FRISCO, Texas – There are few better compliments paid to a draft pick – especially a mid- to late-round selection – than the conclusion that signing a veteran at his position would only stop progress.
That's what Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones proclaimed after the club drafted offensive tackle Matt Waletzko in the fifth round (No. 155 overall) last Saturday.
"He sure took the spot of a veteran swing (tackle) guy out here in free agency," Jones said. "We won't be seeing one of those."
The 22-year-old Waletzko will have competition when he arrives. The Cowboys are eager to see Josh Ball's progress after the 2021 fourth-round pick missed his rookie season with an ankle injury. And first-round pick Tyler Smith could fill in at tackle this year if needed while also set to compete for a starting job at left guard.
Clearly, though, Waletzko will get chances to develop into a dependable backup. The 6-foot-8, 315-pounder is another small-school success story, having excelled at North Dakota after receiving just a single Division 1 scholarship out of high school Cold Spring, Minn.
"I just took it and ran with it," he said.
It's easy to see why the Cowboys are intrigued by Waletzko's skill set. Only five offensive line prospects at the NFL Combine had longer arms (36 inches) -- an important feature for warding off pass rushers.
"John Alt was the first left tackle that I was around in the league back in the '90s. I always had such great respect for him, and John was ridiculously long that way," Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said. "Matt has that kind of ability. Obviously, his athletic ability gives him the ability to play both left and right tackle. I thought he was an excellent choice, particularly at that time. It's someone we had our eye on, and we've been talking about for a while."
Waletzko also has excellent foot agility for a guy his size. And the Cowboys like his on-field demeanor: "nasty and physical," according to vice president of player personnel Will McClay.
"It's kind of the tempo that Coach wants to set and what we want from our linemen," McClay said.
The Cowboys had a formal interview with Waletzko at the Combine, and he said he had a Zoom interview with offensive line coach Joe Philbin the week before the draft. The club was impressed not only with his production – North Dakota only gave up three sacks in his four seasons on campus, according to his school bio – but also the way he rehabbed a season-ending knee injury during the pandemic in 2020 and returned stronger.
A seismic rise in competition awaits. But with an impressive week of practice at the Senior Bowl in January, Waletzko showed he could play with the top prospects in the country.
"You're talking coming from that conference (Missouri Valley) and then you just want to see him against better players, and then you see how the physical skill set matches against the big college players to show that he belongs," McClay said. "And then you continue to grow from that point in our eyes on how he did in the interview at the Combine and everything else we talked about."
Waletzko admits he had a chip on his shoulder during Senior Bowl week, motivated to compete against the best. All that work paid off.
Now more work is ahead.
"I would think just keep continuing to get better," he said. "I think me coming from a smaller school, I'm still a little raw. I think I do have a lot of upside, and a lot of my best football is ahead of me. I think that's why the Cowboys took a shot at me, and here we are."