When the dust settled on the 2014 NFL Draft, Cowboys Nation had to wipe their eyes clean and be pleased with the haul the team brought in. Will the 2015 season have them wiping away tears of joy based on last year’s rookie class’ impact?
Armed with the ammunition of 10 picks (albeit six in the seventh round), Dallas was prepared to try and boost their talent level in a major way. As most remember, the Cowboys had four players they were highly interested for the first round, and a serious need to upgrade the defensive line after losing future Ring of Honor member DeMarcus Ware. Dallas had their wishlist of Anthony Barr, Aaron Donald (le sigh) and LB Ryan Shazier disappear in front of them. Zack Martin, the standout tackle from Notre Dame predicted to move inside to guard remained, as did QB Johnny Manziel and all that Texas Moxie.
The Cowboys wisely picked Martin, and haven’t looked back as he provided an All-Pro rookie campaign. They did, however, still need a pass rushing presence. Against a well-regarded edict that trading up in a draft rarely wins, Dallas moved up to select Demarcus Lawrence in the second round. While his rookie season was effectively a wash after a training camp foot injury, Lawrence projects to a Week 1 starter in 2015. These “draft wins” are oft-discussed, but the success of a draft class is also measured by how well the players drafted after the second round perform.
No example is greater than Seattle, who have built a perennial Super Bowl contender with third-round picks or later such as QB Russell Wilson, CB Richard Sherman and S Kam Chancellor. Dallas themselves had ultimate success with a third rounder, as DeMarco Murray won Offensive Player of the Year in 2014. It looks like they may be on the verge of some other late-rounders making an impact.
LB Anthony Hitchens had many fans scratching their heads on draft weekend, but proved capable of playing in this league when multiple injuries to the linebacker group got the fourth-rounder inserted into the lineups quickly. Sean Lee in OTAs was followed by the retiredment of Devonte Holloman and a season-ending injury to Justin Durant. Bruce Carter also missed time and that equated to Hitchens logging over 500 snaps on the season.
There were quite a few struggle faces early on, but as the season progressed he made several timely plays as the Cowboys hummed along the second half of the year. Now, he is penciled in as the starting SAM linebacker with an excellent shot at winning the Mike LB post while Rolando McClain serves his four-game suspension. Many considered Hitchens a lock to be one of the team’s two Nickel backers, meaning he’d already be seeing more than half of the snaps on the year.
WR Devin Street was selected in the fifth round, but reportedly Dallas gave him a higher grade on him than fourth-round pick Anthony Hitchens. The Cowboys correctly predicted Street would last until their next pick. His impact in 2014, beyond some excellent downfield blocking was negligible. However, reports from the coaches over the offseason indicate that Street might be ready to challenge incumbent starter Terrance Williams for WR2.
Williams didn’t show improvement over his rookie campaign and has since admitted his effort level was unacceptable. There were times it appeared QB Tony Romo froze him out of the offense. Training camp will determine who gets to sit in the catbird seat, as Romo has made a habit out of boosting second-receiver’s careers. Street is a long glider with an incredible catch radius (while Williams is a consistent body catcher). If WR Coach Derek Dooley has made his mark, Street could become another versatile weapon for the Cowboys offense in 2015.
Ben Gardner is next. There’s been a long line of cult heroes for Cowboys Nation who hail from the later rounds and have an inexplicably large contingent of supporters. Prior to Gardner, S Matt Johnson held the unicorn horns, but it appears Gardner has a shot of proving those supporters right. Gardner effectively red-shirted his rookie season, recovering from torn shoulder ligaments. He was available in the seventh round due to another upper body injury, a torn pectoral muscle that cut short his 2013 campaign at Stanford.
His production ratio, a telling indicator in projecting success at the NFL level for defensive line collegians was 1.55 (1.0 is the minimum you look for, 2.0 is elite). His three-cone (6.98) and short shuttle (4.24) Pro Day numbers were better than Lawrence’s and according to him, he’s no longer being shuffled between end and tackle, settling on the outside.
Gardner’s toughest hurdle might be from the increase in depth Dallas has at the edge positions in 2015. He should be in the rotation while Hardy is suspended and will have to make an impression to stay there. Strongside, or closed, end is where he will spend the majority of his time.
It appears that Dallas did quite well for themselves in last years draft, and then followed it up with three first-round talents in 2015’s version.
In fact, looking at the 22 starters on a team, look at how many are projected to come from the last three draft classes, also known as the Will McClay era. Travis Frederick, Terrance Williams or Devin Street, Joseph Randle, Martin, Hitchens, Lawrence, Byron Jones, and La’El Collins all project. That’s over a third of the starting positions on the team (36%), and doesn’t include expected regular contributors such as Randy Gregory and possible line rotation guys such as Ken Bishop, Chris Whaley and Gardner. Should Dustin Vaughan win the backup quarterback position over Brandon Weeden, or Davon Coleman make the squad as a rotational DT, even more water could be squeezed from the proverbial rock.