Patrik [No C] Walker joined the Dallas Cowboys digital media group as a staff writer and media personality in July 2022, having professionally covered the NFL and, more specifically, the Cowboys since 2007.
He most recently did so for CBS Sports by way of 247Sports, where he also spent time delving into collegiate recruiting as well – ultimately becoming well-known for his level of unapologetic objectivity labeled by many as his own unique brand of football "science".
Welcome to "The Science Lab", a place where football facts and in-depth analysis always triumph over feelings.
FRISCO, Texas — So much for first-year jitters, because the Dallas Cowboys have now figured out how to religiously haul in an exceptional draft class, and the 2022 draftees might eventually turn out to be their Sistine Chapel. Typically, as you'll often see around the NFL, teams find the majority of their respective rookie class doing its best to acclimate to the speed, violence and IQ of professional football.
The Cowboys, however, have apparently cracked the Da Vinci Code when it comes to getting instant impact from rookie players. Just ask Tyler Smith and Sam Williams, for starters, the former performing far beyond his years and the latter coming off of a breakout game in Week 7.
Sitting nicely with a record of 5-2 as they gear up to host the Chicago Bears on Sunday afternoon, their successes in 2022 have been as much about veteran contributions as it has been about young guys showing up and showing out - to say the very least.
Take my hand and let's tour this cathedral for a moment.
In April, the Cowboys signed a total of 28 rookies to the roster. That tally included nine draft picks and 19 undrafted free agents. As you and I have this conversation, seven of the nine draft picks (78%) are on the active 53-man roster - following the activation of fifth-round pick Damone Clark.
There's an eighth still in the building, i.e., Matt Waletzko on injured reserve with a shoulder subluxation, and the ninth was nearly retained but lost to waivers after the team rolled the dice that he'd clear and re-sign with the practice squad (he was claimed by the Washington Commanders).
Oh and, by the way, seven of the team's 17 practice squad members are undrafted rookies signed by the Cowboys (41%).
Even if you were born with 12 ears this would still be unheard of.
"It's one of the best rookie classes I've seen in my seven years here," quarterback Dak Prescott said on Sunday.
What I'm telling you is the Cowboys have an 89% success rate in 2022 as it relates to retention of drafted players, a number that was nearly 100% if not for their NFC East rival. But I know what you're thinking, and it's probably something like, "Well, of course they want to keep players they've drafted, because that's the point of drafting them, right?"
That's completely fair, but it's not reality. The reality is that, in the NFL, not every selection is good enough to survive the final cutdowns in late August, and that's one reason sixth- and seventh-round picks are typically labeled "flyers"; seeing as the chances of them sticking to the team that drafted them is slimmer than those cigarettes from Virginia.
The "hit rate" of teams is annually is a layered equation, but some intermediate research reveals only 1% of draft picks actually hit legendary status (Parsons, Diggs are on that trajectory and Lamb has the potential - three players selected within two years of each other), only 7% of draft picks go on to be impactful for the team that selected them and roughly 17% of draft picks are on another team within the first couple of seasons of entering the NFL - based upon math fueled by the Pro Football Reference wAV metric (career approximate value).
Ah, the crossroads where science and football religion intersect and hug it out.
Will McClay, Vice President of Player Personnel, has led a team of scouts that has the Cowboys flying so far above those hit rates (particularly the 7% impact rate) that Dallas is about to start orbiting the rest of the league when it comes to drafting prowess.
To help illustrate my point here, and to show you just how much of a master class in drafting the 2022 execution was by the Cowboys, I've listed the rookies who are still in Dallas and sectioned them off by level of impact this season or projected impact going forward.
IMMEDIATE IMPACT (Week 1 - Present):
These are players who stepped in between Sept. 11 and now and have impacted games in any fashion, often in a major way. And with Bland set to take the lead at nickel corner following the loss of Jourdan Lewis to a season-ending Lisfranc injury, the opportunities for him to build upon his stellar defensive debut from Week 4 will increase exponentially.
- Round 1: 24th-overall - Tyler Smith, OL (Tulsa)
- Round 2: 56th-overall - Sam Williams, EDGE (Ole Miss)
- Round 4: 129th-overall - Jake Ferguson, TE (Wisconsin)
- Round 5: 167th-overall - DaRon Bland, CB (Fresno State)
- UNDRAFTED: Peyton Hendershot, TE (Indiana)
LOOMING IMPACT (Late 2022):
This section is for anyone who has yet to take the field but will soon, and whose ceiling is actually their floor (word to Michael Jordan). Clark was relegated to NFI (non-football injury list) throughout training camp and until Week 8 after undergoing spinal fusion surgery in March, but the First-Team all-conference talent - who was graded by many as the best LB in the country prior to the medical discovery at the NFL Combine - has a chance to be the steal of the entire 2022 NFL Draft once he ramps up fully.
- Round 5: 176th-overall* - Damone Clark, LB (LSU)
FUTURE IMPACT (TBD):
I categorized these players by potential to be an impact player/contributor in the near future, even if not until the 2023 season - be it as a starter or a rotational talent. I'm far from closing the book on what Tolbert can be but, admittedly, he has work to do if he wants to show he can eventually become what the Cowboys are hoping for (my projection is Year 2 for him). Add in the potential of Bell, Houston, Davis and even Lindstrom and, well, there are some hidden gems here.
- Round 3: 88th-overall - Jalen Tolbert, WR (South Alabama)
- UNDRAFTED: Markquese Bell, S (Florida A&M)
- UNDRAFTED: Dennis Houston, WR (Western Illinois)
- UNDRAFTED: Malik Davis, RB (Florida)
- UNDRAFTED: Alec Lindstrom, OL (Boston College)
Of this group, Harper is the only one on the active roster currently but that doesn't mean you can overlook a talent like Thomas or Tafua - both having impressed pre-draft and at times in training camp - or in how Drummond is putting in work with wideouts coach Robert Prince to challenge for a future WR spot. And with injuries having cropped up at the tight end position recently, Seth Green (a player that Mike McCarthy had been eyeing for months) enters the practice squad to challenge Sean McKeon as the developmental young guy.
- Round 6: 193rd-overall** - Devin Harper, LB (Oklahoma State)
- UNDRAFTED: Juanyeh Thomas, S (Georgia Tech)
- UNDRAFTED: Dontario Drummond, WR (Ole Miss)
- UNDRAFTED: Mika Tafua, LB (Utah)
- UNDRAFTED: Seth Green, TE (Houston - via Texans)
Unfortunately for these players, it's a redshirt season in 2022, but Waletzko flashed in camp prior to his shoulder injury and Taylor-Stuart is rehabbing with the goal of showing why his Nahshon Wright-like frame can come in handy for Dan Quinn once healthy.
- Round 5: 155th-overall* - Matt Waletzko, OT (North Dakota)
- UNDRAFTED: Isaac Taylor-Stuart, CB (USC)
*denotes awarded compensatory pick
**upgraded via Cleveland Browns in Amari Cooper trade
***acquired from Cleveland Browns in Amari Cooper trade
By now, you're either getting the picture or you have your eyes closed and your fingers in both ears saying "la la la la la" to avoid the truth of it all: the Cowboys aren't just elite at drafting and developing talent, but they might've just produced the best draft haul in the entire NFL in recent memory. And I want you to think about that for a moment, because it's also a team that grabbed the following talent in 2021:
- Micah Parsons
- Kelvin Joseph
- Osa Odighizuwa
- Chauncey Golston
- Quinton Bohanna
- Israel Mukuamu
Those are all impact players and/or starters right now, in one way or another (Joseph on special teams with a shot now to show something on defense after the loss of Lewis that also opens the door for Nahshon Wright - another 2021 pick), but the Cowboys didn't fare well at all in the UDFA pool last year. Only two of the 14 undrafted signings from 2021 survived to make the 2022 roster (14%).
Something tells me that number will be significantly higher when we revisit the 2022 list of UDFAs this time next year.
Sure, the Cowboys have their whiffs just like anyone else, and sometimes it can be unforgivable and accountability must be taken for when it happens - i.e., Taco Charlton - and sometimes there's at least some impact but the player ultimately falls far short of validating their draft status, like Morris Claiborne. More often than not, though, they've masterfully turned bunts into doubles and singles into inside the park home runs.
Yes, they are guilty of leaning too heavily on this formula as a means of not being as aggressive as I'd probably like to see them be in free agency, but they've also began to salve that concern with how they shop, and one need look no further than Jayron Kearse, Malik Hooker, Anthony Barr, Jason Peters and the brand-spanking new trade for Johnathan Hankins to support that point.
And when you're able to land players like CeeDee Lamb and Trevon Diggs in the same draft to combine with what's become a more reasonable (maybe not entirely because hi, Von Miller) free agency formula, it's not difficult to see why even a struggling offense and the absence of Prescott for five games didn't torpedo the season, thanks to added and stellar defense help from DeMarcus Lawrence and Dorance Armstrong (stop me if you've heard this before: also Cowboys draft picks).
Hell, even Cooper Rush is a former undrafted rookie signed by Dallas (2017) and developed into a capable NFL backup.
So as we take a moment heading into Week 8 and the subsequent bye that is Week 9, I'd be remiss if I didn't take pause to recognize just how unfathomable it is to witness a winning team who is in the conversation for one of the NFC's best that is constructed by mostly homegrown talent and what I can only describe as what is arguably the best rookie class in … decades (?).
Time will tell the ultimate story of it all but, until it does, it's fair to wonder if the Cowboys have methodically become the Holy Grail of how to draft NFL players, enough so that you can forgive them for their occasional sin every few Aprils.