It goes beyond Dak and Zeke. Dallas opens its playoffs with as promising a group of rookies as it’s had in years—and a championship window that once more is wide open
This time of year, all 32 teams are in draft meetings, heading out to college all-star games, gearing up for the combine and preparing to renovate their rosters for 2017. An inevitable part of it, for everyone, is looking back at past success and failure. So here’s what best illustrates how absurd the Cowboys’ 2016 draft class has been: The failure that COO Stephen Jones and scouting chief Will McClay have examined closest over the last few months just happens to be their greatest success.
“[McClay] and I put our heads together all the time—How are we gonna be better next year?” Jones said over the phone on Tuesday night. “The parts we did miss, why? And believe it or not, we’re saying, ‘How did it happen that we took [Charles] Tapper ahead of Dak [Prescott]? Gotta be better than that. How do we learn from those situations, so we can be better in the future?”
Tapper is on IR. Prescott is an MVP candidate. And Dallas will open the playoffs on Sunday as the No. 1 seed after tying the franchise record for regular-season wins.
Suffice it to say, the Cowboys are in a very different spot than they were 12 months ago, when the franchise’s championship window was seemingly closing. Now it’s wide open for the foreseeable future, and to thank for that, the team’s vast fan base has a group of players in their early 20s, players preparing to climb on the playoff stage for the first time.
How ready are they? The answer could well determine who comes out of the NFC.
At this point, we have a pretty good picture of who this weekend’s visitor to AT&T Stadium—Green Bay—is. We know what the Cowboys are too, of course. Their on-field identity is established. What we don’t know is how Dallas’s rookies, carrying as heavy a postseason burden as any first-year class in recent memory, will respond under the January spotlight.
Maybe they’ll do what they did over the final four months of 2016, which would be plenty. Maybe they won’t. There isn’t any way of knowing, of course, until Sunday. But at the very least, the Cowboys feel that Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott and the rest of their rookies are as prepared as any could be.
“That’s one of the greatest things about playing for the Cowboys, especially when you’re having success—it prepares you,” Jones says. “Now, I’ll say this—I’m not naive, they’re not naive. There’s nothing like playoff football. But the only thing I need to go on is how they’ve reacted all year to a lot of different situations, some adverse.
“Whether it’s Dak, Zeke, whether it’s Brown, whether it’s Malik, they’ve all seemed to answer the bell. It hasn’t been too big for them. I’m betting on them.”
So let’s look at what he’s betting on—a group that has the potential to be historic.
Elliott, fourth pick: “I can’t tell you how high the expectations were for Zeke,” said Jones of the NFL rushing champ. “So it was hard to exceed them, but he probably has.”
Jaylon Smith, LB, 34th pick: More from Jones: “I mean, this is a guy who may end up being—and you’re gonna shake your head when I say this—but he could end up being the best of all of [the rookies]. He is special both on and off the field.”
Maliek Collins, DT, 67th pick: When attrition hit, Collins’ play inside allowed the team to move Tyrone Crawford outside. He’s started 14 games and has five sacks.
Tapper (101st pick): He’s on IR with a back issue, but the team likes his size and speed, and believes he’ll factor into the pass-rush equation in 2017.
Prescott, 135th pick: You guys know.
Anthony Brown, CB, 189th pick: Injuries to Mo Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick have led to nine starts for the fast, heady Brown, who’s become an important depth piece.
Kavon Frazier, SS, 212th pick: Frazier didn’t dress until November, but his inclusion on special teams coincided with improvement in those units since Thanksgiving.
Darius Jackson, RB, 216th pick: Cut, now with Cleveland.
Rico Gathers, TE, 217th pick: A Baylor basketball player last year, Gathers has been a problem for the defense as a practice squad player. Loads of potential.
It doesn’t take Ron Wolf to see the implication here. “Obviously the fans are fired up about now, that we’re having success right now—but a big part of it too is our future,” said Jones, as he ran through the group. “When you look at a draft class like this and a draft class like last year, the offensive line, they’re young by most standards in terms of linemen, and we’re getting them all signed up. There’s a lot to look forward to in terms of the future of this football team.
“We haven’t mortgaged our future. We’ve got our picks. It’s a good situation.”
Even better for Dallas, with Jerry and Stephen Jones having McClay leading the scouting department—he’s turned down recent overtures for GM jobs—the structure under the Cowboys means all this youth figures to stay in place for a while.
And where you see GM/coach acrimony elsewhere around the league, maybe the greatest impact McClay has had in Dallas is in creating the kind of inclusive balance between coaching and scouting that’s been so elusive for other teams to strike. As Jones explains it, McClay’s ability to give the scouts a voice while prioritizing the coaches’ needs makes him “very unique in terms of getting buy-in and getting a consensus.”
Which in fact has been the ideal the owner has sought all along. “People want to be critical of Jerry, but he’s a big reason we have the system we’ve got,” Stephen Jones said. “He wants a consensus. He puts it on everybody to say, ‘Hey, we gotta buy in here, we got find guys we’re behind. … Between [Jason Garrett’s] leadership, Will’s leadership, Jerry’s leadership, we seem to get there most of the time—I’m not saying all of the time, but most of the time.”
The result of is a roster that looks ready now, and for whatever’s beyond all that.
As the work being done in figuring out why they passed on Prescott four times before taking him with their fifth pick would indicate, the Cowboys believe this is just the beginning. The questions they were answering last year, about their window closing and Tony Romo aging, aren’t being asked anymore, and a big piece of that is a class that could be one for the ages.
And don’t worry about jumping the gun, if you’re thinking about where Dallas’s Class of 2016 fits into the best groups we’ve seen. Fact is, the way things have played out, the team’s decision-makers haven’t been able to resist either. “You think about it,” Jones said. “One of the best draft classes I still think about was the one with Bill [Parcells, in 2005], when we took DeMarcus Ware, Marcus Spears, and [Jay] Ratliff, and [Kevin] Burnett, [Chris] Canty, and [Marion] Barber—I mean, that was an all-timer. Now, does this draft have a chance to challenge all the great drafts we’ve had? Of course it does.
“But I think it’s too early to give a grade to this class. They’re off to an amazing start, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
For now, they look to extend that amazing start another week. And getting that accomplished would be just one more sign—in a season full of them—that the best is yet to come.
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