The Dallas Cowboys kick off the NFL season Wednesday night against the New York Giants, and it appears as though they'll need the assistance of at least a few rookies. However, for the other first-year players, the start of the new season tells a much different story.
When the Cowboys concluded their draft back in April, the hype and excitement clearly centered around Morris Claiborne and understandably so. After watching his secondary get torched, abused and used as human hurdles, Jerry Jones aggressively moved up the draft board to select Claiborne to pair with Brandon Carr. For the cornerback position, it was mission accomplished.
But the Cowboys, like other teams, had many other needs to fill and not enough picks, but such is life. So like other teams, the Cowboys stuck to their board and selected players they thought could help them in both the long and short term.
Although it usually takes more than a few seasons to determine the success of a draft class, it's never too early to start analyzing it.
Here's a look at the 2012 Cowboys' draft class at the conclusion of the preseason.
The Cowboys prize of the 2012 draft and arguably the best defensive player on the board, Claiborne has endured a few setbacks since being drafted. Initially, his recovery from wrist surgery was the main issue. It prevented him from participating in OTA's, minicamp and the beginning of training camp.
Claiborne also left Cowboys Nation breathless when he tweaked his knee, but it only turned out to be a sprain. Either way, he lost additional time and significant reps. Claiborne completed the preseason with three tackles, no interceptions and a pass breakup against the Rams in the back of the end zone.
His preseason performance wasn't the most prolific, but it was still nice to see him on the field and get a glimpse of the future. Claiborne was brought to Dallas for one reason, to be a big-time cornerback. Now is his chance.
Come September 5, he will be starting opposite Brandon Carr and going to battle against some of the best receivers in the NFL week after week. It's no easy task, even for the most talented rookies, but Claiborne has such a tremendous skill set that his impact will be greatly felt in 2012.
Opposing quarterbacks will not be afraid to test him, but as long as he prepares in the classroom as hard as he competes on the field, his transition to the pro game should be seamless.
2012 Impact: Five to seven interceptions is an attainable goal for this Day 1 starter.
Grade: If it hadn't been for the early setbacks, his grade would've been a no-brainer. But I like that he fought through a little adversity and played well when given his chances. For that, he should be awarded a B.
The Cowboys needed help along the defensive line entering the 2012 draft, and Crawford fit the bill in the third round. He finished the preseason with five tackles, three of which were solo, and a sack. He's added mass to his frame and has displayed a nice ability to get to the quarterback, provide pressure and show that he's ready to be a contributor.
As the season progresses and Crawford gains additional comfort in the defense, his playing time and role should expand. The key for this defense will be the ability to get to the quarterback. If Crawford can provide that, Rob Ryan needs to have him on the field.
2012 Impact: Crawford is a situational and third-down pass-rusher who is also capable of starting in the event of injury to Marcus Spears or Kenyon Coleman. Crawford has a legitimate chance of pushing those veterans and starting this season.
Wilber broke his finger during rookie minicamp and had a subpar performance in his first preseason game. So he's basically whiffed on the entire preseason. In that debut, he did show nice speed off the edge and some of the athleticism the Cowboys saw when they picked him in the fourth round.
But when young players have a hard time staying on the field, it's unfortunate for many reasons. But most importantly, it prevents them from making their mark on the team. Despite the missed time, Wilber has a roster spot and a chance to be a special-teams player and provide depth at outside linebacker.
2012 Impact: He'll play mostly on special teams. He will be a backup outside linebacker behind Victor Butler, and to a degree, Alex Albright. He has the ability to play a more prominent role, but he has major catching up to do.
Grade: I do see athleticism and ability in Wilber. But not being able to perform on the field and not having any preseason statistics leave zero wiggle room on a grade of C-.
LIke Kyle Wilber, Matt Johnson's early professional biography reads of one setback after another. From Eastern Washington's class schedule to hamstring injuries, Johnson has not been able to get on the field. After the Cowboys selected him, I was able to study his game on film and it's easy to see what the Cowboys saw in him.
He plays hard, intense, smart and with that throwback style of play. Had he been able to stay healthy and perform through training camp, any scenario would've been possible for him. For now, he's a rookie with a roster spot who needs to get healthy to have any type of impact.
That we haven't seen much of Johnson still leaves us with some intrigue.
2012 Impact: When he's finally healthy, Johnson will be a sure-handed tackler and contributor on special teams. He also will be a backup safety who now has to leapfrog Mana Silva and Danny McCray for significant playing time.
Grade: It's hard to assess any positive grade when a player can't perform on the field. For that reason, Johnson gets a D. At least he has nowhere to go but up.
At the conclusion of the draft, it was easy to get excited about what Coale could bring to the Cowboys' offense. A consistent, sure-handed receiver in the mold of Wes Welker was just what this team needed to replace Laurent Robinson. After finishing the preseason with two catches for 21 yards, Coale was released and subsequently re-signed to the practice squad.
But his release wasn't all that shocking considering that he, like Wilber and Matt Johnson, couldn't stay on the field long enough to gain any momentum after recovering from a broken foot. Another factor working against him was that the Cowboys were deep at receiver and were getting great performances from players already ahead of him.
Coale simply became a victim of the numbers game. But that doesn't mean he can't have a future role on this team. It just means he will have to work harder to earn one.
2012 Impact: Coale is a member of the practice squad, so his contributions will be behind the scenes. If he continues to work hard, good things will happen for him. Something tells me we haven't heard the last of him.
Grade: Although he was able to play in a few preseason games and overcome some adversity, it wasn't enough in the end. But you have to applaud a player who tries hard. For that, he gets a C.
James Hanna has positioned himself for a significant role with the Cowboys. Hanna had 10 catches for 111 yards and no touchdowns in the preseason. Not bad for a sixth-round pick who has Jason Witten and John Phillips in front of him.
But in the blink of an eye, a player of Witten's caliber can sustain an injury that suddenly impacts the season, and that's exactly what happened. That's why a player like Hanna is important to this team. Regardless whether Witten misses one game or none at all, developing another pass-catching tight end is imperative for this offense.
The NFL game can humble any player and remove the cloak of invincibility. Had Witten been lost for a significant period or even the entire season, the impact would've cut this team deep.
Watching Hanna play, you can see that he is a fluid athlete. He looks comfortable in the offense and running routes, does a nice job of getting open and has held his own as a blocker.
As Hanna continues to develop, this pick is looking more and more like a steal.
2012 Impact: With Witten's injury, Hanna could start in Week 1. At the least, he will back up John Phillips and play a significant role. As for the rest of the season, Hanna will be the No. 3 tight end and have a role that only stands to increase as the year progresses. Don't be surprised if Jason Garrett tries to get him on the field more frequently.
Grade: A real solid performance deserves a solid grade. That's why Hanna gets a B+.
The Cowboys' seventh-round pick has landed himself on injured reserve with a torn Achilles tendon. It's an unfortunate blow, but he was probably more a candidate for the practice squad than as a contributor on this defense. He finished his abbreviated preseason with four tackles.
When he did play, it was pretty clear that players such as Alex Albright and Orie Lemon outperformed him and looked more comfortable in the defense. Now, McSurdy gets to spend the year rehabbing his injury, watching from the sideline and taking mental reps and notes.
2012 Impact: Injured reserve list