It is night and day when you look at the success the Dallas Cowboys have had with their first-round draft picks on offense versus defense. The front office has an impressive track record picking offensive players as every single one from 2010 has earned Pro Bowl and/or All-Pro honors. That’s seven offensive players selected (or used draft capital for in Amari Cooper’s case) who have made a splash for the Cowboys in that span. That’s impressive.
And all of those guys were awarded a multi-year second contract from the front office with the lone exception of CeeDee Lamb who, at this point, is ineligible for an extension. Of course, by the looks of things, it’s coming.
The team hasn’t been so lucky on the defensive side of the ball. Here is a tweet from last year a day before the Micah Parsons selection.
If anyone goes nuts saying “we absolutely must go defense!!” just remind them of how many of these players got a long-term second contract.
Offense = ALL of them
Defense = NONE of them https://t.co/m2cfB4oHkV
—Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) April 27, 2021
Prior to Parsons, that’s a whole lot of whiffing. And while early signs indicate Parsons will be the defensive player that bucks this trend, it’s worth noting the team’s inability to land a legitimate defensive player in round one goes back a long way. How long has it been since a first-round defensive player was offered a second multi-year contract by the Cowboys?
That was one of the many questions Rabblerousr and I discussed on a special Trivia Night episode of The Star Seminar on the Blogging The Boys podcast network with special guest Dave Halprin! Make sure to subscribe to our podcast network so you don’t miss any of our episodes. Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.
Let’s roll things back and see how far we have to go.
2018 – Leighton Vander Esch
Initially, the Cowboys looked like geniuses for selecting Leighton Vander Esch with the 19th overall pick in 2018 as the rookie linebacker led the team with 140 tackles. He was all over the place and even picked off two passes. It was a great rookie campaign and it was good enough to earn All-Pro honors right out of the gate.
Unfortunately, things haven’t gone well since. Health has played a role, but LVE has never come close to the 140 tackles he had in his rookie season. In fact, he’s averaged less than half that over the past three years. The Cowboys declined to exercise his fifth-year option last year and that turned out to be wise. While he was solid last year and even played in all 17 games, he just didn’t warrant a huge investment. The Cowboys just re-signed him to a cheap $3 million one-year deal to help buy them time to revamp the linebacker position group. Vander Esch still has a chance to earn a multi-year deal with the team, so the book isn’t closed on him just yet.
2017 – Taco Charlton
In one of the worst first-round picks in recent memory, edge rusher Taco Charlton didn’t even make it through his rookie contract. In fact, he was released after just two seasons. He always seemed aloof and never got any traction in Dallas. He finished his Cowboys career with just four sacks across 27 games.
The biggest regret of this pick came from passing up on TJ Watt who was selected two picks later and has since gone on to be one of the best defensive players in the NFL. In a strange twist of fate, Charlton signed with Watt’s team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, last year where he played in 11 games and recorded half a sack.
2015 – Byron Jones
Similar to Charlton, the Cowboys selected Byron Jones late in the first round (Charlton was taken 27th overall, Jones 28th). But unlike Taco, the Cowboys got maximum value out of a rookie deal with Jones. Thanks to not being able to use him correctly, the Cowboys benefited from exercising his fifth-year option after his final year playing safety, giving them a much cheaper bonus year than they would have had he played cornerback. Jones excelled at corner earning All-Pro honors. He played so well that he priced himself out of Dallas, earning a five-year, $82.5 million deal with the Miami Dolphins, making him the highest-paid cornerback at the time.
While many will detest the Cowboys’ decision to let Jones go, it’s hard to disagree with that decision now. Jones can be sticky in coverage at times, but he still continues to not come away with picks and has given up nine touchdowns and a passer rating over 100 with the Dolphins.
2012 – Morris Claiborne
It was a decade ago when the Cowboys’ front office loved to make big moves. After spending big money in free agency to acquire cornerback Brandon Carr, they doubled down and packaged their first- and second-round picks to move up to sixth overall in the 2012 NFL Draft to take LSU star, Morris Claiborne.
Claiborne was a disappointment from the get-go. It’s not that he was a terrible player, but considering the investment the team made in him, he just severely underperformed. He battled injuries and made 43 career starts with Dallas. Similar to Vander Esch, the team declined his fifth-year option, but still managed to retain him after his rookie deal on a one-year contract. But alas, that was all she wrote for him in Dallas as he would play for the Jets the following season and then the Chiefs shortly thereafter. Claiborne hasn’t played since the 2019 season.
2008 – Mike Jenkins
In the span of eight years, the Cowboys selected just three defensive players in the first round and they were all cornerbacks. In 2008, the Cowboys had two first-round picks thanks to giving away a first-rounder the previous year to Cleveland so they could select quarterback Brady Quinn. Mike Jenkins was the second of the team’s first-round picks as they selected running back Felix Jones a few picks earlier. The 2008 draft was madness for the Cowboys in terms of moving around. In all, the Cowboys made nine draft-day trades to maneuver to certain spots to get the players they wanted.
Jenkins played five years with Dallas, all on his rookie deal (back then they were for five years). He was solid early, even earning Pro Bowl honors his second year in the league. He struggled down the stretch and was allowed to walk in free agency where he signed with Oakland and later with Tampa Bay. Similar to Claiborne, Jenkins only played in three additional seasons after leaving Dallas.
2007 – Anthony Spencer
Anthony Spencer could’ve very easily been a recipient of a multi-year second contract; however, the Cowboys’ indecisiveness thwarted that. In hindsight, their reluctance paid off. Spencer was a solid player throughout his five-year rookie deal, but the Cowboys didn’t want to commit to him long-term so they slapped the franchise tag on him in 2012. He then went on to have 11 sacks that season, earning Pro Bowl honors. He appeared the Cowboys missed a chance to sign him to a long-term at a cheaper price before his breakout season, so the Cowboys tagged him again in 2013.
Things didn’t go so well this time around. After missing time with a knee injury, he tried to return, but to no avail. Spencer ended up having microfracture surgery ending his season. The Cowboys did sign him to a one-year deal the following season where he played in 13 games in a reserve role. He never played another season thereafter.
The Cowboys’ hesitancy prevented Spencer from receiving his one chance at a payday and it kept the team front eating some dead money later. At least Spencer was able to pocket close to $20 million from being tagged twice.
2006 – Bobby Carpenter
Prior to Claiborne, linebacker Bobby Carpenter had the label as one of the team’s biggest draft busts. After being selected 18th overall, Carpenter only started three games during his three years in Dallas. He finished with less than 100 total tackles in that span. The Cowboys finally had enough and traded him to the St. Louis Rams in exchange for forming first-round tackle Alex Barron. Carpenter wouldn’t make the Rams opening day roster and spent the next three seasons traveling to different teams.
Carpenter found a way to keep haunting the Cowboys as a member of the Detroit Lions. In 2011, he came away with a pick-six off of Tony Romo that helped the Lions come back from 24 points in the second half to win the game 34-30. Thanks for nothing, Bobby.
2005 – DeMarcus Ware
You have to go all the way back to 2005 to find the last defensive player the Cowboys selected who got a multi-year second deal with the team. And that player is none other than DeMarcus Ware. The superstar pass rusher signed a six-year, $78 million extension with the team back in 2009. Ware gave the Cowboys nine great seasons where he racked up 117 total sacks but was released in 2014 as a cap casualty, voiding the last two years on his contract.
Strangely, Ware wasn’t the only first-round defensive player that season who received a multi-year second deal. Marcus Spears, who was selected nine spots after Ware, signed a five-year, $15.25 million deal in 2011, but was cut just two years into it to free up cap space.