Led by Leighton Vander Esch, Cowboys' rookie class shows promise

Leighton Vander Esch led the Cowboys in tackles. Shane Roper/USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys’ top five draft picks, from first-rounder Leighton Vander Esch to fourth-rounder Dalton Schultz, combined to start 34 games. Vander Esch put himself in the Defensive Rookie of the Year conversation, and Dallas' second-, third- and fourth-round picks all showed promise. It was another solid class for vice president of player personnel Will McClay.

Grade: Above average

Best rookie: There were a lot of questions when the Cowboys selected Vander Esch at No. 19 in the first round. Why didn’t they trade up for safety Derwin James? Why didn’t they draft a receiver, such as Calvin Ridley? Vander Esch led the Cowboys in tackles and started just 11 games. The coaches credited him with 176 stops, the most in franchise history by a rookie. He also tied for the team lead with two interceptions. When the Cowboys selected Vander Esch, they thought they had a rangy linebacker who could cover up passing lanes and fill the run game. They were right.

Most improved rookie: There were big expectations for Michael Gallup entering this season, even though he was a third-round pick, because the Cowboys did not do much else in trying to replace Dez Bryant. Gallup finished his rookie season with 33 catches for 507 yards and two touchdowns and played through an unspeakable tragedy when he learned of the death of his brother after the Atlanta game. He had two of his most productive games in the second half of the season, and his numbers would likely have been better if quarterback Dak Prescott had not missed him on a handful of deep balls. Gallup needs to be better at the catch and learn to not allow defenders to play through him, but he showed enough signs to make some believe he will turn into a high-end No. 2 receiver.

Jury is still out on ...: The Cowboys contemplated sending their second-round pick to Seattle for safety Earl Thomas, but believed Connor Williams was too good to pass up. A tackle at Texas, the Cowboys moved him to guard, and he was a starter from the first practice. He struggled at times with the power of interior defensive linemen and lost his job to Xavier Su’a-Filo at the midway point because Williams had knee surgery. Do the Cowboys keep Williams at guard or move him to another spot? He needs to add bulk to his frame, which most players do through a full offseason program. By no means is he anything close to a bust, but highly drafted offensive linemen are held to a high standard (see: Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin).

Undrafted rookie evaluation: Safety Tyree Robinson was the only undrafted free agent to make the opening-day roster, but he was waived after two games and spent time on the practice squad before joining the San Francisco 49ers late in the season. Although the team is known for its success with undrafted free agents (Tony Romo, Miles Austin, Cole Beasley), the Cowboys’ run of draft success has made it more difficult for undrafted guys to make the roster.