The Dallas Cowboys were the toast of the NFL a year ago.
They had hit home run after home run in the 2016 NFL Draft.
Ezekiel Elliott lived up to his top-five hype by being the league’s rushing champion; fourth-round pick Dak Prescott put together one of the best rookie seasons by a quarterback in history; and players such as Maliek Collins (third round) and Anthony Brown (sixth round) established themselves as starting-caliber players.
The 2017 class? It didn’t come close to replicating that success. Pass rusher Taco Charlton had a slow start and never consistently flashed. Cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis had their moments, but were plagued by injuries.
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But that doesn’t mean the draft class is a bust. The Cowboys saw enough promise, particularly from the young secondary (Awuzie, Lewis and sixth-round pick Xavier Woods) to feel optimistic going forward.
The Star-Telegram reflects back on this year’s rookie class.
Round 1 (28th overall): DE Taco Charlton, Michigan
Key stats: 3 sacks, 19 tackles, 11 QB pressures, 1 forced fumble
The Cowboys didn’t have a first-round grade on him, but viewed Charlton as the best pass rusher available at the time. And they were desperate for pass rushers as they didn’t envision DeMarcus Lawrence having the type of year he did coming off back surgeries in consecutive off-seasons.
Charlton got off to a slow start. He didn’t record his first sack until Week 9 against Kansas City, becoming the last first-round pass rusher to record a sack.
Charlton finished the season with three sacks. He played all 16 games, averaging about 25 snaps a game. He played as many as 37 (at San Francisco) and as few as eight (versus Green Bay).
Charlton believes he made progress as the season wore on and is bound to do better in 2018.
Said coach Jason Garrett: “Taco did some good things. I thought he got better as the year went on, started to make some impact plays, sacking the quarterback, making some plays sideline to sideline. He’ll continue to grow.
“He’s in a good environment with the veteran players at that position and the coaching that he gets there,” Garrett said. “So he has to reflect back on this year and build on some of the good stuff and certainly continue to grow in a lot of different ways.”
Round 2 (60th overall): CB Chidobe Awuzie, Colorado
Key stats: 7 passes defensed, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble, 27 tackles
Awuzie never battled injuries during his college career. The same can’t be said early on in his pro career.
Awuzie dealt with a hamstring injury that sidelined him for six games, but he showed promise when healthy. Awuzie had a standout game Nov. 30 against Washington, breaking up three passes.
The following week he broke up two passes at New York. Awuzie capped off his strong play down the stretch with his first career interception in the season finale at Philadelphia.
But Awuzie exited the game with a shoulder injury and his injury-plagued rookie season is concerning going forward.
When healthy, Awuzie is an impact player.
Said Garrett: “Chido, once he got healthy, I thought really made a positive impact on our team. It’s easy to see the things that we liked in him coming out in the draft. I think he demonstrated a lot of that.
“Not to say that he was perfect by any means, he has a lot to learn, but he went about it the right way. I think he played the right way. He was around the ball. He was physical. You saw some of his instincts and play-making ability.”
Round 3 (92nd overall): CB Jourdan Lewis, Michigan
Key stats: 11 passes defensed, 50 tackles, one interception, two tackles for loss
Much like Awuzie, Lewis battled a hamstring injury in training camp and missed the season opener. But he stayed healthy the rest of the way, intercepting a pass in his NFL debut at Denver, and garnered praise throughout the season from the coaching staff.
Lewis played 748 of 1,048 defensive snaps (71 percent) and finished the season with a team-leading 11 passes defensed and ranked seventh in tackles with 50. He had one interception, coming in his Week 2 debut at Denver.
Said Garrett: “If you think about the number of snaps that Jourdan Lewis played over the course of the year, it’s a lot of football for a young corner. You know playing that position is a challenging one in the NFL.”
Round 4 (133rd overall): WR Ryan Switzer, North Carolina
Key stats: 25.0 yards per kickoff return, 8.8 yards per punt return, one punt return for TD, 6 catches for 41 yards
Switzer didn’t make as much of an impact in the return game as desired, but flashed more than predecessor Lucky Whitehead.
Switzer had the league’s seventh-most kickoff return yards with 600, and his 25.0 average kickoff return was third-best in the NFL. Switzer’s highlight came on an 83-yard punt return for a touchdown Nov. 30 against Washington, the second-longest punt return in the league this season.
But Switzer also had a costly muffed punt against the Los Angeles Rams that gave the opponents new life in what ultimately became a Cowboys’ loss.
Switzer wasn’t used much in the passing game until the season finale at Philadelphia when he had four catches for 32 yards in Cole Beasley’s absence.
Round 6 (191st overall): S Xavier Woods, Louisiana Tech
Key stats: 6 passes defensed, 4 QB pressures, 1 interception, 41 tackles
Like the rest of the rookie secondary group, Woods dealt with a hamstring injury early in his career. But he showed promise when healthy.
Woods has versatility, playing safety and nickel corner, and held his own. He started four games and finished with 41 tackles, four QB pressures and one interception. His best game might have been a six-tackle performance at Oakland.
Said Garrett: “We asked him to do a lot of different things, play a couple different spots, play as a nickel, play as a deep safety, and he seemed to handle it well.”
Round 6 (216th overall): CB Marquez White, Florida State
Did not make the active roster, but spent the season on the practice squad. He signed a futures contract after the season.
Round 7 (228th overall): DT Joey Ivie, Florida
Did not make the team. He landed on the Atlanta Falcons practice squad.
Round 7 (239th overall): WR Noah Brown, Ohio State
He impressed enough during training camp and made the team as a sixth receiver. He ended up playing in 13 games, including one start, and finished with four catches for 33 yards.
Brown is a solid blocking receiver, but still has room to grow in the passing game. At 6-2, 222 pounds, Brown has the build and potential to take strides in his sophomore season.
Round 7 (248th overall): DT Jordan Carrell, Colorado
Did not make the team and has yet to land with another organization.
QB Cooper Rush, Central Michigan: He had a 135.9 passer rating in the preseason, the best of any player, and earned a spot on the 53-man roster.
Rush eventually passed Kellen Moore as the team’s backup quarterback and appeared in two games during the season.
He made his season debut at San Francisco in October, completing one of two passes for 2 yards. Rush also played a series at the end of the Nov. 19 game against the Eagles, who had put the game out of reach by that time.
At the very least, it appears the Cowboys have found their franchise quarterback (Prescott) and backup quarterback (Rush) for the foreseeable future.
Said Garrett: “He did such a good job right at the outset just coming in. He’s kind of a quiet guy, doesn’t say a whole lot, but he worked very hard. You can tell he’s one of those guys who’s absorbing everything, in meetings, in walkthroughs, when he’s getting reps, when he’s not getting reps. He’s a very serious and purposeful guy in his approach and it shows up in his play.
“Very poised, very composed when he had opportunities to play, in the preseason or a couple of times during the actual regular-season games, and he handled it well.”
DE Lewis Neal, LSU: He had a solid training camp to make the practice squad, and was bumped up to the 53-man roster in November.
Neal found himself as part of the defensive line rotation in seven games. He was credited with four tackles in the Nov. 19 game against Philadelphia, and had a tackle for loss against the Los Angeles Chargers on Thanksgiving. For the season, the coaches credited Neal with four quarterback pressures.
TE Blake Jarwin, Oklahoma State: The pride of Tuttle, Oklahoma earned a promotion from the practice squad to the 53-man roster during the season so he wouldn’t be poached by another team.
Jarwin was active in just one game — at Atlanta — and played four snaps on offense and nine on special teams.
Jarwin spent time late in the season working on his long-snapping abilities, which could be the best option for him to have a prolonged NFL career.
WR Lance Lenoir, Western Illinois: Earned a promotion to the 53-man squad for the season finale, and played five snaps on special teams.
LB Tre’von Johnson, Weber State: Earned a promotion to the 53-man squad for the season finale, but was among the inactives.