For football fans, the most talked-about non-football event is — by far — the NFL Draft. For months leading up to the April event, media and fans alike speculate about who each team will take — or should take — and in the days after the draft, each team's haul of players will be scrutinized like and analyzed before any of the players suit up for their first mini-camp.
The more accurate time to start looking at how good a draft class was is after the players' second season. Some will struggle to earn playing time as rookies, while others will endure first-year jitters or simply require a year to learn the system.
So which draft class has been the Dallas Cowboys' best in the last decade?
Because of the two-year analysis rule — and the fact that several players got hurt, thereby making a review hard to do accurately — the 2009 class gets a pass here. Besides, there are several other classes that turned out very well.
Third place: 2008
If more than half of the players in a draft class stick for more than a couple of years, that's pretty good. In the case of the Cowboys' 2008 class, five of the six players selected are still with the team, and each plays a significant role.
The Cowboys started the draft by making a pair of first-round selections that have made major impacts on the team's offense, defense and special teams. Arkansas running back Felix Jones has done exactly what was advertised — inject the offense (and kickoff returns) with a jolt of speed and electric open-field running. Jenkins, in his sophomore season, solidified the "other" cornerback spot across from Terence Newman and earned serious Pro Bowl consideration this season.
The jury remains out on tight end Martellus Bennett. He has the physical tools to be a top-tier tight end, or at the very least become the best complementary tight end in the league, but he needs to refine his route-running and be far more consistent.
In the fourth and fifth rounds, Dallas found exceptional reserves. Fourth-rounder Orlando Scandrick battled Jenkins for the starter's spot during training camp, and could start for a lot of teams, while the fifth round turned up Georgia Tech running back Tashard Choice, a versatile back who can run, block and catch the ball, and only sits at No. 3 on the depth chart because the team has two other capable backs in Marion Barber and Jones.
The only pick on which the Cowboys missed was Erik Walden, a linebacker who played defensive end at Middle Tennessee State and just didn't have the quickness to make the move to his new position.
Second place: 2003
At first glance, it would be easy to call this the class of the decade, as the Cowboys found three fixtures in the draft — plus one in free agency.
With the fifth overall selection, Dallas drafted cornerback Terence Newman, who has held a starting position in the secondary ever since. Second-round selection Al Johnson was a useful center until he left via free agency.
The best value picks of the draft came in the third and fourth rounds. In the third, Dallas plucked Tennessee tight end Jason Witten, who has established himself as one of the game's best at his position, and an annual Pro Bowler. A round later, Dallas grabbed LSU linebacker Bradie James, who has become one of the NFL's best inside linebackers. A three-time team captain, James collected 202 tackles in 2008 — the second-highest single-season total in team history.
The Cowboys swung and missed on their last three picks — Wisconsin cornerback B.J. Tucker, Hampton wide receiver Zuriel Smith and Colorado guard Justin Bates — but more than made up for those selections by finding a quarterback named Tony Romo at Eastern Illinois as a free agent.
First place: 2005
The best class of the decade, however, is the class of 2005. The Cowboys not only found players, they got a couple of them at lower draft selections than most expected.
In the first round, the Cowboys went after defense, and got it. They made the right choice with the 11th pick, selecting Troy linebacker DeMarcus Ware over Shawne Merriman, and watched Ware become one of the most dominant defensive players in the game today. Nine picks later, Dallas grabbed LSU defensive end Marcus Spears, who has held down the starting left defensive end spot since his rookie season and been one of the anchors of the Dallas front seven.
In the second round, Dallas drafted Tennessee linebacker Kevin Burnett, a valuable cog on defense and on special teams before he left via free agency.
Then, in the fourth round, the Cowboys grabbed half of the potent running back tandem at the University of Minnesota in Marion Barber, who became such an effective battering ram of a runner that the team signed him to a seven-year contract before the 2008 season. Later in the same round, Dallas snatched Virginia defensive end Chris Canty, a player many thought had the talent to reach the top half of the first round but slipped because an off-field injury to his eye. Until he followed the big money to the New York Giants last offseason, he had established himself as the team's best defensive end on the right side, giving the team two huge, powerful ends in one draft.
The best value pick in the draft turned out to be the best defensive lineman on the team, when Dallas used its seventh-round pick on a little-known defensive end out of Auburn named Jay Ratliff. Viewed by many at the time as almost a throw-away selection, Ratliff was shifted inside by then-coach Bill Parcells and became the best pass-rushing interior defensive lineman in the entire NFL.
Can Cowboys Match Decade's Best?
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