How the Senior Bowl helped shape the Dallas Cowboys' 2022 draft class

FRISCO, Texas -- Back at the Senior Bowl in February, they were teammates for a week. Jake Ferguson and Matt Waletzko on the National Team. Sam Williams, Jalen Tolbert, Damone Clark and John Ridgeway on the American Team.

Last weekend during the NFL draft, they became teammates again on the Dallas Cowboys.

“It’s a spotlight when you’re going against the top prospects of the draft,” Ridgeway, a defensive tackle from Arkansas, said of the Senior Bowl. “It’s a kill-or-be-killed mentality when you’re there. You got to go up there and put your best foot forward. That’s what all the Dallas Cowboys' prospects did.”

Three other teams -- the Arizona Cardinals, Baltimore Ravens and Seattle Seahawks -- also selected six Senior Bowl participants. Since 2014, the Cowboys have selected 24 prospects who played in the Senior Bowl, a college all-star game played annually in Mobile, Alabama.

Not unexpectedly, Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy loves what the Cowboys did.

“I thought Waletzko had a chance to go in late [Round] 3. I thought Ridgeway had a chance to go late 3. I thought Ferguson had a chance to go late 3. Damone Clark would’ve got in the second round if not for the injury. So they got good value,” Nagy said. “I do think Waletzko could be a starter [one day]. I think Ridgeway could be a starter. I think Damone certainly can be a starter if he can bounce back.”

Cowboys vice president of player personnel Will McClay said the Senior Bowl helped them get an on-field feel for players.

“You get to have your hands on them and you get to see them compete against the better guys," McClay said. "So that does add to it, but it’s not the end all, be all. It’s just a piece of the puzzle. We do like to see them in that environment and see if it matches with the information that we get. Then you go to the combine and add all of those other things to it.”

For Tolbert and Waletzko, it was a chance to matchup against better talent after playing at smaller schools. At South Alabama, Tolbert was an All-Sun Belt Conference wide receiver after catching 82 passes for 1,474 yards and eight touchdowns. Waletzko, an offensive tackle, played at North Dakota, which last produced an NFL draft pick in 2006.

“It definitely gave me a chip on my shoulder to prove myself to the teams and just show everyone in the league that I can play with the best of the best,” Waletzko said.

Tolbert caught two passes for 24 yards in the Senior Bowl.

“He’s just a really good all-around receiver,” said Nagy, who's known Tolbert since high school. “He’s got a pro body already. The physical part of the game, he’s ready for that.”

What may have mattered more is how Tolbert did in games against bigger schools. Against Tennessee, he caught seven passes for 143 yards and a touchdowns.

“The Tennessee game was a special one,” Tolbert said. “I had marked that calendar date for a while, and I was actually excited to go out there and play against those SEC opponents and show them that my level of competition does not matter.”

McClay said the Cowboys came away intrigued after that game and studied Tolbert more after a solid Senior Bowl. Tolbert had a private workout with the Cowboys and was among the national visitors before the draft.

“When you visit with him and you find out his intelligence and his awareness to coverage, to all the things he knows, he shows that he’s further ahead than maybe someone from a smaller conference,” McClay said.

Ferguson, the tight end who was was the Cowboys’ fourth-round pick, caught three passes for a game-high 62 yards and a touchdown in the Senior Bowl.

“What stands out the most with Jake, on top of the versatility, is just the catching skills,” Nagy said. “This guy has some of the best set of hands in this year’s draft whether that be a tight end or a wide receiver.”

Ferguson’s initial introduction to the Cowboys was a 15-minute meeting in Mobile, which was followed a few weeks later with a formal interview at the combine in Indianapolis where he met coach Mike McCarthy and tight ends coach Lunda Wells.

“At Wisconsin, we go by these three words -- smart, tough, dependable -- and that was my pitch to Coach McCarthy, telling him, ‘Hey, I’m smart. I’m going to be able to pick up the plays. I’m tough, throw me into any scenario and I’ll be ready, and I'm dependable,’” Ferguson said. “[McCarthy] took those words to heart, and he said it on that [draft] call, and he’s going to hold me to it.”

Williams was the Cowboys’ highest pick, No. 56 overall in the second round, from the Senior Bowl. If not for a neck injury that was diagnosed at the combine, Clark could have been a second- or third-round pick after making 135 stops in his last year at LSU, to go along with 5.5 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss.

“I saw him at his pro day and his outlook on this thing was incredible,” Nagy said. “I mean he’s just got such a great spirit and his mind is in the right place. I was fearful he might fall out of the draft, but I’m happy the Cowboys took a shot.”

Clark was named the best linebacker at the Senior Bowl after the week of practices and the game.

“When you take care of business, you reap the benefits,” Clark said. “You handle business and everything else takes care of itself.”

The Cowboys won’t see Clark on the field until November at the earliest because of spinal fusion surgery, but they don’t want to call 2022 a redshirt season for him. If they want to see what he can do, they can look at the Senior Bowl.

“I felt really good,” Clark said. “You turn the tape on, you’ll see it.”