And how do we know that Thibodeaux, a pass rusher out of Oregon, and Neal, an Alabama offensive tackle, topped Dallas’s draft board? Because Jones showed it to reporters after the first round finished.
At that point on April 28, the second through seventh rounds had yet to take place, and several players on the laminated sheet Jones held up at a news conference were still available. That likely explains why Cowboys executive Stephen Jones, the owner’s son seated next to him at the media session, quickly told his father with a laugh, “Don’t show ’em that. Don’t show ’em that.”
Jerry Jones pulled back his sheet and folded it so the side showing the player list was no longer visible, but the entire sequence was filmed, allowing Internet denizens to do what they do. Several sleuths, including writers for the Athletic, Dallas station WFAA and fan site Blogging the Boys set about enhancing and sharpening images of the list until its contents could be fully made out. The Athletic reported Tuesday that it was able to discern the first 34 of the 39 names shown by Jones.
To prove to reporters that the Cowboys had Tyler Smith ranked higher on their board than Kenyon Green and Zion Johnson, Jerry Jones showed a copy of the team’s draft board.
Jerry Jones: “I’m dead serious.”
Stephen Jones: “Don’t show them that. … Put that sheet down.” pic.twitter.com/vvj2NV4aEr
— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) April 29, 2022
At the very top of the list sat Thibodeaux and Neal, whose addition to the Giants was widely hailed as a draft-day coup for that team and who could be thorns in Dallas’s side for years to come. Both had been bandied about as strong candidates to go No. 1 overall in the weeks leading up to the draft, but as the event drew closer, they were perceived as slipping a bit from those lofty perches. Georgia defensive lineman Travon Walker, who completed a meteoric rise by going first overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars, was ranked seventh on Jones’s list.
The list also appeared to be arranged into two groups, with 14 players comprising the top tier, presumed to be those to whom the Cowboys had assigned first-round grades. However, when Dallas’s turn came up at pick No. 24, it bypassed one of its top-tier players, 13th-ranked Georgia safety Lewis Cine, in favor of Tyler Smith, a Tulsa offensive lineman it ranked 16th. At the news conference following the first round, Jones said that Smith was “the leader in the clubhouse” going into the draft to be the Cowboys’ pick, even if a defensive player they liked was on the board.
Analysis: The most important takeaways from the 2022 NFL draft
Jones also declared at the news conference that his team was “very fortunate, with the 24th pick, to get the 16th player in the draft.” Asked whether Smith had a first-round grade, given Stephen Jones’s pre-draft assertion that his team only had “about 14 to 16” players earning such a designation, Jerry Jones replied, “We gave him a grade where we knew, more than likely, we would take him in the first round.”
Jones then noted that several players to whom Dallas had not assigned a first-round grade went ahead of Smith, which led to a question about what kind of rating the Cowboys gave a pair of offensive linemen, Zion Johnson and Kenyon Green, drafted before Smith and higher on most pre-draft big boards. That prompted Jones to display his laminated sheet to prove Dallas had Smith ranked above Johnson and Green.
After Jones listened to his son and pulled the sheet away, he was still fiddling with it, causing Stephen Jones to push his father’s hand and exclaim with a chuckle, “Put that thing down!”
“The good news is, most of those players are gone,” the younger Jones said with a smile.
Jerry Jones then told reporters, “If you take out the quarterbacks, there won’t be anybody on here.”
Assuming the Athletic’s analysis of the list is accurate, Jones was attempting a bit of damage control by deception with that comment, given that none of the 34 reported players were quarterbacks. That seemed to jibe with other teams’ evaluations of the position in a draft where only one quarterback went in the first round, all the way down at No. 20 to the Pittsburgh Steelers, and just five were selected in the first four rounds.
The player rated highest on the Cowboys’ list following the first round was Iowa State running back Breece Hall, whom they had 19th overall and who went to the New York Jets in the second round at pick No. 36. Ohio State wide receiver Garrett Wilson, picked 10th overall by the Jets, was fourth on Dallas’s board, and Cincinnati cornerback Ahmad Gardner, who went fourth to the Jets, was next on the Cowboys’ list.
Meanwhile, the Giants didn’t need to see the draft list of the Carolina Panthers, who had the No. 6 pick, to decide how to play the board at 5 and 7. With needs on both sides of the trenches, New York General Manager Joe Schoen said he went with Thibodeaux because he saw a drop-off at pass rusher after the Oregon star, whereas there was more than one offensive tackle his team really liked. The Panthers were widely expected to prioritize offensive tackle themselves, and sure enough they proved that to be accurate by selecting North Carolina State’s Ikem Ekwonu, but that may have just made Schoen’s decision to draft Neal a bit easier.
“I can’t tell you how many different scenarios we went through the past week,” the first-year general manager said after the first round. “So we felt we would be ready for whatever decisions we had to make.”
For the Cowboys, this was not the first time in recent years that a significant portion of their draft board leaked out to the public. In fact, it wasn’t the second or third time, either. Similar episodes occurred in 2010, 2013 and 2016, but in those cases, the boards were glimpsed via war-room images released by the team after the drafts were completed.
Apparently, Jones didn’t want to delay the inevitable this year, so he was considerate enough to share his team’s board, or at least the top of it, before the second round even had a chance to begin.
The Giants weren’t the only NFC East rival who could feel good about their first round based on the Cowboys’ evaluations. The Philadelphia Eagles could also be pleased that Georgia defensive tackle Jordan Davis, whom they took at No. 13, was ranked 11th overall by Dallas.
On the other hand, the Washington Commanders will have to hope that their archrival was a little too pessimistic about Jahan Dotson. Whereas they drafted him with the 16th pick, Dallas had the Penn State wide receiver at No. 27.