Quick, think of a model NFL organization. What popped into your head? Maybe it was a picture of Bill Belichick and his six Super Bowl rings. Maybe it was Howie Roseman, armed with his war chest of draft picks, beast of a roster, and top-of-the-line analytics staff. Maybe it was just a Kansas City Chiefs logo because, you know, they have the best head coach and quarterback in the NFL.
Whatever you thought of, I can bet it was not a picture of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones or head coach Mike McCarthy. On the face of it, the Cowboys are not a model of how an NFL franchise is supposed to be run. Case in point? Their owner likes to masquerade as their general manager and meddles in football affairs to the point he holds press conferences after games. At times, he advocates for running the offense through the team’s second-best running back. Other times, he fans the flames of a fake quarterback controversy. Jerry Jones, everyone!
And yet, it works. Dallas is on the verge of their second straight playoff appearance in three seasons under McCarthy (the first of which was torpedoed by a broken ankle to quarterback Dak Prescott). They currently hold the fourth-best odds to win the Super Bowl and the second-best odds to win the NFC, behind the division-leading Philadelphia Eagles.
Much like their owner, the Cowboys’ path to championship contention has been unconventional for the modern NFL. Whereas most teams in the championship mix aggressively pursue upgrades outside of the organization, Dallas has developed a roster full of homegrown players that have led them to where they are now. They owe this to an incredible run of success in the draft since 2016, the year that saw them come away with Prescott in the fourth round and running back Ezekiel Elliott in the first round.
This season on offense, the Cowboys have only had one player not drafted or signed by the team as an undrafted free agent play more than 5% of the team’s offensive snaps: Jason Peters. Peters, 40, has played 12.6% of the team’s offensive snaps filling in for injured left tackle Tyron Smith. In an era of constant roster churn, this is almost unprecedented. The fact that Dallas’ offense is as good as it is—they rank seventh in expected points added per play on offense even without Smith, one of the best left tackles in football, having played all season and without any additions from other teams—is a testament to their scouting and player development.
More than a few players from Dallas’ offense stand out as success stories for the Cowboys’ player personnel department. Their offensive line has been solid, headlined by 2014 first-round pick and future Hall of Famer Zack Martin. Tyler Smith, the team’s first-round pick out of Tulsa in 2022, has been dominant as a run blocker at left tackle after practicing at left guard for most of training camp. He began to make the transition back to guard to make way for Tyron Smith, who is expected back in the coming weeks, with Peters flanking him at tackle during Dallas’ win over Indianapolis in Week 13. Terence Steele, an undrafted free agent in 2020, has adequately replaced La’el Collins at right tackle—Pro Football Focus has him graded as a 75.0 overall on the season, with only one sack allowed, and he has played 99% of Dallas’ snaps. Tyler Biadasz, Dallas’ fourth-round pick in 2020, has played 99% of the team’s snaps at center, allowing no sacks. Even Connor McGovern, the team’s 2020 third-round pick, has given them valuable reps at left guard with Tyron Smith gone and Tyler Smith having to kick out to left tackle.
Recent draft picks have similarly anchored the Cowboys at the skill positions. The big names and highly drafted players are producing—CeeDee Lamb, the team’s first-round pick in 2020, leads the team in receiving and Ezekiel Elliott, the team’s first-round pick in 2016, is third on the team in yards from scrimmage. But where Dallas separates itself is its ability to find gems in the middle and late rounds of the draft.
Tony Pollard, a fourth-round pick in 2019, has truly broken out this season, leading the team in rushing and yards from scrimmage. Michael Gallup, the team’s No. 2 receiver, and Dalton Schultz, the team’s top tight end, were Dallas’ third- and fourth-round picks in 2018. They parlayed their substantial production last season into a large second contract and a franchise tag, respectively. Gallup is rounding into form following an ACL tear near the end of last season, while Schultz ranks second on the team in receptions. Noah Brown, a seventh-round pick in 2017, has filled in admirably for Gallup, playing 72% of Dallas’ offensive snaps and ranking third on the team in receptions. Even Jake Ferguson, the team’s No. 2 tight end and fourth-round pick in 2022, has carved out a role in this offense as a player who dictates defensive personnel. He has played 47% of Dallas’ snaps this season.
On defense, Dallas has relied on more contributors that have come from other teams, particularly starting safeties Malik Hooker and Jayron Kearse. Other acquisitions, such as Anthony Barr and Dante Fowler, play important roles in Dan Quinn’s defense. However, the core of the defense, much like the offense, is homegrown. And much like on offense, Dallas has a mix of drafted stars and role players excelling for them.
In the secondary, 2020 second-round pick Trevon Diggs has become one of the league’s best corners. While at times inconsistent, Diggs is perhaps Dallas’ greatest draft find outside of the first round since they selected Prescott in 2016, but again, their hits in the middle and late rounds are what have truly made them a player development machine.
Anthony Brown, a sixth-round selection and Prescott’s 2016 draft classmate, continues to provide steady cornerback play for Dallas, lining up on 90% of their defensive snaps this season. Donovan Wilson, another sixth-round pick (in 2019), has become a critical piece of Dallas’ base “big nickel” defense; he has played 87% of their defensive snaps, with a 68.7 PFF grade. This year, it appears Dallas did it again, finding slot defender DaRon Bland in the fifth round. He has played 39% of the defense’s snaps, earning the second-best coverage grade from PFF out of all defensive backs who spend at least half of their snaps in the slot. The player he replaced? Jourdan Lewis, a mainstay as Dallas’ nickel corner since being drafted in the third round in 2017.
The front seven is only more of the same for Dallas. The word “generational” gets thrown around a lot, but they picked a truly generational pass rusher in the 2021 first round with Micah Parsons—he anchors their front. Opposite him, 2014 first-round pick and former Pro Bowler DeMarcus Lawrence still has some pass-rushing pop, when healthy—PFF ranks him as the 13th-best edge defender in the league. He hasn’t missed a game this season. 2022 second-round pick Sam Williams has played 31% of the team’s defensive snaps and has been one of the best pass rushers in the NFL on a per-snap basis this season. Dorance Armstrong, one of Dallas’ fourth-round picks in 2018, also rotates as an edge defender for the team and stands out as yet another mid-round find. This has been his most productive season as a pro, playing 49% of the team’s defensive snaps and racking up 8 sacks through 12 games.
If Dallas has two weak spots along their front, they would be at defensive tackle and off-ball linebacker. Fortunately for them, these are arguably the two most devalued positions on defense in the modern NFL. The Cowboys even have homegrown players filling in at these spots. Osa Odighizuwa, the team’s 2021 second-round pick, has played a team-high 51% of snaps at the position and is an imposing interior pass rusher (though he leaves some to be desired as a run defender). Leighton Vander Esch, the team’s first-round pick in 2018, inked a modest one-year contract last offseason. While his draft pick cannot qualify as a hit, per se, he has at least been available this season, playing 86% of the team’s defensive snaps and enabling Parsons to toggle down to the edge and terrorize opposing offensive tackles.
Ultimately, the Cowboys stand as the modern NFL’s quintessential example of a truly homegrown team. This may come as a surprise when juxtaposed with their reputation for pomp and circumstance, but the results, and their current roster construction, speak for themselves. Dallas has had so much success in the draft that they’ve had to let other player development success stories—2017 second-round pick Chidobe Awuzie, 2018 second-round pick Connor Williams, and 2018 sixth-round pick Cedrick Wilson, among others—leave in free agency. So yes, it may be hard to conceptualize the Cowboys as a well-oiled machine of an organization when Jerry Jones… speaks. But we at least must acknowledge one thing: they’re crushing the draft and player development game.