The 2022 NFL Draft is officially in the books for the Dallas Cowboys, and it didn't go quietly into the night, thanks in large part to the NFC East as a whole. It was the Philadelphia Eagles stealing the show away from the New York Giants -- who had an electric first two grabs in defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux and offensive tackle Evan Neal -- when the Eagles started wheeling and dealing, grabbing defensive monster Jordan Davis and then striking a blockbuster trade deal with the Tennessee Titans to acquire wideout A.J. Brown before awarding him a four-year, $100 million contract.
Even the Washington Commanders got in on the draft-day trade action, but the Dallas Cowboys decided to stand firm at 24th-overall, having found no player worth trading up for and passing on offers to move down. As it turns out, the latter was due to a player they had their eye one, specifically, and they made their affection known when they went on the clock and gave the nod to offensive tackle Tyler Smith, formerly of Tulsa.
But, who is Smith? Well, he's one some NFL general managers had a first-round grade on, despite his name having mostly flown under the radar of the general public until very recently, and the Cowboys were one such team. He now presumably allows them to cross off one of several needs going into Day Two, but he's not without his warts, while also not lacking in potential.
So let's talk about all the good/potential that the latest draft haul brings to the table for Dallas, and what each incoming rookie will need to get to work on immediately if they hope to get off to a running start.
Three things to know:
- Raised in Fort Worth, Texas
- Overcame Blount's disease as a child
- Will begin NFL career as guard, not tackle
Notable athleticism comps: Kyle Long, Ikem "Ickey" Ekwonu, Charles Cross, Penei Sewell
Playing style: Mauler
Area of opportunity: Hand technique (leads to holding penalties when combined with style of play)
It appeared the Cowboys were entertaining a trade back when they went on the clock with the 24th overall pick, and actually were, later admitting there were several teams calling them with interest to move up. They listened intently, but instead stood pat and passed on more notable talent -- e.g., Jermaine Johnson, Nakobe Dean, Devin Lloyd and Tyler Linderbaum -- going with more of a project [at starter] in Tyler Smith out of Tulsa. Smith enters during a time of tumult on the Cowboys offensive line, with continued durability issues on an aging Tyron Smith and the decision to release starting tackle La'el Collins to pass the mantle to backup swing tackle Terence Steele.
The jury is out on if Smith, who has a good ceiling, can contribute immediately or if he'll need polish (the latter making it a debatable pick when tying him to the first round). Owner Jerry Jones noted Smith was the 16th-ranked player on their board, and there's sentiment around the league that he would not have made it out of the first round, which explains the Cowboys decision to not trade down with potentially the hopes of selecting him later.
That said, Smith has plenty of work to do if he's to be the heir apparent to anyone on the offensive line but, and it's key to keep this in mind, he has the physical ability to do just that. A lot of his progress early on will fall on the lap on offensive line coach Joe Philbin, and largely in trying to get Smith to scale down the number of penalties he usually draws per game -- especially on a team that has often believed themselves targeted by NFL officials on holding penalties (something head coach Mike McCarthy benched former starting left guard Connor Williams over in 2021).
With Williams now a member of the Miami Dolphins, Smith will move from offensive tackle, where he played mostly at Tulsa, to left guard beside All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith. The younger Smith becomes the fourth offensive lineman selected by the Cowboys in the first round, and the three before him lend hope to what he himself might become: Zack Martin (2014), Travis Frederick (2013) and Tyron Smith (2011). Both Martin and Frederick were viewed by many as reaches at the time, and went on to have stellar careers, with Martin's still ongoing and Frederick retiring only due to his battle with Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
Standing just under 6-foot-5 and weighing in at a healthy 324 pounds, Smith has plenty going for him if the penalties (his only real red flag) can be reduced or eliminated. He plays with a visceral rawness that, while often getting him in trouble with officiating, also makes him a bully on the offensive line. He's not a player opposing pass rushers enjoy dealing with on a snap-by-snap basis, and his arm length (85th percentile) combines with his wingspan (92nd percentile) to make for a very long day for defenders.
Add in his ability to pop outside for those times when Tyron Smith will presumably not be available due to injury, and you can easily see why the Cowboys valued him as a late first-round grab, which is essentially a high second-round pick -- for all intents and purposes.
"I have a lot of versatility for both [guard and tackle]," Smith told Dallas media following the selection. "I'll work them all. ... I definitely see myself as a tackle for sure, but I'm willing to move wherever I need to go to mesh with the organization or wherever I am."
Even more impressive for Smith is the fact he overcame the aforementioned Blount's Disease, per NFL Network, a structural deformity in his legs as a child that effects the growth plates around his knees. When he was in middle school, doctors had to forcefully/medically break his legs and put them in cages to let them heal/grow properly, but several NFL teams cleared him and there are no issues expected as an adult; particularly seeing how long ago the procedure was [successfully] done.
It's been a long road for the Dallas-Fort Worth area native to get to where he is now, playing for his hometown team. Should he effectively absorb the teachings of the Smith to his left and Zack Martin to his non-immediate right -- adding in the previous successes of Cowboys first-round offensive line selections -- he'll have a very real chance at being the added stopper needed in front of quarterback Dak Prescott following a draft that saw the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles both add some serious firepower to their pass rush.
Much like the first-round O-lineman before him, he'll have to overcome the argument of who the Cowboys should've selected instead but, to be fair, once/if he learns how to refine his raw power and football anger into a more polished and penalty-free product -- look out.
Round 2, No. 56: Sam Williams, EDGE, Mississippi
Three things to know:
- One of the best pass-rushers in 2021
- Off-the-field red flags caused draft slide
- Will immediately challenge to replace Randy Gregory
Keeping with their theme of the 2022 NFL Draft, the Cowboys again passed on bigger ticketed names -- e.g., linebacker Nakobe Dean -- and went with defensive end Sam Williams, the former Ole Miss talent who will presumably look to challenge Dorance Armstrong and Dante Fowler for the right to replace Randy Gregory opposite DeMarcus Lawrence. Williams is a First-Team All-SEC honoree who racked up sacks in ascending fashion over the course of his three seasons in Mississippi, going from 9.5 sacks in 2019 to 12.5 sacks in 2021 (32.5 sacks total). His fall was due to some off-the-field red flags, but the Cowboys are banking on that being in his rearview.
And now, to the film.
Williams isn't the most powerful player in this class of edge rushers, but he doesn't have to be, largely because you'd be hard-pressed to find someone with the level of quick-twitch that exists within the former Ole Miss pass rusher. What makes him that much more unique is his ability to blend it with speed and finesse -- able to gobble up a lot of ground quickly but, more importantly, owner of a great bend and lean off of the edge. He plays low through the point of attack, making it difficult for blockers to truly engage with his pads, and has a tremendous flexibility and acceleration when shooting the gaps. His hands are also moving at all times, slapping away blocks to make for quite a stout package that opposing blockers won't enjoy lining up against.
He'll need to work on his lateral movement though, or at least his ability to quickly diagnose when he should go east-west and not simply north-south, and he has been known to be upended if a blocker can get him out of his low stance prematurely. Huge upside exists on Williams, but it is another red-flag prospect for the Cowboys, much like cornerback Kelvin Joseph was in 2021 when he garnered the nod as the team's second-round pick, and that can't be denied or deleted.
Williams was charged with sexual battery (eventually dropped) and subsequently suspended from Ole Miss in July 2020. He'd go on to be reinstated and again began making an impact, his physical skill set being inarguable; and the latter is what the Cowboys are focused on -- operating under the belief Williams won't see his red flags translate to the NFL level.
"That's not me. That's not going to determine the type of person I am ... But all I'm thankful for is a chance from a team that believes in me." Williams told Dallas media following the selection. "It's the past. Obviously, I didn't do anything. Now, it's a whole new start ahead of me, and that's what I'm looking forward to most."
Round 3, No. 88: Jalen Tolbert, WR, South Alabama
Three things to know:
- Deep vertical threat who can play all three WR spots
- Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year (2021), 2x First-Team All-Sun Belt
- Expected to fill role vacated by Cedrick Wilson
Notable athleticism comps: Reggie Wayne, Dante Pettis
Playing style: Speed kills
Area of opportunity: Concentration drops
In the third round, Dallas found its wide receiver in Jalen Tolbert of South Alabama -- a prospect who doesn't hail from a big program but brings a big skillset to the table. He's a vertical threat who finished his collegiate career with two consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, scoring 16 touchdowns in his last two years at South Alabama. His 1,474-yard season in 2021 showed the entire world what he can be if he remains focused and sees the ball into his hands. Add him to a soon-to-be healthy Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb, and it's a great start following the controversial end to Amari Cooper's time in Dallas.
You can expect to see Tolbert move around between all three WR spots, as needed, having the quickness to break free at the second level against nickel corners and linebackers but also possessing a 4.49s 40-yard dash speed that can punish slower outside corners or any who don't get their hips turned quickly enough on a go route. Tolbert is smooth, butter even, and often uses his footwork and burst to shimmy his way into the open field -- picture a car changing gears -- reminiscent of what Cole Beasley once was for Dallas. But, unlike Beasley, Tolbert can take the top off of the opposing defense on a consistent basis; and with a hand size that makes it difficult to wrestle a catch away from him.
Cue the film.
Tolbert's biggest opportunity will be to clean up his drops, which happen because he's often ready to turn upfield before looking the ball into his hands. Add that to the fact that while he's not poor at blocking, he could stand to improve a bit, particularly on a team that enjoys running the ball. In all, landing Tolbert late in the third round is a fantastic value for the Cowboys, and doing it with the 88th-overall pick is a bit of cosmic poetry for Dallas.
Having received a call from Prescott ahead of the draft to gauge the possibility of the selection, Tolbert says there was an "immediate vibe" struck with the Cowboys franchise quarterback. It's clear that feeling is mutual and that Prescott gave the green light, and now all Tolbert has to do is be off to the races in Dallas -- because he'll have no shortage of opportunities to do just that.
Round 4, No. 129: Jake Ferguson, TE, Wisconsin
Three things to know:
- Holds Wisconsin school record for most games with a catch
- Former four-star recruit
- Hails from strong football lineage
Notable athleticism comp: Hunter Henry
Playing style: Stout blocker, "security blanket" target
Area of opportunity: Bulk, Lack of speed/burst
And there it is, the Cowboys make their first pick on Day 3 one that fills a huge need on the offense. In seeing both Cade Otton to open the day and Charlie Kolar snatched from them one pick before they'd go on the clock -- by the Baltimore Ravens -- the Cowboys made the call to add Jake Ferguson to the roster. It's an underrated name that fits what they need very well, especially as a blocker. That attribute is glowing for Ferguson, and with Schultz having taken steps back as a consistently good blocker in his evolution to a pass-catching playmaker -- along with Blake Bell being gone as of last offseason -- the Cowboys didn't just need a tight end who can catch the ball but also one who excels at punishing would-be pass rushers and run defenders.
That's not all Ferguson does well, though. When called upon, he's been known to make an impact in the passing attack as well, and with the consistency of a security blanket that's reminiscent of what Jason Witten was for Tony Romo.
This in no way is intended to imply Ferguson will one day be a First-Ballot Hall of Famer (although, wouldn't that be delicious?), but it is to say Dak Prescott will enjoy knowing that whenever he needs to get out of a pinch, he can look for Ferguson either on a free release or a delayed release from an engaged block -- example being how Ferguson holds the Wisconsin school record for most consecutive games with a catch.
His biggest area to improve upon is his mass, because he'll likely need to bulk up a bit to keep NFL defensive ends at bay, and he's not the fastest or quickest in the draft, so scheming him just as you did Witten is the right formula here; allowing Schultz to continue doing what he's been doing.
Round 5, No. 155: Matt Waletzko, OT, North Dakota
Three things to know:
- Second-team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference honoree
- Team captain at North Dakota
- Got used at least once at UND as a receiver (screen pass)
Notable athleticism comp: D'Brickashaw Ferguson
Playing style: Hulk Smash
Area of opportunity: Height can create pad level issue, lacks elite twitch (but is athletic)
If you've ever stood next to Tyron Smith, or at least have a television big enough to truly demonstrate his size, then you've seen what a building with arms, legs and a head looks like. Count this as the second time you've recently seen it in a Cowboys uniform, because Waletzko is a freaking unit. Standing at 6-foot-7 and weighing in at 312 pounds, the former North Dakota starter heads to Dallas to be bred as a potential successor at tackle -- be it behind Tyron Smith or in direct competition with Terence Steele -- and his style of play can only be summarized by picturing an angry Bruce Banner.
While mild-mannered and full of smiles off of the field, when the ball is snapped, Waletzko uses his elite upper body strength, in combination with a wingspan that rivals a pterodactyl, to absolutely punish and overpower pass rushers, often moving them at-will to wherever he so chooses.
He joins a mauler of a pick in Tyler Smith (first round) in helping to add some promising potential to a Cowboys offensive line that desperately needs it. Where Waletzko might struggle initially is in trying to get his pad height lower, the curse that comes with the gift of his height. And while Tyron Smith is two inches shorter, learning from the perennial All-Pro how to lower his base will go a long way into helping the rookie prosper down the road at the pro level.
Also not the twitchiest, he does make up for it with an initial punch that can put two hand-shaped holes in the nearest defender or the ability to channel it into simply tossing bodies around. And if you need to fully grasp how athletic he is, and not simply for his size, see below:
Round 5, No. 167: DaRon Bland, CB, Fresno State
Three things to know:
- sub-4.5s 40-yard dash
- Official 30 visit for Cowboys
- Potential conversion to safety in Dallas
Notable athleticism comps:
Playing style: Angry, physical, thrives on making contact
Area of opportunity: Aggressiveness can lead to overpursuit, handsy
This is an interesting one for the Cowboys but, let's be honest, he's not the only one that fits that category in this year's haul of Dallas picks. There's not a ton of film to dissect on Bland, but you'll mostly like what you see when you get your hands on some. A speedy defensive back that can keep up with receivers in a straight line, he could do well in man/press assignments but really excels in zone coverages, but he'll need to learn how to channel his aggressiveness and physicality -- two things he has in spades -- to refine his movements.
That is to say Bland, who is anything but, so loves and thrives on laying impact hits on opposing ball-carriers that he can, at times, overcommit to the cause. That sometimes leads to a bad angle or two, but not often enough to believe he can't be coached to improve upon this concern. He's solid in coverage and has soft hands to reel in takeaways, but he needs more time on the field to truly be viewed as one who might take on a role as starter. I'm left to wonder if, given his skill set, if the Cowboys won't try him as a safety initially -- as trying defensive backs away from their home position is something Dallas has shown they're unafraid to do (e.g., Reggie Robinson, Israel Mukuamu), to see where he'd be better suited at the next level.
Bland originally began his collegiate career at Sacramento State but then transferred to Fresno State in 2021, and will now put on a Cowboys uniform one year later. Look for him to try and add value as a special teams player/gunner as well, something special teams coordinator John "Bones" Fassel would love to see happen.
Round 5, No. 176: Damone Clark, LB, LSU
Three things to know:
- First-Team All SEC (2021)
- Three-year starter at LSU
- Underwent spinal fusion surgery/status doubtful for start of 2022
Notable athleticism comp: Devin Lloyd
Playing style: Starved tiger, devours ball-carriers with explosive impact
Area of opportunity: Susceptible to play fakes because of aggressivness
Huge risk, huge reward. This is how you need to view this pick, with a strong lean toward the latter. Clark is recovering from a serious back injury that required surgery to repair, and might cost him time as a rookie, but he's already had the procedure done and the prognosis is a six-month recovery time. This means, if all goes to plan, he could see the field at some point around midseason or a bit later. But even with the risk, when factoring in his prowess and the fact the Cowboys acquired him late in the fifth-round -- i.e., approaching flyer territory -- reuniting him with former LSU teammate and linebacker Jabril Cox (who still might be the steal of last year's draft as a former fourth-round pick, but is returning from a torn ACL) and with Micah Parsons on the field could make for a lethal trio; and a corps that is still in their early 20s.
Clark was a dynamo for the Tigers in his four-year collegiate career, earning First-Team All-SEC honors in 2021 and helping to lead LSU to a national title in 2019 with Joe Burrow at the helm. In 2021 alone, he racked up 135 combined tackles (15 tackles for loss), 5.5 sacks, and an interception in 12 games played -- career-highs in each category.
This is what he brings to the Cowboys, and all he has to do now is get healthy. And it's not as if the Cowboys are ignorant as to how to return a LB to the field who suffered a major injury prior to landing in the NFL (ask Jaylon Smith).
Once healthy, his first point of order will be to glean as much from Parsons as possible regarding the ability to diagnose play action/play fakes and peel off into coverage, because his aggressiveness and dedication to blowing up ball-carriers can sometimes lead him open to misdirections. A coachable opportunity, to say the least, for what might be a steal for the Cowboys; and they believe he might return at some point this coming season.
Round 5, No. 178: John Ridgeway, NT, Arkansas
Three things to know:
- First Razorback drafted by the Cowboys since Felix Jones (2008)
- Won state wrestling title at Bloomington High School (IL)
- Former Freshman All-American, MVFC All-Newcomer Team
Notable athleticism comp: Akiem Hicks
Playing style: Wrestler
Area of opportunity: Lacks explosive get-off as pass rusher, gap discipline
It took awhile for it to happen in this year's draft, but the Cowboys just got themselves a very large human being to take up space at nose tackle. Ridgeway, who'll battle former sixth-round pick Quinton Bohanna (2021) for snaps on the right shoulder of All-Pro DeMarcus Lawrence, won't make it easy on Bohanna -- whatsoever. The beauty of Ridgeway is he also has the athleticism to slide to defensive end in three-down sets, something Dan Quinn likely fell in love with as well.
Long arms combine with hands the size of a Prius' windshield to help him shed blocks and get into the backfield to disrupt plays and, at worst, his size makes it very difficult to move him off of his spot; and that aids in his ability to stop the run if he can set his anchor. You won't find many with his ability to manipulate the body of his opposition, either, and that's a nod to his days as a championship wrestler, able to counter any move an offensive lineman would throw his way.
Ridgeway does need to improve his anchor, however, and should not find himself on the ground as much as he does, which isn't frequently but is too frequently for someone of his size and ability. An improved center of gravity will help, as will his mauler mentality and demeanor, but it'll be on him to absorb as much as he can, as quickly as he can, to make sure he sticks around and makes an impact for the Cowboys -- something owner Jerry Jones would love when considering the Cowboys don't often draft from his beloved alma mater.
"I'm a get out there and try [to] break someone's neck," said Ridgeway in his post-selection call.
While no one wants that to be literal, it does go to his mauler frame of mind.
Round 6, No. 195: Devin Harper, LB, Oklahoma State
Three things to know:
- Official 30 visit for Cowboys
- Special teams value
- Above-average athleticism for his position
Notable athleticism comps:
Area of opportunity: Indecisive, needs better anchor/strong base when tackling
Standing at six feet and weighing 234 pounds, Harper becomes the flyer pick for the Cowboys in 2022 -- the final one of their entire draft class. You can view him as mostly an immediate add to the special teams unit, and he'll need to work his way up from there, going from impressing Fassel to working his way into the good graces of Quinn. Not invited to this year's NFL Combine, Harper was forced to make his presence felt at Oklahoma State's Pro Day, and did, to the degree the Cowboys had to get a look for themselves and, as such added him to their Official 30 visit list.
He won them over in that meeting, but as their sixth-rounder, although you won't see him complain about it whatsoever. Harper finished his fifth season at OSU with six sackcs and 95 combined tackles in 14 games played, including 11 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. Not the most polished player and also not the most rangy, he's better suited to confined spaces and lateral coverage than anything else as it relates to pass coverage.
"When I didn't get the invite [to the Combine], it kinda hurt," Harper said, via The Oklahoman. "But it just added fuel to the fire at the end of the day, and I just had to go out there and show what I can do, which is what I did."
His athleticism alone makes he worth a sixth-round flyer pick, but don't put high expectations on what he might become in Dallas, which would make it that much better if he does overcome his rough edges to become an impact player. At worst, if he turns into a special teams ace, it's a win for the NFL version of the Cowboys. The potential is there, but so is the need for Quinn to work his magic.