Since their first draft in 1961, the Dallas Cowboys have drafted 46 players in the first round. Five of these players have their busts in the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Way more than five of them were just busts. That is, of course, to be expected. The NFL Draft is an inexact science. All teams have more strikeouts than home runs.
In this post, we will take a look at the Cowboys’ first round draft history, and offer the following (mostly-subjective) observations:
- Identify the top five (best of the best) first rounders
- Identify the bottom five (worst of the best) first rounders
- Grade each player
- Grade the Cowboys’ overall first round drafting success by averaging the players’ grades
- Grade each of the Cowboys’ regimes, broken down as follows:
- The Schramm/Landry Era
- The Jones/Johnson Era
- The post-Johnson/Jones Era
We will use a numerical grading system to provide a letter grade for each pick:
- 0-49 = F
- 50-64 = D
- 65-74 = C
- 75-89 = B
- 90-95 = A
- 96-100 = A+
- 100+ = A++
Points are earned as follows:
- 2 points for each year on the Cowboys’ roster
- 0.2 point for each game played as a Cowboy
- 1 point for each additional year in the league with another team
- 10 points for every Pro Bowl selection
- Career achievement:
- 20 points for being a singular player
- 10 points for exceeding reasonable expectations
- 5 points for meeting reasonable expectations
- 0 points for underachievement
- -5 points for total failure
- 25 points for Hall of Fame consideration
It is important to note that the system selected for judging these draft picks is weighted toward their value to the team, even more than their value as a player. Some players had ok careers with Dallas and then moved on to do some good things in other places. That counts, but not much. It is also important to remember that these men were first round picks, so the bar is elevated. Pro Bowls, All Pro selection, and, of course, the Hall of Fame are all weighted disproportionate to just being there, playing the game for a long time.
It isn’t a perfect system. It surely is not a purely objective formula. But, it is a system and a formula…
So, here goes…
First, an overview of the Cowboys’ first-round draft selections:
|1961||Bob Lilly †||TCU||Defensive Tackle|
|1963||Lee Roy Jordan *||Alabama||Linebacker|
|1964||Scott Appleton||Texas||Offensive Tackle|
|1966||John Niland *||Iowa||Offensive Guard|
|1968||Dennis Homan||Alabama||Defensive End|
|1969||Calvin Hill *||Yale||Runningback|
|1970||Duane Thomas||West Texas St.||Runningback|
|1971||Tody Smith||USC||Defensive End|
|1972||Bill Thomas||Boston College||Runningback|
|1973||Billy Joe Dupree *||Michigan State||Tight End|
|1974||Ed “Too Tall” Jones *||Tennessee State||Defensive End|
|Charley Young||North Carolina St.||Runningback|
|1975||Randy White †||Maryland||Linebacker|
|“Hollywood” Henderson *||Langston||Linebacker|
|1976||Aaron Kyle||Wyoming||Defensive Back|
|1977||Tony Dorsett †||Pittsburgh||Runningback|
|1978||Larry Bethea||Michigan State||Defensive End|
|1982||Rod Hill||Kentucky State||Defensive Back|
|1983||Jim Jeffcoat||Arizona State||Defensive End|
|1984||Billy Cannon, Jr.||Texas A&M||Linebacker|
|1985||Kevin Brooks||Michigan||Defensive End|
|1986||Mike Sherrard||UCLA||Wide Receiver|
|1987||Danny Noonan||Nebraska||Defensive Tackle|
|1988||Michael Irvin †||Miami||Wide Receiver|
|1989||Troy Aikman †||UCLA||Quarterback|
|1990||Emmitt Smith *||Florida||Runningback|
|1991||Russell Maryland *||Miami||Defensive Tackle|
|Alvin Harper||Tennessee||Wide Receiver|
|Kelvin Pritchett||Mississippi||Defensive Tackle|
|1992||Kevin Smith||Texas A&M||Defensive Back|
|Robert Jones||South Carolina State||Linebacker|
|1994||Shante Carver||Arizona State||Defensive End|
|1997||David LaFleur||LSU||Tight End|
|1998||Greg Ellis *||UNC||Defensive End|
|1999||Ebenezer Ekuban||UNC||Defensive End|
|2002||Roy Williams *||Oklahoma||Safety|
|2003||Terence Newman *||Kansas State||Cornerback|
|2005||DeMarcus Ware *||Troy State||Linebacker|
|Marcus Spears||Louisiana State||Defensive End|
|2006||Bobby Carpenter||Ohio State||Linebacker|
|2008||Felix Jones||Arkansas||Running Back|
|Mike Jenkins||South Florida||Cornerback|
|† = Hall of Fame|
|* = Pro Bowl|
There they are, in all of their glory. The list contains living legends, team standouts, serviceable players, and complete busts. In that regard, we can be sure, it is no different from any such list one might compile for any of the 32 NFL teams. But this is not just any list. This is our list, BlueBloods. So, let’s break it down.
We have graded each individual player using the above formula and posted the results here, because the spreadsheet just didn’t fit in this post. There is a link to the Grade Sheet in the sidebar to the right, as well. Using the results of our grading system, we give you…
The Top Five (The Transcendent Ones, the Blowers of Grading Curves)
These five players received the highest point totals in our grading system. Of course, each of them graded out A++
- Bob Lilly, DT, 285.2 points – Mr. Cowboy was the first pick the franchise ever made, and it says here he is still the best they ever made.
- Randy White, DT, 267.8 points – The Manster was like the second coming of Lilly, once Landry figured out he was a defensive tackle and not a middle linebacker.
- Emmitt Smith, RB, 259.2 points – the NFL’s all-time leading rushing and a major cog in the early 90’s wheel that crushed everything in its path to three Super Bowl championships.
- Troy Aikman, QB, 186 points – The HOF quarterback with the golden arm and the steely nerves. He was the perfect leader of a dang near perfect team.
- Michael Irvin, 169.8 points – Mike was the spiritual leader of a spirited bunch. The Play-Maker played his way into the Hall of Fame and into the top five list of all-time Dallas Cowboys first round picks.
You will note that these players all have in common the highest pinnacle of achievement in the sport: they are all hall of famers. (Well, I am granting Emmitt his seat, of course.) There is a hall of famer – and one of my all-time favorite Cowboys – left off the top five list. That just isn’t right, so here are the honorable mentions, the next five…
The A+ Honor Roll
- Tony Dorsett, RB, 166.4 points – There was never anything in Cowboys history more beautiful than watching TD break a long run. He was poetry in motion and, before the Herschell trade, the best coup the Cowboys ever pulled in a trade, says me.
- Lee Roy Jordan, MLB, 158.2 points – They never made an undersized middle linebacker with more spunk, spit, and gravel than my man, Lee Roy. It is time the HOF ended their longtime spite for 70s era Cowboys and put his bust in Canton.
- Ed “Too Tall” Jones, DE, 153.8 points – Too Tall was too much for opposing defenders. When he wasn’t slinging QBs to the Texas Stadium turf, he was swatting their passes back in their chops. Another HOF travesty.
- John Niland, G, C, 147.6 points – 10 years a Cowboys. Six Pro Bowls. Two times All-Pro. Seems like HOF numbers to me. If only he had been a Steeler, huh?
- Billy Joe Dupree, TE, 115.8 points – 11 years and 3 Pro Bowls, Billy Joe was the first great Cowboys’ tight end. There have, as you know, been a couple pretty nice ones since. They weren’t taken in the first round. Billy Joe was.
The Flunkers and Klunkers (the worst 1st round picks ever to wear a Star…except for one, who didn’t)
- Scott Appleton, OT, 0 points – Scott is the biggest bust ever only because he never played a down for the ‘Boys. He was drafted by Dallas in the NFL and Houston in the AFL, and the meathead went with Houston. It is just as well. He was never more than a spare part, and even playing his short career in Dallas would have only moved him up a few chairs in the Dunce line.
- Billy Cannon, Jr, LB, 0.6 points – He was the 25th pick in the 1984 draft. He had the pedigree: his father, Billy Cannon, Sr was a Heisman trophy winner from LSU. Junior was a standout at A&M and the Cowboys had high hopes for him. But like much of the 80’s for Cowboys fans, Cannon gave us nothing to remember and plenty to forget. he didn’t even post a full season in the Silver and Blue.
- Bill Thomas, RB, 2.4 points – He was the 26th pick in the ’72 draft. That much we know. What he did after, you might want to ask his mom. No one else will remember.
- Mike Sherrard, WR, 10.2 points – Mike suffered what was thought to be a career-ending injury. The fact that he managed to keep it from being so earned him enough points to better the trio above. He actually had some nice years in San Francisco, and it was good to see him bounce back. Still, he was never what we thought he was.
- Tody Smith, DE, 10.4 points – He played two years in Dallas after being taken with the 25th pick in 1971.
Apparently, his only contribution was that goofy name his either dyslexic or sadistic mom gave him.
Honestly, I began this project because I wanted to see if that stiff, Bobby Carpenter, was the biggest first round miss in Cowboys’ history. As it turns out, his big fat flunking grade of 29.2 is only 13th worst in club history. Geez, that’s depressing, isn’t it? Well, we have had some great late-round and free agent finds along the way, so it all comes out in the wash.
And now, for part two of this experiment. How do the various eras compare against one another?
Grading the Teachers
- The Landry/Schramm Era – 75.7 (B – barely)
- The Jones/Johnson Era – 105 (A++ – only six picks, and two HOFers…and three rings)
- The Post-Johnson/Jones Era – 59.2 (D – with names like Shante Carver and Bobby Carpenter and with several incompletes on the scorecard, how could this bunch win?)
Landry and company drafted four Hall of Famers in the first round, out of 27 picks. Jones and Johnson drafted two out of just six taken. The only pick made since Johnson left that has a legitimate shot (so far) is DeMarcus Ware. With the nine picks taken in this latest era, six have earned an F, one (Terence Newman) is scoring a C so far, and two (Ware and Roy Williams) are A+ students, according to our scale.
So, what have we learned?
A few things:
- There have been some mind-numbing busts in the first round by this team. 22 of the 46 players taken (47%) received an F on their report card.
- The Cowboys have landed six of the greatest to ever play the game in those 46 tries…and the verdict is still out, but the prospects look good for a seventh (Ware).
- Landry and Schramm were smarter than Jones alone for sure, but maybe none of them had the big brain Jimmy sports…or the eye for talent.
- The Hall of Fame has some work to do to right some 70s wrongs.
- Cowboys fans better pray that Jerry Jones has Dan Reeves somewhere nearby on draft day.
Oh, wait. They don’t have a first round pick this year.