, so there was value there. But we also can't deny that three of the most high-profile players in this draft – Tyler Linderbaum, Jermaine Johnson and Devin Lloyd – went off the board right after the Cowboys' pick. Like it or not, those decisions will all be weighed together when we look back at this class.
It's really just the Smith pick that will spur this debate, though. Given the position he plays, Williams went in a range that makes sense. And even if that decision is seen by some as a "reach," it's balanced out by the fact that they still managed to draft Tolbert in a spot where few thought he'd still be available. All of their Day 3 picks lined up, more or less, with where outsiders thought they might go.
All of that said, I still think it's fair to say the Cowboys came into this draft with a very clear idea of the players they wanted, and at a handful of very specific positions. Now, we wait to see if they were right about these evaluations.
The Long Game
Some drafts are about instant impact. When the Cowboys came away from the 2020 NFL Draft with CeeDee Lamb and Trevon Diggs, we knew right away that both players would be seeing a lot of snaps as rookies.
Don't get me wrong, plenty of this year's picks are going to play. Tyler Smith will likely be a starter. But I look at this class and can't help but think we'll have a clearer idea of what they can do in 2023 or 2024.
We already know the talking points with Smith. He just turned 21 three weeks ago, and he'll need some work on his technique to clean up the penalties. But consider this: his best chance to start right away is at left guard, though the Cowboys see him as a possible eventual replacement for Tyron Smith at left tackle. That means there's a very good chance we won't see anything resembling his final form in the coming year or so. This is a pick that's all about potential.
Williams certainly has the juice to develop into a starter of the future. But this is a group that's long on experience, with DeMarcus Lawrence, Dante Fowler Jr., Dorance Armstrong and Tarell Basham having played a ton of pro football. I certainly envision a role for Williams, especially since we know how much defensive coordinator Dan Quinn coveted him, but I wonder how big his part in the rotation will be.
Of course, Day 3 picks are not expected to make a huge impact right away, but you can still see a developmental aspect of these selections. Jake Ferguson has a wonderful opportunity to learn behind Dalton Schultz, while Matt Waletzko is insanely athletic but needing plenty of seasoning himself. My guess is the Cowboys are hoping that pick in particular can pay dividends in the second half of his rookie contract. The selection of Damone Clark is all about future potential, as Clark will miss at least part of his rookie season after undergoing neck surgery – but has the talent of a Day 2 pick when healthy.
That leaves Tolbert as the closest thing to a readymade guy among this group. Like I said, I expect we'll see plenty of Smith this season, but I think it's a bit easier to project just how ready Tolbert will be to step into the lineup.
The good news is that the upside is sky high. If the Cowboys hit on even a couple of these picks, they'll have some budding superstars on their hands. But here at the beginning of May, I don't think this draft class is enough to upgrade the talent level of this 2022 team above what we watched last fall.
Of course, I could be wrong about that. I never saw Micah Parsons making that type of impact, that quickly. And the Cowboys trust in their process, and seem to think they've drafted some similar players this spring. All we can do is wait to see.
That might not be as sexy as a letter grade, but hopefully it's a bit more informative.