Byron Jones, cornerback
Round 1, Pick 27
Career-high overall grade: 79.9 (2018)
Jones has been a constant on the back end of the Cowboys’ defense since he was drafted in 2015 and has logged a colossal 3795 over his first four seasons in the league. He spent the early part of his career at the safety position – a role in which he found relative success – but he was moved to the boundary corner position before the start of the 2018 season, and it’s there where he has flourished. Even though he ended the 2018 season without an interception, it’s clear that Jones has developed into one of the best in the game, he allowed only 481 yards in his coverage on only 37 catches this year, and His 53.6% catch rate allowed was the 15th-best mark in the league.
Randy Gregory, edge defender
Round 2, Pick 60
Career-high overall grade: 62.4 (2015)
The Cowboys took a risk by taking the former Nebraska Cornhusker in the second round of the 2015 NFL draft. The positives? He was thought of by many as being the best pure pass-rusher in the class. The negatives? He came with legitimate off-field concerns that ultimately ended up costing him (and the Cowboys) significant playing time in the NFL. Since 2015, Gregory has been forced to miss a total of 30 games due to suspension and has consequently only played 768 snaps over the last four seasons. The bulk (522) of those snaps came last season, where he showed signs of promise as a pass rusher, notching 41 total pressures from 360 pass-rushing snaps en route to an average, yet respectable, pass-rushing grade of 66.8.
Ezekiel Elliott, running back
Round 1, Pick 4
Career-high overall grade: 77.0 (2016)
No running back over the last three seasons has logged more rushing attempts (868), more rushing yards (4048), more first downs (219) or more rushing yards after contact (2567) than Elliott, but his overall average of 3.0 yards after contact per carry and his career rushing grade of 80.2 rank 18th and 15th, respectively, among the 100 backs with at least 100 carries in that span. Three years into his NFL career, Elliott’s best single-season is still his rookie year, where he ranked seventh among qualifying running backs in yards after contact per attempt (2.91) and second in breakaway yardage (550).
Jaylon Smith, linebacker
Round 2, Pick 34
Career-high overall grade: 84.5 (2018)
A torn ACL and MCL in his junior year at Notre Dame pushed him from being a sure-fire first-round pick in the 2016 NFL draft to a question mark, but after he found his feet with 575 snaps in his 2017 season – which was essentially his rookie year – Smith overcame those questions emphatically in 2018. Among off-ball linebackers with 50 or more pass-rush snaps, his 27.8 win percentage as a pass rusher ranked first, while he was one of six off-ball linebackers with 500 or more coverage snaps to allow one or fewer touchdowns in coverage.
Taco Charlton, edge defender
Round 1, Pick 28
Career-high overall grade: 64.3 (2018)
Charlton has been limited along the Cowboys’ defensive line since being drafted and played only 399 and 428 snaps in 2017 and 2018, respectively. In the first half of the 2018 campaign, however, it looked as if Charlton was about to break through the ranks as a starter on the edge; he played at least 50% of the team’s snaps in every game from Week 1 to Week 6, and his grade of 68.0 was second to only Demarcus Lawrence in that span. However, a shoulder injury forced him to miss three games in a row, and he played just 151 snaps thereafter.
Chidobe Awuzie, cornerback
Round 2, Pick 60
Career-high overall grade: 78.4 (2017)
After playing just 309 snaps during his rookie year, Awuzie saw a huge uptick in playing time during his sophomore campaign to the tune of 1018 snaps. However, with a greater workload comes greater responsibility, and he ultimately struggled to live up to the promise he showed on limited snaps as a rookie. His overall grade of 78.4 in 2017 dipped to 63.9 in 2018, and he allowed 13.6 yards per reception in 2018 compared to an impressive 7.0 yards per reception as a rookie.
Leighton Vander Esch, linebacker
Round 1, Pick 19
Career-high overall grade: 85.7 (2018)
Vander Esch finished the season ranked fourth among qualifying linebackers in overall grade (85.7), and he was one of four linebackers to finish the year with a grade of at least 80.0 in both run defense and coverage. The defining mark of his rookie year was his propensity to find and flow to the ball carrier, as he was the first to make contact with the opposing ball carrier on 15.1% of his defensive snaps. No other off-ball linebacker with at least 400 defensive snaps played finished above 12.6%.
Connor Williams, guard
Round 2, Pick 50
Career-high overall grade: 57.3 (2018)
After moving from his familiar left tackle position to the left guard position as a pro in Dallas, Williams struggled for the majority of his rookie campaign. He recorded just one grade above 60.0 all season and allowed 32 pressures from his 506 snaps as a pass blocker.