Dallas Cowboys: Joe Mathis presents missed opportunity

Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports /

The pass-rush starved Dallas Cowboys added Taco Charlton in the 2017 NFL Draft, but foolishly missed out on another possible stud with Joe Mathis.

What the Dallas Cowboys ultimately did and what fans had hoped they do in the 2017 NFL Draft ultimately lined up to perfection. Seeing the need for a pass-rusher, they drafted the most pro-ready 4-3 defensive end on the board in Taco Charlton. Following their losses in the secondary, they then took two cornerbacks in Rounds 2 and 3 (Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis), while also getting unreal value in the sixth round on safety Xavier Woods.

Value is also pivotal to what the Cowboys did in the 2017 draft. Obviously they found plenty a year ago with Dak Prescott going in the fourth round. But with defense being such a barren area of the depth chart in terms of talent, Stephen Jones and the Dallas front office lucked out.

Awuzie was a first-round prospect to many that dropped to No. 60. Meanwhile, Lewis might be the best cover-corner in the league, but is dinged for his height. Then you have Woods, a top-100 player to some, almost falling past 200. That’s well done by the Boys.

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It’s hard not to love was the Cowboys did in the draft. But it’s also hard not to think about the opportunity they missed in undrafted free agency.

There’s always a mad dash to sign the players who didn’t hear their names called over 253 picks. Great franchises work undrafted free agency like hawks. These players are not immediate contributors 99-of-100 times, even if they develop into such. That’s what makes a player such as former Washington Huskies edge rusher Joe Mathis so potentially special. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, they also watched him slip through their finger and the front office has themselves to blame.

First, you have to understand why Mathis went undrafted. The Washington product was pedestrian in his first two seasons in college, seeing limited playing time for the Huskies. At the start of his 2016 season, however, he was a destructive force. Outside of probably only Myles Garrett, Mathis looked like the most complete edge rusher in college football. He displayed devastating speed, force, vision and tackling ability to make him effective against both the run and pass.

The problem, however, is that his senior year was shortened due to a foot injury at midseason that put him out for the rest of the year. Coming off of the injury and with limited game tape, it was too difficult for any team to make that gamble. In undrafted free agency, though, that’s a different beast entirely.

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Dallas was the first franchise to have any claim to Mathis. The Cowboys initially had Mathis ready to come in for what amounts to a tryout at rookie minicamp. Before they could ever get him in for that tryout and workout, though, the Houston Texans instead nabbed him as an undrafted free agent signing.

This is where the error on the part of the Cowboys lies. For a team that was so criminally deficient in regards to pass-rushers a year ago, why were they unwilling to offer an undrafted free agent deal? At worst, they’re committing $100,000 of guaranteed money — and that’s a rare number. You’re more likely looking at something like $20,000-$30,000 guaranteed. Even for a team cap-strapped like Dallas, that’s more than affordable. That makes the decision to only invite him in for a tryout both baffling and frustrating.

In the scouting process prior to the NFL draft, Jon Ledyard of Inside The Pylon broke down Mathis’ game in-depth. After seeing his disruption continuously against the run and pass and the variety of ways he could beat opponents on the edge, Ledyard’s assessment was strong. He said that Mathis had Day-1 talent and that he belonged among the top EDGE defenders in a loaded class.

So when the Cowboys are on the phone with Mathis, why then is it so difficult to sign him to an undrafted free agent deal? The financial risk is negligible and it’s a move to address perhaps what’s still the biggest need in Dallas. Instead, they offered him the invitation to rookie camp and he signed for the other franchise in Texas.

Next: 2017 NFL Power Rankings: Post-draft edition

There’s no guarantee Mathis is as good as he looked while on the field prior to the injury. Even if he’s quality, there’s no certainty that he’ll even make the Texans given their loaded pass-rush talent. Subsequently, the Boys could have another chance to bring him in. With the upside that he brings to the table at a position of need, it’d be hard to pass up on him twice at such a low cost. But for now, the Cowboys made an error in judgment in not signing him outright to begin with.