Dallas Cowboys: Evaluating Last 5 First-Round Picks in NFL Draft

Evaluating the Dallas Cowboys’ last five first-round picks in the NFL Draft and looking forward where possible

The Dallas Cowboys have had a great amount of success with their first-round picks the past five seasons, with players becoming All-Pros and Rookie of the Year, resulting in the process of the Cowboys eventually winning the NFC East championship in 2016.

2012 first-round pick Morris Claiborne left the franchise this offseason via free agency, he had his good times and bad times due to battling injuries. But overall he was with the franchise for five seasons. Since drafting Claiborne, the Cowboys’ first-round selections have included the following:

This year’s first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft is just as important as the five players listed above. And if the Cowboys draft the best player available to rebuild their defense, who knows, maybe they can continue to add to the success they’ve built in just the past five seasons alone.

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Oct 2, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Dallas Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne (24) intercepts the ball during the fourth quarter against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium. The Dallas Cowboys won 24-17. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Morris Claiborne, CB (2012)

Now with the New York Jets, the Dallas Cowboys had former sixth-overall draft pick Morris Claiborne on their roster for the past five seasons. He had some good times, but also some not-so-great times as he battled various injuries. Claiborne never played a full 16-game schedule while with the Cowboys, but he did play in 47 regular-season games.

Claiborne played in 15 games as a rookie—the most he ever played for the Cowboys—and totaled 55 tackles, one interception and one forced fumble. The following season, Claiborne totaled 26 tackles, one fumble recovery and one interception.

The 2014 season was injury-plagued for the now-former Cowboys cornerback. Playing in just four games, though he did have one interception, giving him one interception in each of his first three seasons.

In his final two seasons with the Cowboys, Claiborne played in 11 games in 2015 and seven games this past season. In 2015, Claiborne totaled 37 tackles and seven passes defensed, then in 2016, he had 26 tackles in seven games with one interception and one fumble recovery. The best stat for Claiborne during his time with the Cowboys was his passes defensed with a total of 27 in 47 games.

Claiborne might not have lived up to being a sixth overall pick as the Cowboys traded up to draft him out of LSU, but he was a serviceable player when he was on the field. His departure from the franchise came as the Cowboys and Claiborne each needed to go their separate ways for the 2017 season.

Oct 16, 2016; Green Bay, WI, USA; Dallas Cowboys center Travis Frederick (72) during the game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. Dallas won 30-16. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Travis Frederick, C (2013)

The centerpiece of the great Dallas Cowboys offensive line is center Travis Frederick, whom the franchise drafted with the 31st pick in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft out of Wisconsin. The Cowboys were able to draft Frederick after making a trade on draft day with the San Francisco 49ers, where the 49ers received the 18th pick (Eric Reid). The Cowboys received the 31st pick and the 74th overall pick (third round) that turned into Terrance Williams.

Frederick has been eligible for 64 regular-season games and, in his four NFL seasons, he’s not missed a single game. Over that time, he’s helped pave the road for three 1,000-yard running backs in DeMarco Murray, Darren McFadden and rookie Ezekiel Elliott last season. Yes, he has plenty of help on the line, but Frederick has been as big of a star as you’ll ever see at center.

He might not have been the most exciting choice when the Cowboys selected him in the first round, but Frederick was the absolute best choice looking back on the selection. Since 2014, Frederick has been on the All-Pro team three times, including the first-team in 2016.

The Cowboys will only go as far as the offensive line will take them. With Frederick in the mix, that could be an even further distance than last year when they reached the NFC Divisional Round of the playoffs.

Nov 13, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Dallas Cowboys guard Zack Martin (70) blocks in pass protection against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the first quarter at Heinz Field. The Cowboys won 35-30. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Zack Martin, G (2014)

There was a pattern for a few years where the Cowboys focused on their offensive line in the first round. And with the 16th overall pick in 2016, the Cowboys selected Notre Dame offensive lineman Zack Martin. With the selection of Martin, the Cowboys continued to make their offensive line not just above-average, but great, as he’s a very important part of the Cowboys reaching the playoffs in two of the past three seasons.

While at right guard the past three seasons, Martin hasn’t missed a single game, playing in 48 regular-season games. Martin has also made three starts in the playoffs. His play on the field has given him many accolades off the field as well, turning into an All-Pro at his position.

Like with his counterpart Travis Frederick, Martin is a big-time player for the Cowboys offensive line, and they would’t be where they are today without him in the starting lineup. It’s no secret that Dallas wants to run-first in their offensive system. That’s accomplished with ease with the likes of Frederick and Martin. It’s never attractive to take an interior lineman in the first round, but the Boys proved it can pay dividends. This was not just a good pick by the Cowboys in 2013, but an excellent and franchise-changing player added to the roster.

Jan 1, 2017; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Dallas Cowboys free safety Byron Jones (31) reacts after breaking up a pass play against the Philadelphia Eagles during the second quarter at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Byron Jones, DB (2015)

In the lineup from Day 1, Byron Jones is one of the better playmakers the Cowboys have drafted in any round in recent seasons. He was drafted as a cornerback out of UConn, but has played safety during his entire NFL career.

In two seasons, Jones has yet to miss a game for the Cowboys, playing in 32 regular-season game. He’s collected 114 tackles, 18 passes defensed, one forced fumble and one interception. In the playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers this year, Jones totaled five tackles and two passes defensed.

It seems like Jones will stay a safety for the Cowboys for the foreseeable future, though with the way the defensive backfield is with the Cowboys, he could be switched over to cornerback if that is what is deemed best for the franchise.

That is the great thing about Jones is that he’s versatile and talented enough to play both cornerback and safety. Right now, the Cowboys starting defensive backfield looks like Jones (FS), Jeff Heath (SS), Nolan Carroll (CB) and Anthony Brown (CB). So, it’s likely that the Cowboys will be drafting another defensive back this year. Regardless, Jones has established himself as a cornerstone for the unit.

Jan 15, 2017; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) runs the ball against Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews (52) in the NFC Divisional playoff game at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Ezekiel Elliott, RB (2016)

The Cowboys drafted Elliott with the fourth overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, and 1,631 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns later, the Cowboys had themselves a superstar. Elliott didn’t play at all in the final game of the season and still averaged 5.1 yards per carry on 332 rushes, also adding a touchdown reception.

The Cowboys running back also collected eight 100-plus yard rushing games (including the playoffs) with his career-high coming in his 14th game when he totaled 159 yards on 23 carries with one touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Even in his first playoff game against the Green Bay Packers, Elliott totaled 22 carries for 125 yards.

Though Elliott has had some off-the-field problems early in his NFL career, it hasn’t caused him any issues on the field as of yet. He’s already become a star in the league but has also set the bar very high for his sophomore season in 2017.

With Elliott, he’s only going to improve with time. For the rest of the NFL, that’s a scary thought. But for the Cowboys and their fans, it is a welcome sight that could finally lead to more success in the playoffs and not just in the regular season.

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