IRVING, Texas – Ezekiel Elliott stood at the press conference podium at Valley Ranch, flanked by Stephen Jones and Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett, holding a No. 1 Cowboys jersey as the 2016 fourth overall pick – the highest draft selection made by the franchise in 25 years.
"It's starting to sink in," he said. "I'm proud to be a part of this prestigious organization. I'm just looking forward to coming in and getting to work."
Later this week, Elliott will return to team headquarters with the rest of the 2016 rookie class for the team's three-day rookie minicamp. Let's take a closer look at how the first four of nine total draft picks might fit into the roster:
Ezekiel Elliott1st Round, RB, Ohio State
Elliott joins a running back depth chart that already includes a pair of accomplished veterans, Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris, with 137 career starts and 10,049 rushing yards between them. Yet – and this should be no surprise for a top-five pick – the Joneses and Garrett gave strong indications that Elliott would have a prominent role in the offense as a rookie. The Cowboys believe Elliott's skill set as a patient, powerful rusher can re-establish a physical tone up front that served as the offensive foundation during the team's 12-win season two years ago. With sure hands and sound blocking technique, Elliott is well-rounded enough to be an every-down back right away, even though he'll be pushed by the veteran backs. Lance Dunbar, a unique talent as a running and receiving option, quite possibly could start the season on the physically unable to perform list as he continues to recover from last year's knee injury.
Jaylon Smith2nd Round, LB, Notre Dame
Smith might have been a top-five pick before seriously injuring his knee in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year's Day. His post-injury draft projection was anyone's guess until the Cowboys boldly selected the Butkus Award winner at No. 34. It's a calculated risk, for sure; Smith suffered peroneal nerve damage in addition to torn ligaments, and nerve regeneration is a waiting game without a clear timetable. The Cowboys have an excellent understanding of Smith's prognosis because the team's orthopedic physician, Dr. Dan Cooper, performed Smith's knee surgery in January. It's unclear if he'll be able to contribute in 2016, but if indeed he redshirts his rookie season, the team believes his long-term potential is worth the possibility of a year on the sideline.
Maliek Collins3rd Round, DT, Nebraska
The Cowboys see Collins as a prototypical three-technique tackle in their defensive line rotation. That's the position Tyrone Crawford plays, but given the Cowboys' depth issues at defensive end with Randy Gregory and (reportedly) DeMarcus Lawrence facing four-game NFL suspensions, Crawford could slide outside early in the season. Either way, Collins could immediately secure a considerable number of defensive snaps on the interior alongside veterans such as Crawford, Cedric Thornton, Jack Crawford, Terrell McClain and David Irving. He was a productive starter at Nebraska, posting 23 tackles for loss and eight sacks in three seasons before turning pro.[embeddedad0]
Charles Tapper4th Round, DE, Oklahoma
The Cowboys have a well-documented need for edge rush help, and Tapper has the natural quickness required to be a right-end prospect in Rod Marinelli's system. The 271-pounder ran an eye-popping 4.59 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. He only registered 15.5 sacks in four college seasons, but part of that could be attributed to his responsibilities in Oklahoma's scheme. "He played more head up in their scheme, and did it very well," Garrett said. "But we do think he will play a little more on the edge and get up the field more in our scheme." Tapper will try to work his way into the defensive line rotation along with last year's fifth-round pick, Ryan Russell, who played only 33 snaps as a rookie last season.
On Tuesday, we'll analyze the final five picks of the 2016 class.