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Spagnola: Watch Out If These Two Not-So-New Guys Become Unforgettable

FRISCO, Texas– Great the Dallas Cowboys selected Taco Charlton with the 28th pick in the first round of the NFL Draft.

         Great the Cowboys then proceeded to restock their secondary, selecting Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Xavier Woods and Marquez White, versatile combinations of cornerbacks and safeties.

         One and all will compete for starting jobs as rookies. There are jobs available for those jobs. Right defensive end. Left defensive end. Right corner. Left corner. Strong safety. Nickel and dime corners.

         Heck, there are jobs available at the 1-tech defensive tackle. Right offensive tackle. Return specialist. Tight ends behind Jason Witten. Fourth and fifth, possibly a sixth receiver. Backup center and guard. There are candidates galore for those jobs, too. That's what happens when you lose as many as 16 guys off a 13-3, division championship team. And there probably will be more lost by the time the Cowboys get to their Sept. 10 season opener.

         The annual job interview process will begin next Friday, right here at The Star, when the Cowboys conduct their three-day rookie minicamp, and for sure everyone will be excited to see these draft choices, the exuberance of newcomers already provoking predictions of just which ones will become either walk-in or eventual starters.

         But let me give you a good piece of advice if you are inclined to dabble in such out-on-the-limb guessing. Do not, repeat, do not forget about these two mostly invisible guys from last year:

         Charles Tapper.

         Jaylon Smith.

         Now, for sure you remember Smith, last year's middle linebacker scooped up with a second-round prospective pick. Sort of like panning for gold but not knowing if you struck it rich or fooled until you arrive back at the claims office. The Cowboys had a lot of nerve to select a top-five talent with a damaged peroneal nerve in his left knee causing a fit of drop foot. They certainly were taking a chance.

         Then there is Tapper, the defensive end out of Oklahoma selected with their first fourth-round pick, and supposing there is no need to remind just who was taken with that second fourth-rounder. That he was playing out of position as a 3-4 defensive end for the Sooners his senior year caused his production and draft status to plummet. The Cowboys were only too happy to swipe him up in the fourth, knowing they were going to place him where he belonged, as a 4-3, pass-rushing defensive end.

         Lest you forgot, neither played a down of football last year. The Cowboys knew the chances of Smith playing were remote, and was why they placed him on the non-football injury list to start the season and then eventually left him there for the remainder of the year. As for Tapper, a week or so into training camp a previously unknown back ailment robbed him of the season, too, the Cowboys waiting until the fourth week of the schedule to place him on what turned out to be season-ending injured reserve.

         The dreaded redshirt year for both. Out of sight, out of mind.

         Well, as the Cowboys began their second phase of offseason workouts this past week, meaning coaches are allowed to be on the field with the guys working with their respective units – no offense vs. defense competition – Tapper and Smith were out there, seemingly doing everything everyone else was doing.

         Good sign.

         Telling you, do not dismiss Tapper, not at right defensive end, not at left defensive end. This guy has got something, as long as his degenerative back ailment that seemingly is under control does not flair up again. From what we saw during Tapper's rookie offseason workouts and that first week or so of training camp, this guy was on his way toward winning a starting job with DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory facing those season-opening four-game suspensions and Tyrone Crawford starting off at defensive tackle.

         When I suggested as much to Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli two weeks ago, I got an "Oh, yeah" from him. Loves his "get off." Knows he has the size, 6-foot-2, 270 pounds, to play defensive end on either side. Gosh knows he has the speed, having run that 4.59 time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine last year.

         Yes, the Cowboys would love to see Charlton become a walk-in starter on the right side, and certainly they will give him every opportunity to do so. But as head coach Jason Garrett preaches, nothing is given. Like, how many times did you hear through the draft last week Garrett talking about "competition." Remember his meritocracy. The competition over there will be fierce between Charlton, Tapper, Benson Mayowa and maybe even Demontre Moore.

         Same on the left side. They'd love if Lawrence, after back surgeries to repair the same ruptured disk these past two offseasons, returns to his eight-sack 2014 form. But not a given. Who knows, maybe Charlton ends up there. Maybe Tapper. Maybe even Crawford or David Irving, depending how things play out inside. Just don't rule out Tapper.

         Sure wish he was eligible to participate in next weekend's rookie minicamp. Be great to see him once again with his hand on the ground. But he's not. Was on the roster for three weeks last year and then placed on IR, so he's considered a second-year player.

         Smith is not. He's a 1, meaning landing on NFI did not give him a year of service. He is eligible to participate in the rookie minicamp. He'll likely be out there doing something, but certainly not everything, and unlikely anything to do with team drills.

         Of course, you have heard the optimism over his improved drop-foot condition being spewed from Jerry and Stephen Jones, along with Garrett. His peroneal nerve damaged when he tore his ACL and MCL in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl vs. Ohio State is coming to life. His last few EMGs (electromyogram) have shown the nerve getting better and better and better.

         While Smith still wears the brace to counter the drop-foot problem, he has been out here during the offseason workouts, doing what all the other guys have been doing. Running. Cutting. Stopping and starting. And he's in envious shape.

         Can he play football? If he can, well, he'll be challenging Anthony Hitchens for the starting middle linebacker job, and if he's capable, that probably would mean Hitchens challenging Damien Wilson for the starting strong-side job.

         But no matter what you might see from next weekend's minicamp or what you might hear, the Cowboys won't genuinely know if Smith can play football until they get to training camp. Until they put pads on and actually "play" football.

         The doctors and trainers believe he can play with a brace even if his nerve does not fully recover. Heck, they thought that possible as early as last season.

         The big unknown, though is …

         Play to what level?

Can he return to a top five-pick talent or will his immense skills diminish him into just another guy? And again, that won't be known until the pads come on in training camp; once he must shed a 300-pound guard trying to block him; once he's required to man up tackling a 215-pound running back coming down hill.

Doing drills is one thing. Those steps usually are premeditated. Very little playing actual football is premeditated.    

         At this point, nothing is a given for Smith. Then again, having seen him work, having been privy to his optimism, don't count him out.

         Now, wouldn't all this be something if the Cowboys can essentially add Tapper and Smith to this draft class. Meaning two defensive ends. Four defensive backs. A middle linebacker. That on the heels of last year adding a starting quarterback, running back, defensive tackle and a cornerback who started nine games, not to mention a maybe a neophyte tight end at some point.

         That would be some two-draft haul.

         Especially if the two invisible men become unforgettable.

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