Occasionally, NFL draft twitter can be wonderful. Tuesday was one of those days.
Using a fuzzy, grainy and mostly illegible picture posted to Twitter by WFAA sports anchor Mike Leslie, a swath of fans, reporters and Dallas Cowboys-related websites spent hours Tuesday afternoon decoding the team’s draft board on social media. The end result was a remarkably entertaining thread that, by all accounts, appears to have decoded a large part of the top end of the Dallas draft board (which you can see at the bottom of this story).
If you’re counting, this is at least the fourth (!) time the Dallas draft board has been exposed through photos or video that made their way online. We’ll get to that in a bit. But this latest inadvertent exposure came directly from team owner Jerry Jones, who was basically asking for it when he held up a copy of the team’s player rankings in front of cameras.
The incident happened after the first day of the draft, while speaking to the media and justifying the selection of Tulsa offensive lineman Tyler Smith at 24th overall. Dallas apparently had Smith rated higher than a pair of guards who went ahead of him in the first round. In the process of making that point, a purely Jones moment unfolded, with the franchise owner holding up a copy of the team’s draft board to the media while sitting alongside his son Stephen, head coach Mike McCarthy and vice president of player personnel Will McClay.
“Can you see that?” A grinning Jones said, holding up the sheet.
“Don’t show ‘em that,” responded Cowboys executive Stephen Jones, chuckling and staring down the line toward McClay, who laughed and shifted in his seat.
“I’m dead serious,” Jerry continued.
“Put that sheet down,” Stephen urged.
Jerry Jones told us the Cowboys rated OGs Zion Johnson and Kenyon Green below new Dallas OT Tyler Smith 3 days ago. Jerry held up a color-coded page to show us as proof.
Stephen: "Put that thing down!" pic.twitter.com/KpoRuNzUCf
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) April 29, 2022
As drafts go, particularly when there were still six rounds left, it was a surreal moment. It was also a challenge to fans and reporters that you knew would get taken up. As it went in previous years — again, we'll get to that shortly — someone had a photo. This time it was Leslie, who pulled a screen grab of the sheet from the WFAA footage then posted it on Twitter for sleuths to start working.
If that sounds familiar, it should. Some version of this has happened to Dallas before at least three other times. In 2010, the team’s in-house media arm mistakenly included a video clip of Jerry Jones standing in front of the team’s board during the final day of the draft. A handful of fans grabbed photos of the leak before it was taken down and they eventually made their way to Blogging The Boys, a deep-dive Cowboys site that impressively sussed out expansive chunks of Dallas' player ratings through all seven rounds.
The site pulled similarly impressive feats in 2013 and 2016, again using fuzzy pictures that found their way online. In 2013, the team-supplied snaps featured Jerry (note this theme) standing in front of his club's draft board. In 2016, a team employee took a photo of the board and briefly posted it online more than two months after the selections were complete, apparently taken as the franchise began its transition from the Valley Ranch facility in Dallas to The Star in Frisco.
In most of these instances, the pictures aren’t a huge deal. If anything, they serve as a fascinating historical record of how Dallas viewed players, or who they had taken off their board at the time selections were made. The Cowboys also aren’t the only team to have this kind of thing happen; in 2021, the Jacksonville Jaguars' in-house media posted photos of that revealed how the franchise had some players graded that weren’t their own picks.
Dallas just seems to have it happen more often than others, which probably means they aren’t nearly as worried as other franchises are about protecting player ratings like they're nuclear launch codes.
More often than not, it enhances the interest in the Cowboys when this kind of thing happens. Perhaps because so many fan bases live in an information desert when it comes to getting an expansive look behind the scenes of an NFL team's draft.
It speaks to why this year's draft decoding might be more impressive than previous incidents. Despite Jones being cavalier and literally holding the team’s rankings up in a media conference, Leslie pulled what's arguably the grainiest photo of all the incidents, but just enough to get the ball rolling.
It all unfolded Tuesday, when the Twitter account @CowboysStats lamented that nobody took a high-res shot of Jerry Jones holding up the Cowboys' draft board for all to see. That drew a response from Leslie, who posted the best screen grab he could generate from the WFAA video.
Next up came — you guessed it — a longtime contributor to Blogging the Boys, KD Drummond (who is now the managing editor of Cowboys Wire) putting a call out to some of his colleagues, and the thread unspooled from there.
The result: In less than three hours, Cowboys Twitter pulled together the top 16 picks on the board. The set appears to be spot-on and tracks with some of the comments Jerry Jones made when he was talking about selecting Smith in Round 1.
By the end of the night, Leslie, Drummond, Jon Machota of The Athletic and a swath of others had cobbled together what appears to be an accurate representation of the top 34 picks on Dallas' board. Interestingly, Dallas’ NFC East rival, the New York Giants, landed the Cowboys’ two-highest rated players — Oregon edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux and Alabama tackle Evan Neal — with the fifth and seventh overall picks.
Dallas was also notably impressed by Ohio State wideout Garrett Wilson, who they pegged at fourth overall. Wilson went to the New York Jets, who dominated this draft if you’re going off the Dallas board, landing four of the top 28 ranked players: Wilson, Cincinnati cornerback Ahmad Gardner (rated fifth by Dallas), Iowa State running back Breece Hall (19th) and defensive end Jermaine Johnson (28th).
Interestingly, Dallas had the Jaguars’ No. 1 overall pick, defensive end Travon Walker, rated seventh on their board. Zero quarterbacks cracked the top 34, while the New Orleans Saints' first-round pick, offensive tackle Trevor Penning, also is absent. As for the two players most analysts had tied to Dallas at the 24th overall pick — guards Kenyon Green and Zion Johnson — both were rated lower than the Cowboys’ actual pick, Tyler Smith.
The entire pieced-together top 34 on the Dallas board:
1. Kayvon Thibodeaux, LB/DE (went fifth to the Giants)
2. Evan Neal, OT (seventh to the Giants)
3. Aidan Hutchinson, DE (second to the Detroit Lions)
4. Garrett Wilson, WR (10th to the New York Jets)
5. Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, CB (fourth to the Jets)
6. Derek Stingley Jr., CB (third to the Texans)
7. Travon Walker, DE (first to the Jaguars)
8. Kyle Hamilton, S (14th to the Baltimore Ravens)
9. Ikem “Icky” Ekwonu, OT (sixth to the Carolina Panthers)
10. Drake London, WR (eighth to the Atlanta Falcons)
11. Jordan Davis, DT (13th to the Philadelphia Eagles)
12. Charles Cross, OT (ninth to the Seattle Seahawks)
13. Lewis Cine, S, Georgia (32nd to the Minnesota Vikings)
14. Jameson Williams, WR (12th to the Lions)
15. Chis Olave, WR (11th to the Saints)
16. Tyler Smith, OT (24th to the Cowboys)
17. Devin Lloyd, LB (27th to the Jaguars)
18. Daxton Hill, S (31st to the Cincinnati Bengals)
19. Breece Hall, RB (36th to the Jets)
20. Kenyon Green, OG (15th to the Texans)
21. George Karlaftis, DE (30th to the Kansas City Chiefs)
22. Zion Johnson, OG (17th to the Los Angeles Chargers)
23. Treylon Burks, WR (18th to the Tennessee Titans)
24. Kyler Gordon, CB (39th to the Chicago Bears)
25. Tyler Linderbaum, C (25th to the Ravens)
26. David Ojabo, LB (45th to the Ravens)
27. Jahan Dotson, WR (16th to the Washington Commanders)
28. Jermaine Johnson, DE (26th to Jets)
29. Kaiir Elam, CB (23rd to the Buffalo Bills)
30. Arnold Ekiketie, DE (38th to the Falcons)
31. Trent McDuffie, CB (21st to the Chiefs)
32. Quay Walker, LB (22nd to the Packers)
33. Devonte Wyatt, DT (28th to the Packers)
34. Logan Hall, DE (33rd to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers)