Cowboys don't have first-round pick, but there's plenty on line at combine

FRISCO, Texas -- As the Dallas Cowboys head to Indianapolis this week for the NFL scouting combine, they do so without the cachet of a first-round pick.

The Cowboys, who saw Amari Cooper's production soar after acquiring him in a trade with the Oakland Raiders for their 2019 first-round pick, do not have any buyer's remorse. Not having a top pick does take some of the juice away from the draft process -- at least for those who are consumed with mock drafts.

But successful drafts are not judged solely by a first-round pick.

The Cowboys built their success early in the Bill Parcells era not just by selecting Terence Newman with the fifth overall pick in 2003. They found Jason Witten in the third round of that draft, and he became the franchise leader in receptions, receiving yards and games played, and earned 11 Pro Bowl trips. In the fourth round, they drafted linebacker Bradie James, who was a seven-year starter. And there was also a quarterback named Tony Romo, whom the Cowboys signed as an undrafted free agent. Maybe you've heard of him.

In 2005, Dallas had two first-round picks and took the franchise leader in sacks, DeMarcus Ware, with the 11th overall pick. At No. 20, they took Marcus Spears, who had a solid run. But in Rounds 2 through 7, they selected Kevin Burnett, Marion Barber, Chris Canty and Jay Ratliff, and all of them became either Pro Bowlers, starters or key contributors.

Since Jason Garrett became the full-time coach, the Cowboys' draft classes have spawned multiple success stories. In 2011, it was with Tyron Smith, Bruce Carter, DeMarco Murray and Dwayne Harris as all-timers, Pro Bowlers and solid pieces. In 2013, it was Travis Frederick, Terrance Williams and J.J. Wilcox.

The Cowboys' draft success has ballooned since 2014, when Will McClay was named vice president of player personnel and took over the draft room.

Four of their past five first-rounders have played in the Pro Bowl (Zack Martin, Byron Jones, Ezekiel Elliott and Leighton Vander Esch). The second round has borne more hits in DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory (although multiple suspensions do not make him a bankable commodity yet), Jaylon Smith, Chidobe Awuzie and Connor Williams.

More important, there have been mid- and late-round successes in Anthony Hitchens (fourth round, 2014), Damien Wilson (fourth round, 2015), Geoff Swaim (seventh round, 2015), Xavier Woods (sixth round, 2017), Noah Brown (seventh round, 2017) and, in 2018, Michael Gallup (third), Dorance Armstrong (fourth) and Dalton Schultz (fourth).

But the 2016 draft has set up as one of the best in team history, and not just because they got Elliott with the fourth overall pick.

At the end of the 2018 season, all but one pick from that draft class were on the active roster, although Darius Jackson had been cut twice and spent time with the Green Bay Packers last season before rejoining the team's practice squad.

Jaylon Smith started every game and finished second on the defense in tackles in 2018. When healthy, Maliek Collins (third) has produced. Dak Prescott, a fourth-round supplemental pick, has started every game of his career and twice been named to the Pro Bowl. Anthony Brown, a sixth-rounder, is coming off his best season. Kavon Frazier has been a solid special teamer and part-timer on defense.

Collins, Prescott and Brown all earned the proven-performance escalator by playing in more than 35 percent of the snaps in two of their first three seasons, which will take their base salary from $720,000 to a little more than $2 million this year. Only two other teams (Packers and Chiefs) had more players selected in Rounds 3 through 7 in 2016 earn the escalator.

"I think we have a good feel for how we want this team to look, the kind of guys we want on this team, what we value in players. And I think we've been disciplined to drafting those kind of guys over the last number of years," Garrett said at the end of the 2018 season. "That allows you to build a team like we have right now. A lot of good young players who love playing football, love being part of a team, willing to work at it. Ultimately, when you have those kind of guys on your team, they can hold up over the course of the successes and the adversities of a 17-game NFL season. I think we've done a good job of that. The 2016 draft was excellent for us. Obviously, some big marquee players in that draft, guys that make a huge difference for us.

"Again, that's how we want to build this team. That's the vision for the football team and we have a lot of guys who are like that."

The last time the Cowboys did not have a first-round pick came in 2009, as a result of the previous season's trade for wide receiver Roy Williams from the Detroit Lions. It turned into one of the most forgettable drafts in recent memory, with not one of their 12 picks that year turning into a full-time starter.

They made the mistake of looking at that process as a "special teams" draft, with a roster loaded and coming off two playoff appearances in three years.

In a salary-cap world, teams can't keep every player they want to keep. Hitchens was too costly as a free agent when he signed with the Chiefs. Wilson could fall into a similar category as a free agent in March. In 2020, Collins and Brown could fall into that spot as well.

These Cowboys are coming off two playoff appearances in the past three seasons as well and must look to the draft, with or without a first-round pick, as their lifeblood.