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Draft Central | 2023

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Deep Dive Into Cowboys History of Drafting TEs


Much like a weather forecaster trying to predict what the next 7-day forecast is going to be (especially here in North Texas), trying to predict what an NFL draft prospect is a complete and utter crapshoot.

This is not an exact science. To draft for need - or to draft the best player available? Fans and executives alike have their own feelings on the matter and sometimes they do intersect, but the reality is nobody knows what a prospect is going to be when fully formed.

So as the Cowboys hold the 26th overall pick in this year's NFL Draft, they have options at their disposal. The franchise has built its draft equity by hitting on first round picks (i.e., Ezekiel Elliott, CeeDee Lamb, Micah Parsons) just in recent years, as well as in the later rounds (I give you Dak Prescott, Donovan Wilson, and DaRon Bland.

They've retained the majority of their key free agents like Wilson and Leighton Vander Esch while waving goodbye to a franchise superstar in Elliott. They turned compensatory fifth-round picks into Stephon Gilmore and Brandin Cooks, both of which fill needs at cornerback and wide receiver and thus affording them the ability to simply draft the best player on their board.

This doesn't mean that they don't still have a few holes on the roster, though. With the departures of Connor McGovern and Dalton Schultz who played last season on the franchise tag, the two most glaring spots that could be filled next week are guard and tight end.

Fortunately, this draft is rich and plentiful with tight end talent. From Notre Dame's Michael Mayer who is considered by many draft experts to be the best all-round player at the position of the group, to Utah's Dalton Kincaid and Georgia's Darnell Washington, all have their own unique skill set and supreme talent. So, one would think that one of these three would be a logical choice for the Cowboys if available, no?

It's a little more complex than that.

The Cowboys already possess two young tight ends that each had strong rookie seasons a year ago in fourth-round pick Jake Ferguson and UDFA Peyton Hendershot. They could very easily justify allowing those two to continue to grow and blossom in Year 2. And history would tell you that the Cowboys simply don't draft tight ends in the first round all that often.

You would have to go all the way back to 1973 to find one of two tight ends the Cowboys have selected in the first round with Billy Joe Dupree, with the other being David LaFleur in 1997. Both had vastly different levels of success, sure. The only two other tight ends of note that the Cowboys drafted inside of the top three rounds in the last 20 years? Jason Witten in 2003 (third round) and Martellus Bennett in 2008 (second round.)

For those keeping score, that's two tight ends drafted in the first round over the franchise's 63-year history.

If you zoom out and look at tight ends drafted in the first round since 2000, there have been more than enough success stories (Dallas Clark, Kellen Winslow, Vernon Davis, Greg Olsen just to name a few). Then there are the other players who had solid careers and proved to be fairly productive (Todd Heap, Ben Watson, Heath Miller, etc.)

Now let's go back under the microscope with the Cowboys. With Mike McCarthy now calling the plays in concert with new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer helping build out his West Coast system, tight ends can prove to be very valuable in a scheme that is reliant on the quick-passing game.

In McCarthy's tenure from 2006-2018, he drafted just six tight ends during that span while spending no more than a third-round pick on one twice (Jermichael Finley 2008, and Richard Rodgers 2014). The rest came in the fifth-round with varying degrees of success.

Even in his three seasons in Dallas, McCarthy has taken just one tight end in Ferguson last April in the fourth round. All of this to say… Between the Cowboys draft history and McCarthy's draft history in 17 years as a head coach, history would again tell you that taking a tight end in the first round is just not in their DNA.

Recent history across the league would indicate that there are potential future Hall of Famers at the keystone to be had outside of the first round. Travis Kelce was a third-round pick in 2013, as was Mark Andrews with the Baltimore Ravens in 2018. George Kittle was a fifth-round selection by the 49ers in 2017. If you dig back a bit further, Rob Gronkowski was a second-round pick in 2010.

Though you could make the argument in even more recent years players like Kyle Pitts and T.J. Hockenson were first-round selections and have blossomed into true elite pass-catching tight ends in a league where players with the skillsets like those mentioned above have become one of the deadliest mismatches in the sport.

The Cowboys have done a swell job in affording themselves the ability to draft the best player with the 26th overall pick, and that may very well be one of this year's tight ends from a very deep class, history notwithstanding, that flourishes into the next great pass-catching tight end.

Perhaps the Cowboys and McCarthy buck their trends and splurge in Kansas City, Mo. next week.


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