Evaluating Garrett’s first draft class

This week provides plenty of time to look at 2012 Draft prospects for the NFL as the Cowboys and the other 31 teams head back to Indianapolis for the Combine at the end of the week.  Over the next few months, teams will build a board and begin to figure out how to populate their rosters with young, healthy bodies to move forward.  Every team wants to “churn its roster”, keeping things fresh and fostering a spirit of intense competition for each and every spot and snap.

One exercise worth getting to this week before we totally turn out the lights on 2011 is looking at the first group that new coach Jason Garrett brought in.  Identifying his role in the “war room” and the personnel collection department with GM Jerry Jones and the normal staff in that regard is still difficult to completely nail down, however, he certainly has influence, and it is interesting to note that 2011 seemed to bring in a number of useable parts moving forward.  If the Cowboys can find as many bodies in 2012 as they seemed to bring in in 2011, they will be doing a nice, quiet job of rebuilding this roster the cheap way – through college players.

The following is a look at the new bodies who have joined the Cowboys in the last year straight from college.  The players included on this list are only those that had some level of roster impact in 2011.  Therefore, developmental signings to take to camp next year are not included.  Just 2011 draft picks and undrafted free agents that spent at least a little time on the roster.

First, let’s review the 2011 Cowboys Draft, player by player:

Round 1, Pick 9  – Tyron Smith, Tackle, USC

About a year ago this month, Smith was identified as a player of great interest for the Dallas Cowboys.  After examining a good portion of his 2010 season at USC and seeing all of his tools and abilities, it seemed like a cinch for the Cowboys to make him a cornerstone for their squad moving forward.  He was very young, but he could be good right away and had a chance to be great in a few years.  Well, after one season where he started by learning a lot of lessons at the hands of opposing pass rushers, we have already seen giant leaps from Smith.  He is being heavily considered to switch to left tackle for the start of business in 2012, and then provided the Cowboys can continue to develop him, there is no reason that he cannot be elite at that vital position for a long, long time.  Health and motivation will always be considerations for young tackles, but it sure looks like the Cowboys might have been able to do something wonderful here.  There is no doubt that JJ Watt would have helped this squad at no. 9 (as I have written countless times), but there can be no second-guessing this pick at this spot.  He appears to be as important an add to this roster as any player since DeMarcus Ware.

Round 2, Pick 40 – Bruce Carter, Linebacker, North Carolina

Unlike Smith, this Carter selection took me completely off guard.  It did not seem a particular position of need and the player was six months from being healthy after a significant knee injury.  Speculation suggested that if he was healthy, he would have been in the 1st Round, and that is what Dallas is banking on.  His contributions in 2011 were rather small, with a special teams play or two that stood out (at Washington), but for the most part, he spent a year getting acclimated to his surroundings and getting his knee healthy.  Clearly, with Keith Brooking and Bradie James exiting, a middle linebacker situation that has 2010 addition Sean Lee and 2011 addition Bruce Carter nailing down that spot for years to come can get people excited.  However, there was very little about his 2011 season from a defensive standpoint that gave us any indication of what he is capable of at the NFL level.  Wait and see is the proper approach for Carter, but with names of great substance on the board when this pick was made (Brooks Read, every safety, and many defensive line prospects) there is a fair number of us who wonder about this selection and did at moment it was made, too.  2012 will be gigantic for him to put that discussion to rest.

Round 3, Pick 71 – DeMarco Murray,  Running Back, Oklahoma

Murray was another pick that caused stirring in the media room at Valley Ranch.  The selection signaled the idea that the Cowboys felt that Felix Jones was not the no. 1 running back that they had hoped he would be when they invested so much in him on draft day 2008.  Murray would compete for the #1 job as soon as he was ready, and that happened by early October.  And for the next few months, it became rather obvious to any observer that Murray was ready for the NFL and for that job.  He was fantastic for a big stretch of the year before the Giants game in Arlington where he broke his ankle and ended his year.  Nobody knows how things might have been different if he had stayed healthy, and now heading into 2012, the idea that the Cowboys have running back squared away really allows the team to turn their attention to other spots after never really finding a true #1 for years.  Murray appears to be another high-quality pick for the 2011 draft and has the potential to make this draft a success.

Round 4, Pick 110 – David Arkin, Guard, Missouri State

Anytime that a team takes a small college offensive lineman, you hope that they have some inside intelligence that tells you they have slipped one by the rest of the league.  Then, that small school prospect never suits up one time all season and you get rather concerned that they got too cute and out-smarted themselves.  Think about it, as bad as they were at guard last year, they never allowed Arkin to show his ability in public.  This redshirt year may have brought him along in the weight room, but for now, I think caution is the best way to proceed with Arkin.  He may still have a lot of the ability that they liked last April, and it should be noted that he would not be the first lineman to not play his rookie year and still turn out well, but we need to see some signs that this important pick has something.  To not even get a snap from a 4th round pick is not a great start to a career.  Stay tuned.

Round 5, Pick 143 – Josh Thomas, Cornerback, Buffalo

Clearly the worst pick of the draft, as Thomas did not make the team out of camp at a position of great need.  Instead, they went with a retread, Frank Walker, and sent Thomas away.  He was claimed by Carolina the next day, and plays with the Panthers to this day, although he was only active once in 2011.  This pick hurts a lot when you consider the Cowboys needed a corner in Round 5 and passed over Richard Sherman from Stanford who went off the board a few picks later at the same position and had an outstanding rookie season in Seattle.  If they had Sherman, there would be a completely different feel to the 2012 offseason in Dallas.  Instead, their search for young corners continues.  

Round 6, Pick 176 – Dwayne Harris, Wide Receiver, East Carolina

Harris had a very strong training camp and preseason and had many believing that he could win and hold down the no. 3 wide receiver role at times in August.  However, things did not materialize and he ended up playing one offensive snap in 2011.  Meanwhile, Laurent Robinson stepped right in and took over that position as Harris was back and forth from the practice squad to the roster.  Whether Harris is simply another name in the media guide or a part of the future moving forward will depend on his development by August.  His return game and his receiving ability from the slot seemed useful enough on the 6th Round spot, but so far, there has been very little to sink your teeth into here.

Round 7, Pick 220 – Shaun Chapas,  Fullback, Georgia

It was clear the Cowboys were ready to find a true fullback after the tough 2010 for Chris Gronkowski and they took a 7th round shot on Chapas.  At the time, they had no way of knowing they would find Tony Fiammetta in September and that brought a quick close to Chapas it seemed in 2011.  However, because of Fiammetta’s illness, Chapas did actually play in Arizona for 8 snaps and remains on the roster to this day.  I do not see him passing Fiammetta moving forward, but he will get the offseason to show his usefulness in 2012.

Round 7, Pick 252 – Bill Nagy, Center, Wisconsin

Nagy was a bit of a surprise pick, too, given his lack of a locked down spot even at Wisconsin in 2010.  But, the Cowboys made a bet on the system up there and may have hit on a guy who has versatility and can become either a swing back-up or throw his name into the mix and center moving forward.  They had the poor idea of having Phil Costa and Nagy start from Week 1 at center and left guard and together it was a real mess.  Neither player had the raw strength to hold up in the trenches so stacking them together was a target for defenses to attack.  Nagy broke his leg in New England in the fifth game and ended his year.  But, moving forward, there is reason to believe that he could have an impact if surrounded by reasonable players on the line.  Might be a solid seventh round pick.

And four undrafted free agents who contributed:

Kevin Kowalski, Center/Guard, Toledo

Kowalski is another of the raw young offensive line that could go either way.  Like Costa, Nagy, and Arkin, he appears to have strength issues that need to be fixed, but he is another body that has age on his side.  If you are going to stock an offensive line with backups, make them young enough that you might even find a starter in the group at some point.  Opportunity is certainly knocking for this group.  Kowalski played over 100 snaps and will have an idea what he needs to do to get better.

Dan Bailey, Kicker,  Oklahoma State

Here is one of the major plus marks of the offseason, when the Cowboys found their kicker.  Bailey was outstanding all year long and seemed to bring the kicking carousel to a stop.  Whether he can be consistent as a kickoff man remains to be seen, but as far as accuracy as a kicker, the Cowboys did themselves a big favor after dealing with David Buehler for a few seasons of frustration.  This is a key pickup.

Alex Albright, Linebacker, Boston College

A player in the mix to be another edge rusher in the 3-4, Albright played enough special teams to make himself useful.  Down the depth chart from Victor Butler, Albright seemed capable in his role, and now will need to earn his stripes to move up the board, but I know he has his fans inside Valley Ranch.

Phillip Tanner, Running Back, Middle Tennessee State

Called into emergency duty for a while because of injuries and depth issues, Tanner also demonstrated that he can play at the NFL level as a special teams/depth guy if he keeps working.  Whether he can be a candidate to be a legitimate backup running back remains to be seen, but if he had stayed healthy late in the season, it would have been interesting how many chances he would have received that ended up going to Sammy Morris.

Eleven names that still remain on the roster were found last spring and summer and added to this Cowboys roster.  Smith and Murray appear to be clear starters and maybe stars, with Carter as a prospect to start as well.  Beyond that, it may be a number of bottom of the roster depth-guys who get switched out for new players this year, but several of them have a chance to push their way further up the depth chart if they can emerge.  That includes the offensive line group, where the Cowboys are using a numbers approach – collecting many bodies in hopes of finding a keeper or two.

Overall, I think the 2011 group has a chance to put the 2009 and 2010 groups to shame.  In the case of 2009, that doesn’t say too much, but the scouts, Garrett, and his staff did an under-rated job of finding players who could make this roster in 2011.  Time to continue the job this spring in big numbers, as much more talent is needed in short order.