For example, if a wide receiver averages 40 catches and five touchdowns per season, the value of his acquisition can't be assessed without knowing in which round of the draft he was picked. If 2009 seventh-rounder Manuel Johnson had made the team and produced numbers like that, he would have been viewed as one of the all-time great seventh-round selections. But what if those were the career averages of 1988 first-round pick Michael Irvin? He would have been labeled an underachiever.
Considering those criteria, who are the Cowboys' top picks of the last 10 years?
3. Andre Gurode
Offensive linemen rarely get much attention, and those who do often are tackles, considered the marquee players along the line. But after the offseason release of tackle Flozell Adams, Andre Gurode is now the longest-tenured lineman on the Dallas roster.
A year after selecting Gurode in the second round of the 2002 draft, Dallas drafted another center, Wisconsin's Al Johnson. The two rotated for a couple of years, but Gurode strengthened his grip on the position to the point that the Cowboys let him walk via free agency (to the Arizona Cardinals). Gurode has held down the position ever since Johnson left town, and last season was voted to his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl.
2. DeMarcus Ware
Normally, a first-round pick wouldn't be on a list like this, because it's hard to say the player is a great value pick, because players chosen in the first round are supposed to play right away and make a significant impact. The Cowboys got two in the 2005 draft in Ware and defensive end Marcus Spears, and drafted three other starters in later rounds: running back Marion Barber, defensive end Chris Canty and defensive end-turned-nose tackle Jay Ratliff.
But Ware is exempt from those restrictions. He doesn't just start, and he doesn't just make Pro Bowls. Ware is arguably the best defensive player in the entire NFL and a guy for whom other teams have to account on every single play. Whereas most players can be silenced, or at least contained, by adjustments made in opposing game plans. But it's rare that anyone can keep Ware in check, which is why he makes this list, even if he were the No. 1 overall selection in 2005 (he was picked 11th).
1. Jason Witten
Like Ware, Witten has exceeded all expectations, and ranks ahead of Ware on this list in large part because he was snagged in the third round (of the 2003 draft).
Witten was plucked out of Tennessee in a draft that also brought the Cowboys cornerback Terence Newman, Johnson and linebacker Bradie James. (The Cowboys also signed undrafted free agent quarterback Tony Romo.) He is among a handful of players who can lay claim to the title of the NFL's best tight end, ranking with the likes of Washington's Chris Cooley, San Diego's Antonio Gates and San Francisco's Vernon Davis as one of the elite players at his position.
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