Entering the NFL as a rookie is never easy. Some guys get better situations than others, but adjusting to the speed and style of professional football is a challenge for almost anyone. For the 2017 rookies class of the Dallas Cowboys, it’s an especially difficult task because they have a tough act to follow.
Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Maliek Collins, Anthony Brown; the 2016 class immediately gave the Cowboys two new franchise stars on offense and two studs on defense. All four players should be starters this year. Jaylon Smith is also looming as a new leader on defense, making a delayed debut after recovering from a major knee injury.
The Cowboys are also hoping for contributions from defensive end Charles Tapper and safety Kavon Frazier, who should be key backups and perhaps rotation players. Then we get to Rico Gathers, the tight end prospect who was having a fabulous preseason before suffering a concussion. He will hopefully be back sometime this year.
And running back Darius Jackson?
Well, they can’t all be winners.
You get the point, though. The Cowboys already have one of their better draft classes of all time. If players continue on their current trajectories, it could easily be the best in franchise history. If these guys can win a few Super Bowls together, then it may be one of the best classes the NFL has ever seen.
That is the bar that Taco Charlton, Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Ryan Switzer, and other 2017 rookies are now having to prove themselves against. As fans and analysts, it’s easy to become a hypocrite without realizing it, calling 2016 an all-time great class but then also expecting this year’s rookies to have the same immediate success. if it happened every year, 2016 wouldn’t be special.
Comparative analysis is one of the great enemies of professional athletes. Their production is always going to be held up next to other players in the league, or past stars at their position. This analysis is often highly flawed, ignoring variables from one player or situation to the next. Still, that doesn’t stop it from being common practice in sports journalism.
Charlton, Awuzie, and Lewis are already at a disadvantage just because of joining the Cowboys’ defense instead of its offense. Dak and Zeke got to be replacement and upgrade parts to an already-working machine. These defensive rookies are being asked to be part of a whole new machine.
Switzer gets the easier gig, stepping into that great Cowboys offense and not being relied on for anything right away. Dallas still has Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams, and Brice Butler and can afford to work Switzer in slowly. His best opportunities to shine will come on special teams as the new return man, and the bar there is low enough that Ryan can impress fans by only making a few big plays this season.
Back to the defense; Taco Charlton at least gets to join rotation and not have too much expected right away. It’s our young cornerbacks who face the toughest challenge, perhaps having to take on major roles quickly this year. What’s worse, they barely go to play at all this preseason.
Chidobe Awuzie played in the Hall-of-Fame Game but then missed the rest of the preseason with hamstring problems. Jourdan Lewis, also dealing with a hamstring, missed all four preseason games. They have also been limited in practice due to this.
Cornerback is still one of the toughest positions for players to make the transition from college to the NFL. Nevertheless, despite this and the work they’ve missed, Awuzie and Lewis may still be forced into duty early.
Orlando Scandrick has struggled with injuries the last few seasons and is now 30-years-old. Nolan Carroll, also 30, could be suspended for a few games at some point this year for his DWI arrest last May. That would leave just Anthony Brown and newly-acquired veteran Bene Benwikere to play corner. We don’t even know yet what Benwikere has to offer or where he’ll be on the depth chart, let alone how long he’ll even be on the roster.
After watching Anthony Brown have to play major minutes last year due to Scandrick and Morris Claiborne’s injuries, it’s easy to assume that Awuzie or Lewis, maybe both, will also have to step up and play a big role at some point in 2017.
Even on the defense, though, we saw Maliek Collins and Anthony Brown meet that challenge last year. Collins emerged as one of the team’s best defensive lineman, pushing veterans like Tyrone Crawford and Cedric Thornton out of the spotlight. He enters 2017 expected to be one of the team’s new defensive leaders, perhaps its best player after Sean Lee.
Anthony Brown not only held up but shined at corner, leaving little perceivable drop-off from Claiborne or Scandrick when he was playing for them. It was astounding for a sixth-round pick to be able to handle so much so quickly, and that speaks to even more of the challenge that our 2017 rookies face.
Collins was a third-round pick, Brown was sixth round; that didn’t stop them from having instant success. Taco Charlton, Chidobe Awuzie, and Jourdan Lewis were taken in the first three rounds and won’t have any excuse there for starting slowly.
Even though it was on the other side of the ball, Dak Prescott set a new standard in Dallas for rookie excellence. The fourth-round pick didn’t expect to be starting and didn’t even know he’d have to until after the team’s third preseason game, a little over two weeks before the Cowboys’ first regular season game. We know the rest of that story.
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This isn’t to say that our 2017 rookies can’t meet that standard. Nobody knew what Dak Prescott would be until he started showing it in September. Maliek Collins and Anthony Brown built their reputations in the regular season. Our new players will get their moments and opportunities, so perhaps the greatest surprise of all will be seeing yet another amazing draft class emerge.
This is just a dose of reality; a reminder that what we had last year was very special. To expect the same this year is really unfair to the 2017 class. We can’t hold them to the 2016 class’ standard, because arguably no draft class in Cowboys history measures up to that.