Ugly Stretch for the Cowboys Made Worse by Dud Draft Week

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistApril 28, 2018

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones makes a brief statement about the announced retirement of tight end Jason Witten during an NFL football news conference Friday, April 27, 2018, in Frisco, Texas. (AP Photo/Richard W. Rodriguez)
Richard W. Rodriguez/Associated Press

Just how quickly can the mood surrounding an NFL team change? Just ask the Dallas Cowboys

One year ago, Dallas was one of the league's most hyped contenders, coming off a 13-win season in which it won the NFC East in a cakewalk. Quarterback Dak Prescott was the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year, running back Ezekiel Elliott was the defending rushing champion, wide receiver Dez Bryant was a Pro Bowler after scoring eight touchdowns in 13 games and ironman tight end Jason Witten continued to be one of the game's top safety valves. 

At that point there were no indications Elliott was facing a hefty suspension, and coming out of the 2017 draft, Dallas was favored to repeat in one of the league's most competitive divisions. 

But Murphy's law has since gone to town on the Cowboys, and over the last couple of days in Arlington, Texas, they've been kicked while down in their own backyard. 

There must have been hope that the first NFL draft in Dallas would help America's Team regain some good vibes. This was one of the most highly anticipated drafts in NFL history, and a record-breaking one in terms of attendance; it was tailor-made for owner Jerry Jones and his attention-hungry organization. 

So a promising early-round haul from the Cowboys might have made it easier to forget about Elliott's crippling six-game suspension, Prescott's sophomore slump, a disappointing 9-7 finish to the 2017 season, another fruitless run through free agency, and Bryant's April departure. It might have even made it easier to stomach the fact that their bitter NFC East rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles, won not only the division but also Super Bowl LII. 

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Thursday night: With an opportunity to make a splash by replacing Bryant with their pick of the wide receiver litter in the No. 19 spot, they draft a linebacker who is a long-term project and may have medical red flags.

Friday afternoon: ESPN's Chris Mortensen reports out of the blue that Witten plans to retire in order to start his broadcasting career. 

Friday night: The Cowboys have a chance to draft a potential replacement for Witten—former South Dakota State tight end Dallas Goedert—in the middle of the second round, but the Eagles—them again!—trade into the spot ahead of Dallas, send a former kicker onto the stage to viciously mock Cowboys fans and then steal Goedert away.  

With Day 2 complete, the Cowboys' first hometown draft has been an utter flop, if not an embarrassment. 

That's not to say that top pick Leighton Vander Esch (Boise State), won't pan out, or that the guard they drafted after Philly took Goedert—Connor Williams out of Texas—won't actually help them more than Goedert might have. Vander Esch, Williams and Cowboys third-round pick Michael Gallup (Colorado State) could all be Hall of Famers for all we know.

It's too early to definitively judge this draft class, let alone vaguely judge half a draft class.

It's possible what we perceive to be a nightmare will eventually be recalled as a glorious dream, and that a team with an admittedly strong recent draft record has done everything right the last two nights. But with Bryant gone and Witten reportedly on the way out, it's hard not to be concerned about the state of the Cowboys in the immediate aftermath of the draft's first 48 hours.

Bryant and Witten are past their primes, but they caught a combined 22 touchdown passes during the first two seasons of the Prescott/Elliott era. The former was a Pro Bowler in 2016, the latter in 2017. And even when they weren't catching passes, they both often made a tremendous impact merely with their presence. 

That presence can't be replaced by newcomers Allen Hurns (coming off back-to-back sub-500-yard seasons in Jacksonville) or Deonte Thompson (on his fifth team in a five-year span), even if Gallup is able to play a role as a rookie coming off two active seasons at Colorado State. 

Does Prescott have enough support to bounce back from a mediocre second season in which his numbers plummeted across the board? He should still benefit from the protection offered by one of the league's best offensive lines, and a full season from Elliott would certainly help.

But you'd imagine a lot of Cowboys fans would feel a little bit more optimistic had the team drafted a receiver like D.J. Moore or Calvin Ridley in Round 1 and then either convinced Witten to stick around or at least grabbed Goedert in Round 2. 

The last two days could have turned the tide for a team that quickly lost its grip on the NFC East last season. The Eagles own that division now, and both the New York Giants (Saquon Barkley) and Washington Redskins (Derrius Guice) seem to have accomplished a lot more than Dallas thus far in the draft. 

The good news is the jury is still completely out on all of those picks, and the Cowboys have seven selections to work with on Saturday. But that won't make up for the fact that all-too-familiar salary-cap constraints forced them to move on from Bryant, it won't change the fact Witten appears to be done, and it won't likely compensate for the fact the Cowboys are developing the look and feel of a team that is losing ground.


Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.