FRISCO, Texas — If Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones answered this question any other way, the 2022 draft class would be called a disaster before any of the nine players ever practiced.
Have the Cowboys gotten better?
“As much as we improved the team last year,” Jones said after the NFL draft concluded on Saturday. “I’m not exaggerating. You say, ‘My God, you had Micah [Parsons] leading the way there.’ I think we’ve got that kind of improvement from when we started the draft sitting right here.”
Parsons was the 12th pick in the 2021 draft. The linebacker was named a Pro Bowler and first-team All-Pro. He set a Cowboys’ rookie record with 13 sacks. He was named the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year. He helped turn around a stale defense.
And the Cowboys have improved in an offseason in which they traded receiver Amari Cooper, released offensive tackle La’el Collins and lost several key contributors in free agency — including defensive end Randy Gregory, guard Connor Williams and receiver Cedrick Wilson. Did they improve enough to keep the rest of the NFC East behind them? The Cowboys went 6-0 against the division with a 22.2-point average margin of victory, so the Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Commanders and New York Giants have a lot of catching up to do.
The Cowboys’ class is not sexy the way it was when they got Parsons in the first round last year or when they lucked into receiver CeeDee Lamb with the 17th overall pick in 2020 before selecting corner Trevon Diggs in the second round.
It can’t be that sexy when the first-round pick is at No. 24 overall and was Tulsa offensive lineman Tyler Smith. But the class can be effective.
The Cowboys won’t put Smith’s name in ink as a starter at left guard just yet, but it’s at least in pencil.
“The No. 1 thing is, he’s a big, athletic, physical man that’s going to play in a big, athletic, physical league,” vice president of player personnel Will McClay said.
Second-round pick Sam Williams can help replace Gregory’s six sacks and quarterback pressures from last season after the linebacker had success (12.5 sacks in 2021) against first-rate SEC competition. Third-round pick Jalen Tolbert might be from a small school (South Alabama) but the receiver put up 1,474 yards in 2021, similar numbers to what Michael Gallup put up at Colorado State before the Cowboys took him in the third round in 2018.
With Gallup expected to miss at least a couple of games as he works back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee that he suffered last season, Tolbert will get the chance to see valuable snaps with Lamb and James Washington.
In the fourth round, the Cowboys added Jake Ferguson to the tight end room to replace Blake Jarwin, who was cut. The Cowboys had success running two-TE sets last year, averaging 6.4 yards per play. Ferguson can enhance that with Dalton Schultz, Sean McKeon and Jeremy Sprinkle.
Just don’t call it a draft for need.
“Absolutely not,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said.
Jones said the Cowboys entered the draft without any “musts,” but they certainly had questions.
Smith was the Cowboys’ highest-rated offensive lineman remaining when they took him in the first round. Williams had a high second-round grade and they nearly selected Tolbert at No. 56 overall in the second round but felt a receiver was more likely to fall to No. 88 than a pass-rusher.
“I would say those positions that were [blinking] to us when we were picking, I think it was just sorting through when was the best time to get these players,” Jones said. “Whether the best guy right off the bat is the lineman, take him. If it would’ve been the pass-rusher, then take him. But I think we did a really good job of working through our board.”
On the draft’s third day, the Cowboys had at least a fourth-round grade on each of their first five picks, according to Jones. Fifth-round linebacker Damone Clark had a third-round grade but fell because of a spinal fusion surgery that will keep him off the field for at least part of the season. If he is fully healthy in 2023, he could be the biggest find of the class considering he had 135 tackles last season at LSU.
With Smith, fifth-round tackle Matt Waletzko and 2021 fourth-rounder Josh Ball, Jerry Jones said the Cowboys will not need to add a veteran as the backup swing tackle. Cornerback DaRon Bland and sixth-rounder Devin Harper can be major special teams additions. The Cowboys’ fourth fifth-rounder, John Ridgeway, brings size (6-foot-6, 320 pounds) the Cowboys need at defensive tackle.
“That’s the best I’ve ever seen us work it in a draft room with a combination of how we ended up with these players,” Jones said.
This is the Cowboys’ third draft class with Mike McCarthy as coach. The first two produced three Pro Bowlers (Lamb, Diggs, Parsons) and three other starters (DT Neville Gallimore, C Tyler Biadasz and DT Osa Odighizuwa) with some questions remaining on some other 2021 draftees like CB Kelvin Joseph, DE Chauncey Golston and CB Nahshon Wright.
“Draft and develop is the bloodline, lifeline of how you want to build your team inside and out,” McCarthy said.
The 2022 class might not have the immediate star power, but McCarthy believes it has staying power.
“We drafted nine players. Yeah, yeah, we got a lot better here the last few days,” McCarthy said. “That’s very important. These guys, I think are obviously very talented, all are very good fits for how we want to play.”