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Dallas Cowboys NFL Draft Checklist: What Got Accomplished in Las Vegas?

A polarizing first-round pick, a high-end lottery ticket, the Vanilla Gorilla, and more.
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Tyler Smith's ceiling is undeniable. So are the growing pains. Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL Draft has come and gone, leaving Dallas with nine new Cowboys (plus a slew of undrafted free agents). But what actually got accomplished for a team that badly needed to fill holes after an uninspiring free-agent period?

Let’s take a look in a special draft-weekend edition of the Checklist:

Administered a Rohrschach Test

What do you see when you gaze upon offensive tackle Tyler Smith, the Cowboys’ first-round pick?

The Cowboys envision a 6-foot-5 Hercules—big, nimble, and mean enough to one day blossom into Tyron Smith’s heir apparent at left tackle. The tools are there, and thus the projection is, too. If offensive line coach Joe Philbin can mold former undrafted free agent Terence Steele into a starting right tackle in two years, just imagine what he can do with one of the most physically gifted linemen the team has employed in years.

The public, on the other hand, has a much different take. Few draft analysts pegged the 21-year-old Crowley native as a first-round talent, mostly due to raw technique that caused him to rack up penalties (in that regard, he’ll fit right in). Our Jeff Cavanaugh graded him as a third-rounder. This is a tomorrow pick for a today roster, and there’s no telling if the developmental timeline could stretch even longer by starting him at guard versus his customary tackle spot. (Perhaps this is why his selection got booed by fans at a Pluckers in Allen, which is the biggest bummer of a sentence that I’ve typed lately.)

Smith, then, amounts to far more than the most important piece of this year’s draft class. He is a window into what you want to believe about the Cowboys themselves. Those who believe in the organization will point to their drafting over the past half decade and the work they’ve done with first-round offensive linemen, in particular. If Jerry Jones wasn’t completely sold on Smith fitting comfortably into that history, he wouldn’t publicly compare the rookie to Tyron Smith, the best left tackle in franchise history, nor award him with the number of Larry Allen, the best blocker in franchise history.

Skeptics, meanwhile, will wonder why so much expectation is being heaped on a player whose developmental curve is seemingly incongruous with the organization’s championship window, especially when a number of high-end front seven players plus All-American center Tyler Linderbaum were all available at pick No. 24.

I’m beginning in the former camp, mostly because the draft is the one area where the Cowboys have been consistent enough in recent years to warrant benefit of the doubt.

Delivered an All-Time Freudian Slip

Smith may be one of the draft’s youngest and least-refined players, but he’s already got plenty of veteran savvy when it comes to keeping his boss happy.

Avoided the First-Round Wide Receiver Snare Trap

Conventional wisdom leading up to the draft had the Cowboys whittling down the possibilities for its first-round pick to one of two positions: offensive line and wide receiver. Both are needs, but the context of the Cowboys’ current roster and the depth of talent available made one much more urgent than the other. Up front, the Cowboys have two aging future Hall of Famers in Smith and Zack Martin, with the former’s body breaking down bit by bit each year (he hasn’t played 15 games since the 2015 season). After that are question marks. Compare that to out wide, where CeeDee Lamb is among the game’s premier young receivers and Michael Gallup just got furnished with a new contract.

The decision should have been obvious, and once six receivers were selected in the top 20 picks, the choice was made for them. Still, whether by design or circumstance, the Cowboys played the board precisely as they should have. They got their first-round offensive lineman in Smith and still managed to exit the weekend with a strong receiver prospect in South Alabama’s Jalen Tolbert, a 6-foot-1 body-control specialist whose ability to play on the outside frees up Lamb to maximize his talents in the slot. That’s good work.

Played the Lottery (the Right Way)

On talent, résumé, and makeup, LSU’s Damone Clark is the sort of a linebacker who goes on Day 2, a 6-foot-2 tackling machine whom The Athletic’s Dane Brugler described as a guy who “chases with a rocket ship attached to his back” and who was described by a scout to Brugler as “the most driven guy” on LSU’s roster. Clark’s slip to the end of the fifth round owes itself entirely to his health: he recently underwent spinal fusion surgery that could keep him out his entire rookie year. Football being the body-crunching game it is, it’d be foolish to assume much of anything beyond that, either.

Yet this is precisely the sort of gamble Dallas should make this late in the draft, especially in a round where they had four picks to spend. The draft is inherently speculative, and that only holds more true the further you go: one study, which reviewed picks made from 2000 through 2014, found that fewer than 15 percent of players drafted in the fifth round developed into four year-plus starters. Chances are none of the four players Dallas selected there becomes a core piece, so the team may as well juice the odds a bit by betting the sort of talent who shouldn’t be around that late in the first place.

The opportunity cost here is pretty crucial: this isn’t rolling the dice on Jaylon Smith early in the second round, an admittedly superior prospect to Clark who nevertheless came at an exorbitant cost given the risks. Whiff on a top-35 pick, and you’re in trouble. Whiff on a fifth-rounder, and you don’t even change your lunch plans.

Introduced us to the Vanilla Gorilla

John Ridgeway is a 325-pound defensive tackle from the University of Arkansas who, yes, really is called the Vanilla Gorilla, and, sure, you can buy a t-shirt if you’re so inclined:

Ridgeway is a big body who engulfs blockers, and that can come in handy for a Cowboys defense that ranked 20th in opponents’ rushing yards per game last season after placing an abysmal 31st in 2020.

But, if we’re being honest, his selection was probably sealed last September:

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Mike Piellucci

Mike Piellucci

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Mike Piellucci is D Magazine's sports editor. He is a former staffer at The Athletic and VICE, and his freelance…

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