Dallas Cowboys

Rookie class played major role in Cowboys’ success, sets foundation

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott had 322 carries for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns on the way to All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors. He also had a receiving touchdown.
Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott had 322 carries for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns on the way to All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors. He also had a receiving touchdown. kbouaphanh@Star-Telegram.com

The future is bright for the Dallas Cowboys and 2016 has the chance to go down as one of the franchise’s best draft classes.

Running back Ezekiel Elliott and quarterback Dak Prescott put themselves in the MVP conversation as rookies, and those two have a chance to become superstars if they continue to put the team in Super Bowl contention.

But the class is deeper than that too.

The Cowboys also appear to have hit home runs, relative to the draft selection, of defensive tackle Maliek Collins (third round) and cornerback Anthony Brown (sixth round).

And let’s not forget about linebacker Jaylon Smith who had a redshirt season as he recovered from major knee surgery. But Smith is viewed as an elite player when healthy.

A look at the rookies:

1. RB Ezekiel Elliott (fourth overall), Ohio State. Elliott lived up to the hype as the fourth overall pick, leading the league with 1,631 rushing yards. He also had 15 rushing touchdowns and one receiving score in the best season by a rookie running back in franchise history. Elliott could have threatened Eric Dickerson’s NFL rookie rushing mark had he played the final six quarters of the regular season. Elliott is a home-run threat every time he touches the ball and the key for him will be to stay healthy and on the field. He’s already dealing with the NFL investigating domestic violence allegations from last July, and has to stay clear of any additional off-field drama.

2. LB Jaylon Smith (34th overall), Notre Dame. Going into the last year’s draft, Smith was considered a top-5 talent before wrecking his knee in Notre Dame’s bowl game. Several thought the Cowboys overreached for Smith early in the second round, but time will tell depending on how he heals and develops. The Cowboys expect him to be ready for off-season workouts beginning in May. If he turns into the next Ray Lewis, this could be one of the best draft classes in NFL history.

3. DT Maliek Collins (67th overall), Nebraska. Collins emerged as the Cowboys’ best under tackle early in the season and he finished with the second-most sacks on the team (five). He also was credited with 14 pressures. With Collins’ emergence, the Cowboys were able to move Tyrone Crawford to end. Collins should only improve with more experience.

4. DE Charles Tapper (101st overall), Oklahoma. A back injury ruined Tapper’s rookie season. He didn’t see the field and it’s unknown how he’ll rebound with a balky back. Tapper received praise in the off-season and training camp with his development, so the potential is there for him to become a rotational piece along the defensive line.

4. QB Dak Prescott (135th overall), Mississippi State. You’re not supposed to find a franchise quarterback in the fourth round, but the Cowboys struck gold with Prescott. He posted a 100-or-better passer rating in 11 games this season, led the team on an 11-game winning streak and arguably had the best rookie season by a quarterback in NFL history. Prescott threw 23 touchdowns to only four interceptions, and is the quarterback of the future. Goodbye, Tony Romo?

6. CB Anthony Brown (189th overall), Purdue. You’re not supposed to find a guy who can start as a rookie in the sixth round, but the Cowboys did just that. Brown stepped in seamlessly when Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick dealt with injuries, and gives the team depth at a position where Claiborne and starter Brandon Carr are set to become free agents. Brown finished the season with 56 tackles, one interception and eight passes defense.

6. S Kavon Frazier (212th overall), Central Michigan. Frazier wasn’t active on several game days, but flashed signs of being a competent special teams player. He had four tackles on special teams and recorded two tackles in his limited work on defense. With safeties Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox becoming free agents, Frazier could see his role increase next season.

6. RB Darius Jackson (216th overall), Eastern Michigan. The Cowboys liked the upside Jackson brought to the team, but ultimately parted ways with him to clear a spot for Darren McFadden. Jackson never played a snap for the Cowboys, although could have been a third-down option in 2017 had the team been able to keep him.

6. TE Rico Gathers (217th overall), Baylor. Gathers joined the Cowboys as a project at tight end, trying to become the latest to go from college basketball standout to NFL tight end. Gathers never emerged as an option for the 53-man roster and spent the season on the practice squad. The progress reports during the season were positive, but he is still viewed as raw. However, he signed a contract to stay with the Cowboys after the season, so his development continues to be something to keep an eye on.

Undrafted free agents: The Cowboys didn’t have any undrafted rookies make their active roster this season. A player to keep an eye on going into next season, though, is wide receiver Andy Jones. Jones was a candidate to make the 53-man team out of training camp, but struggled holding onto the ball. He’ll get another chance to impress with receivers such as Terrance Williams and Brice Butler hitting free agency.

Drew Davison: 817-390-7760, @drewdavison

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