Dallas Cowboys: Best NFL Draft Steals of the Past Decade
Every year the media as well as the fans have their attention on the first round of the NFL draft. It’s assumed that the best players will be drafted out of the first 32 picks, but it’s not always the case.
Some of the Dallas Cowboys’ best draft picks in the past decade came in the later rounds, not the first one. Its picks like these that have helped the Cowboys get out of the NFC East basement that they were in during the late 90’s.
Here’s a countdown of best picks the Cowboys made in rounds two-thru-seven in the past decade.
John Phillips: 6th round, 208th overall in 2009
Sean Lee: 2nd round, 55th overall in 2010
The jury is still out on tight end John Phillips and linebacker Sean Lee. Both have shown that they can each contribute on their respective sides of the ball in the limited times we’ve seen them on the field.
Phillips was drafted in the sixth round of the 2009 draft at the 208th overall pick. He was mostly featured as a blocking tight end in his rookie season, catching just seven passes for 62 yards and a touchdown.
Phillips challenged Martellus Bennett for the second-string tight-end spot in the 2010 training camp. Unfortunately for him, he tore his ACL in the preseason opener and missed the entire season.
Sean Lee was selected 55th overall in 2010 with the Cowboys’ second round pick. Adding depth behind Keith Brooking and Bradie James, Lee tallied 28 total tackles and two interceptions (both courtesy of Peyton Manning). He earched NFC Defensive Player of the Week and Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Week honors in early December and hopes to be a staple in the Cowboys defense for years to come.
10. Tashard Choice: 4th Round, 122nd Overall in 2008
The Cowboys spend their fourth round pick on Choice and emerged as a valuable option when both Marion Barber and Felix Jones went down with injuries in Choice’s rookie year. In his first start against a tough Pittsburgh Steeler defense, he gained 166 total yards in front of a national audience.
The third-string running back has been in Dallas’ rotation in his two years with the team. With constant injuries nagging both Jones and Barber, the Cowboys have counted on him numerous times.
Averaging 3.7 yards-per-carry, Choice can afford to get more carries in the coming season while Barber’s average has started to drop. Continuing to contribute whether that be from the traditional running back position or the wildcat will help his case for getting more carries.
9. Patrick Crayton:7th Round, 216th Overall in 2004
Unfortunately, fans will remember Patrick Crayton for his drops in the 2007 playoff loss, or his inability to close his mouth.
But other than that, Crayton stepped up for the Dallas offense when called upon, catching 196 passes for 23 touchdowns in his six years as a Cowboy.
The seventh-round pick had his best year in 2007 when Terry Glenn missed the entire season and it required Crayton to step into the No. 2 wide receiver spot. Crayton caught 50 passes that season and seven touchdowns as the third option behind Terrel Owens and Jason Witten.
While not many would complain about his on-field production, his mouth has made people roll their eyes at him. First when he displayed his frustration after behind benched for Roy Williams, then again when Miles Austin stepped up and took Crayton’s role on the starting roster. The last straw is when he demanded a trade after Dez Bryant was drafted, a request that was granted and sent him to San Diego.
8. Chris Canty: 4th Round, 132th Overall in 2005
Chris Canty could’ve gone in the first round of the 2005 draft if it wasn’t for a knee injury in his senior year of college. Instead he dropped to the 132nd pick and started 50 games for the Cowboys at defensive end.
Canty was relied on to help against the rush and totaled 148 tackles and 10 sacks in his Dallas career. Lining up opposite of Marcus Spears, Canty did a lot of the “grunt work”, taking on double teams and clogging up holes to allow teammates like DeMarcus Ware, Greg Ellis and Anthony Spencer to make big plays behind the line of scrimmage.
The typical 3-4 defensive linemen rarely gets the credit that they deserve since they’re not put in a position to make big plays like the pass-rushing linebacker. But Canty’s worth was noticeable once he left Dallas for New York. The ‘Boys now enter the offseason in 2010, hoping to find a Canty-like player to put on their line.
7. Orlando Scandrick: 5th Round, 143rd Overall in 2008
Entering his rookie season, Orlando Scandrick was on the cusp of being the starting cornerback for the Cowboys while he competed with first-round pick Mike Jenkins throughout preseason.
Although he didn’t beat the eventual Pro Bowler for the starting position, spending a fifth-round pick on a solid nickelback is a bargain to anyone.
Scandrick has 46 tackles and an interception in his three-year career with the Cowboys. He’s started nine games, mainly due to injuries on the starting roster.
In 2010, Scandrick had 41 solo tackles which was more than either starting safety, Alan Ball (34) or Gerald Sensabaugh (31). Although those aren’t good numbers for Ball or Sensabaugh, it shows his ability to be a physical tackler.
6. Andre Gurode: 2nd Round, 37th Overall in 2002
After being selected 37th overall in 2002, Gurode would become the first rookie in franchise history to start at center on week one.
After that, Gurode has started 122 games at either guard or Center for the Cowboys, being selected to his first Pro Bowl in 2007.
The nine-year veteran is the only member left on the offensive line that was on the field when Emmitt Smith eclipsed Walter Payton as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher.
Now after five-straight Pro Bowl selections and an All-Pro selection, Gurode will enter 2011 as the assumed starter at center whereas all the other positions around him seemingly has question marks.
5. Doug Free: 4th Round, 122nd Overall in 2007
Doug Free showed last year that he could start in the NFL and had a solid performance.
Maybe the most notable sign of respect was against the division-rival Washington Redskins. In week one, Free showed his pass blocking ability, shutting out Brian Orakpo which forced the ‘Skins to move Orakpo to the other side in the teams’ second meeting.
Free allowed five sacks last year, three fewer than what Flozell Adams gave up back in 2009. That is a stat that seems to go forgotten amongst his critics.
It’s always good for a left tackle to go unnoticed—that means he’s doing his job. His predecessor Flozell Adams was often the punch-line of jokes due to his penalties and inability to keep up with quicker pass rushers.
Free faced Brian Orakpo, Julius Peppers and Mario Wiliams in three consecutive games and had a great showing in each. He was a big question mark going into 2009, but has shown he’s worthy to be a starter for the Silver and Blue.
4. Marion Barber: 4th Round, 109th Overall in 2005
Marion Barber was the ninth running back selected in 2005. He was picked after backs like J.J. Arrington, Eric Shelton and Vernand Morency.
Nope, I don’t know who those guys are either.
But we know who Barber is; the hard-hitting back exploded onto the scene as Julius Jones’s backup and emerged as the starter in 2008. He has neared 1,000 yards rushing numerous times and averaged at least 4.4 yards-per-carry three out of the past five seasons.
While he won’t outrun the competition, Barber has performed well while healthy. Some attribute his hard playing-style to his nagging injuries, but it’s a give-and-take that he’s willing to risk.
Considering he was taken so late in 2005, he has easily surpassed the expectations that he had when drafted.
3. Bradie James. 4th Round, 103rd Overall in 2003
The fourth round has been kind to the Cowboys and 2003 was no different.
After struggling to see the field in his first two seasons, James has started every game for the Cowboys since 2005.
The defensive captain has a 700 total tackles and has excelled in the 3-4 defensive scheme.
Now at the age of 30, James shows no signs of slowing down. Last season he had more tackles than ever in his career. With so many holes and questions marks that the ‘Boys have currently—nobody has questioned whether James will be a starter in 2011.
2. Jay Ratliff: 7th Round, 224th Overall in 2005
One can only guess how any Pro Bowler drops deep into the seventh round of a draft, but Jay Ratliff did.
Ratliff earned his spot once veteran defensive tackle Jason Ferguson suffered an injury, and he hasn’t given the spot back since (or to anyone else for that matter).
His value is obvious since he is one of only a few nose tackles than can play the run and the pass just as effectively.
Ratliff is the only defensive lineman on the current roster whose starting position isn’t in jeopardy. He’s earned every dollar of his lucrative contract and one can expect that his consistent play will continue in the years to come.
1. Jason Witten: 3rd Round, 69th Overall in 2003
Seven Pro Bowls, one second-team All-Pro selection and two first-team All-Pro selections should tell you the type of player Jason Witten is on the field.
In the third round of the 2003 draft, Witten was a steal for the Cowboys. He was the fifth tight end picked in that draft behind Dallas Clark, Bennie Joppru, L.J. Smith and Teyo Johnson.
He’s only missed two games since being granted the starting spot in 2004 and has caught at least 80 passes five different times in his career. With almost 7,000 yards and 36 touchdowns, Cowboys fans know Witten has the most reliable receiver on the roster.
Off the field, Witten has been nominated for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award and has launched a foundation to support families that have been affected by domestic violence.
Witten is Dallas’ best steal in the past ten years for the examples he leads on and off the field. His ability to block and catch leaves him on the field during all situations.