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Football

The Cowboys’ Draft Class Is Heavy on Athleticism and Heavier on Beef

Dallas entered the weekend needing help on both lines. It exited with plenty of fresh faces to plug those gaps.
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Marshawn Kneeland (right) is part of a line-heavy draft class for Dallas. Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest (spring) weekend in football finally came and went, and NFL fans will get a glimpse at 257 newly drafted prospects throughout training camp as they look for their favorite team to take a step toward the Super Bowl. Eight of those players became Dallas Cowboys, and we’ve got four months to get to know them before the 2024 season begins. 

That starts with Tyler Guyton, the raw but extremely athletic offensive tackle whom Dallas took with its first-round pick, 29th overall. Guyton played on the defensive side of the trenches until college, and he didn’t play significant snaps at his new position until 2022, when he transferred from TCU to Oklahoma. In 1,000 snaps over these past two years, he graded out modestly in both run and pass blocking, according to Pro Football Focus. In fact, he had the lowest grades in both areas of any lineman taken in the first round. 

But when it comes to prospect evaluation, especially for a player who hasn’t played the position for long, that’s the least of anyone’s worries. Guyton was the 30th-ranked prospect, according to the consensus big board compiled by Arif Hasan, because he is projectable and uniquely athletic. His 34.5-inch vertical was the highest recorded at the combine among players who weighed 315 pounds or more.

As for his results in college, Guyton graded out as a pass blocker similar to Tyler Smith, the Cowboys’ 2022 first-round selection. The biggest difference is Smith looked like a mauler as a run blocker out of college while Guyton has worse results in the run game than he does in the pass game. With this pick, Dallas is trusting its coaching to develop an extremely athletic player with reasonable results into its next keystone on the offensive line.

The Cowboys used their next two selections on a couple of more extremely athletic players who also play in the trenches: edge rusher Marshawn Kneeland of Western Michigan and offensive guard Cooper Beebe out of Kansas State. Both players scored above the 90th percentile at their position by relative athletic score, which uses combine metrics to give an estimate of a player’s athleticism. (Guyton scored higher than both in this metric). 

Beebe going to Dallas at pick 73 was a minor surprise for a few reasons. First, that selection didn’t even belong to the Cowboys until they traded back in the first round. For another, Beebe was projected as the second-best guard available in the draft and the 46th-best player overall, according to the consensus big board, and Dallas was able to scoop him up in the third round. Beebe graded out with the best of the best in 2023 in both his pass and run blocking. Finally, with Tyler Smith locked in at left guard and Zack Martin still going strong on the right side, this didn’t figure to be a position of need for Dallas.

But center was. So following a decorated college career that included being named the Big XII Offensive Lineman of the Year in 2022 and 2023, Dallas got creative and bet on Beebe making the transition. While it may take time for him to master the position’s nuances, his blocking grades suggest he’s NFL-ready out of the gate. 

Kneeland improved his statistics every year at Western Michigan, setting career highs in sacks, fumbles forced, pressure rate, tackles, and run defense grade in 2023. His numbers look the part of a defensive line contributor, with the biggest question being whether he can do it at the highest level, as he hasn’t faced true high-end opposition. 

Kneeland, Beebe, and Guyton round out yet another run of very athletic players at the top of the draft for the Cowboys, which has been a trend over these past few seasons. According to Sumer Sports, the Cowboys have drafted the fourth-highest average athleticism scores of any team over the past decade in the first two rounds of the draft. 

After the early rounds, though, athleticism doesn’t seem to be as much of a priority.

Dallas’ fourth pick of the draft was its biggest (and arguably only) reach—linebacker Marist Liufau of Notre Dame. Liufau has some hickeys in his game. His 18.9 percent missed tackle rate ranked 188th of 219 qualified linebackers last season, he didn’t stand out by any pass rush or run defense numbers, and he generated only two turnovers (one interception, one forced fumble) in his final two seasons. 

However, there are some easy-to-miss numbers that may point to what the Cowboys saw in a player most people expected not to be drafted until the fifth round. Liufau had the fifth-highest coverage grade among drafted linebackers last year. He may not have gotten a pick in 2023, but he also didn’t allow a touchdown in pass coverage over the past two seasons. Finally, his 11.1 percent forced incompletion rate since 2022 is the fourth-best among qualified linebackers in this draft class. He’s not a run stuffer, but he has the skills to show out as a quality coverage linebacker in the NFL.

Although almost 100 picks were made before they selected again, the Cowboys added four more players over the final three rounds. Caelen Carson, a fifth-round choice out of Wake Forest, most likely will need some coaching up in the coverage department but brings reliable tackling and run defense to the secondary. He had a missed tackle rate below 9 percent over the past two years, which put him in the 80th percentile for cornerbacks. In the sixth round, Dallas took its only skill position player of the draft, wide receiver Ryan Flournoy of Southeast Missouri State. Flournoy had a career 2.67 yards per route run and just a 3.2 percent drop rate. At 24 years old, he could add some immediate depth to the wide receiver room.

Finally, with its two seventh-round selections, Dallas went back to the trenches, taking offensive tackle Nathan Thomas of Louisiana-Lafayette and defensive tackle Justin Rogers of Auburn. An above-average run blocker, Thomas will get a shot at the backup swing tackle position. The 6-foot-3, 346-pound Rogers brings size and SEC experience, and will ideally bring some run-stuffing to the depth chart.

The 2024 draft class doesn’t bring the buzz of recent groups headlined by Micah Parsons and CeeDee Lamb. What it does have the potential to do is shore up the trenches. Five of the Cowboys’ eight picks were along the offensive or defensive line. Tyron Smith’s departure leaves a hole on the offensive line that they’ll try to fill with Guyton and Beebe, while Kneeland and Liufau will be looked to for depth along the front seven. Perhaps one of the seventh-round fliers carves out a role, too. 

Even that won’t solve all of Dallas’ problems. Running back remains a glaring need, unless you’re a big believer in Ezekiel Elliott returning to form in his second stint as a Cowboy or Rico Dowdle taking a big step up to replace Tony Pollard. But after a rare down year in the 2023 draft, there’s a lot to like in this year’s crop of Cowboy rookies. Now it’s time to see if the coaching staff can turn this crew into NFL contributors.

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Dan Morse

Dan Morse

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Dan covers the Cowboys for StrongSide. He is a Pacific Northwest native & self-described nerd who has been covering the…
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