Like them or not, the Dallas Cowboys are one of the most stories franchises in the history of professional sports. They've gone through numerous stretches of dominating the NFL, and have all the mystique and flair surrounding them that makes for a compelling team. While claims of being "America's Team" may be exaggeratory at the very least, and at worse horribly pompous (depending on the era), there is no doubt that they are a talking point around the league, no matter what is going on. That intrigue follows them annually into the draft, and Dallas has made some first round selections who have been a hit, and others who have failed miserably.
Indeed, there are plenty of great first round successes in the history of the Cowboys, many of them Hall of Fame players. However, they're coupled with some real head-scratchers; picks that held the team back at certain points during their history. Let's see how the all-timers stack up with one another, and just how bad the busts really were. There's plenty of each to go around for this high-profile franchise.
Ranked below are the eight best and seven worst first round draft picks in the history of the Dallas Cowboys.
16 BEST: Dez Bryant
It's no secret that Bryant has been one of the elite receivers in the NFL after being selected by Dallas in the 2010 draft. His size, route running, hands, and flat-out playmaking ability have made him a feared commodity in the mind of the rest of the league. Bryant had a bit of a resurgence in the 2016 season, after being injured for the majority of 2015. With new quarterback Dak Prescott in town, Bryant only looks to be maintaining his level of dominance, and playing with a newfound energy. He also may not have the accolades of some of the other greats in team history, but the failures of the teams that Bryant has played for aren't an indictment on his contributions. He's been a consistently top notch receiver, and frankly, one of the best players of his era.
15 WORST: Felix Jones
Before the Cowboys drafted Ezekiel Elliott in 2016 (who may be on this list after a few more brilliant seasons), Jones was their presumed running back of the future. He was taken 22nd overall out of Arkansas, and figured to be a key piece of an offensive that already included Tony Romo at quarterback. The experiment was a failure, and Jones never eclipsed 1,000 yards in any of his five seasons in Dallas. That's poor production from a first round running back. Overall, he simply showed a lack of playmaking ability that you would expect from a running back taken with a premium draft pick. After one additional lame duck year in Pittsburgh, Jones was out of the league, and the Cowboys were left to plug and play different players at running back (though they did get a few quality years out of DeMarco Murray), until they drafted Elliott.
14 BEST: Greg Ellis
Perhaps one of the more underrated players in the history of the franchise, Ellis was an eighth overall pick that provided Dallas with a pass rushing threat for a decade from the late-90s to late-2000s. The issue was, at least for his notoriety, that he mostly played on bad teams, as he was caught between the dominance of the 90s Cowboys, and was mostly gone before the prime era of Tony Romo occurred. That doesn't change the fact that he was one of the best defensive ends in the league throughout the course of it all, and for many of those seasons, he was the lone bright spot, on an otherwise bad defense. Despite not getting the postseason accolades, Ellis remains one of the best defensive players in the history of the Cowboys, no question about it.
13 WORST: Danny Noonan
Noonan was drafted in 1987, just several years before Jerry Jones took over the franchise, and the team was a mess. He produced several respectable seasons, but he was largely a disappointment, considering he was drafted 12th overall out of Nebraska. His versatility on the defensive line was nice, considering he played on both the interior and exterior of the line, but his production was pretty thin. He was gone, retired from the league by 1992, just missing out on being a member of the Super Bowl-winning teams of the 90s. Not necessarily a complete bust, but definitely an underachiever, despite the fact that he played on some lousy teams. Better times were a short wait away for the Cowboys, and Noonan wasn't part of the plan for good reason.
11 BEST: Tyron Smith
Drafted in 2011, Smith signalled a change of philosophy for the Cowboys. Instead of going after skill players, they made a distinct effort to address the offensive line, to protect Tony Romo. Smith has not disappointed, and is one of the best offensive tackles in the league since his rookie season. Combined with the rest of there young offensive line in Dallas, he's unquestionably a monster at the position, and can both run and pass block with the best of them. This decision to draft Smith was key in turning around the fortunes of the Cowboys. Though it hasn't been perfect, their offensive is in much better shape such an elite offensive line, and Smith is the linchpin of that position group right now. A vital part of the current Cowboys team, and one of the best picks they've ever made, on multiple levels.
10 WORST: Shante Carver
Carver was slated to give the Cowboys an elite pass rusher, that could develop with the rest of the defense. The team was coming off of their first Super Bowl of the 90s, and morale was high all throughout the organization. Unfortunately for them, Carver didn't have the consistency as advertised, and this one botched pick seemed to put the wheels in motion for the collapse Dallas suffered as a team in the late-90s and early-2000s. For the next few years, the Cowboys missed on some key draft picks, and Carver only lasted four seasons in the league before retiring. Not the absolute worst player the team ever took in the first round, but it was a key error that became a bigger detriment as time wore on. With less than 12 sacks in his four years in the league, Carver lacked the production needed to become the force that the Dallas defense was looking for.
9 BEST: Ed "Too Tall" Jones
There are certain players in the back catalog of NFL greatness that carry with them a pedigree for future generations to marvel at. Jones is undoubtedly one of those players. The first overall pick in 1974 out of Tennessee State, he was around for most of the successes that the Cowboys saw throughout the 70s; their first true era of dominance. He was an elite pass rusher, and a staple of the defensive line for 15 years until his retirement in 1989. While not a flashy offensive skill player, Jones was about as good of a return as you can ask for on a first round pick. Consistent contribution from his position, and a major factor on a (mostly) winning team throughout his time in the league. No question, Jones is a true all-timer, and one of the best players in Cowboys history. A true hallmark of the era that he played in.
8 WORST: David LaFleur
Before Jason Witten had established himself as the number one tight end in town for a generation, LaFleur was drafted in 1997 to fulfill that role. However, their two careers couldn't be farther apart in terms of output. Any tight end taken in the first round is expected to be a good pass catcher, as well as a blocker. LaFleur simply didn't get it done. For the most part, he wasn't a touchdown threat, and only produced marginal receiving numbers. In all, he only spent four years in the NFL, returning in 2000, just in time before things got really dire for the Cowboys. The failure of the LaFleur pick, much like the Carver pick a few years earlier, spearheaded a negative direction for the franchise, that they wouldn't begin to recover from until Tony Romo showed up several years later.
7 BEST: Troy Aikman
Perhaps the one pick that changed the fortunes for the Cowboys the most was the selection of Aikman first overall in the 1989 draft. He wasn't the most talented player on the 90s Cowboys teams, but he gave a them the presence of a true franchise quarterback that could elevate the team when needed. They hadn't received such a luxury since the days of Roger Staubach. After a few down years in the beginning of his career, he eventually became the poster boy for a Cowboys team on the rise. Certainly, Aikman had a lot of help on the offensive side of the ball, but he always came through when it mattered most, and for that, it was a first round pick well spent. Deservedly so, Aikman is Cowboys royalty, and is one of the top quarterbacks in the history of the franchise.
6 WORST: Morris Claiborne
Despite a brief resurgence in the 2016 season, there's no denying that when it's all said and done, Claiborne will be considered a massive bust. He was a sixth overall pick out of LSU, and was supposed to be the lockdown presence on the Cowboys secondary they would need to develop into an elite unit. Instead, Claiborne was pretty much the opposite of dynamic. A combination of injuries, and flat-out poor quality of play have hindered his development, and will likely be out of Dallas for the 2017 season. It remains to be seen who will pick him up, if anybody at all, but Claiborne is a major disappointment, especially considering his top-ten draft status. He may have a year or two to turn his career around, but the book on his career seems to be closing with each passing mediocre season.
5 BEST: Tony Dorsett
One of the best running backs of all-time, Dorsett joined the team in 1977, as a second overall pick out of Pittsburgh. He quickly became one of the best players in the NFL, and was a certified star by the end of his first season in the pros. He lasted ten years in Dallas, and was the definition of a workhorse, three-down running back that could wear out of a defense. In fact, there are many parallels between Dorsett and current running back Ezekiel Elliott, though it remains to be seen if Elliott will maintain the consistency that Dorsett displayed. Indeed, Dorsett was the pinnacle of rushing dominance for the Cowboys, and led the team to some great seasons in his decade-long tenure. Definitely an all-time great for the team, who didn't let down, despite being the second player taken in the entire draft.
4 WORST: Rod Hill
A defensive back who played more as a kick returner than anywhere else, Hill is one of the biggest first round misses in team history. His rookie season was in 1982, and from the get-go, everyone could see that Hill wasn't an NFL starter. He spent only two years in Dallas before departing, and his production level on the field was almost nil. Picks like this set the franchise back for years, before the 1990s hit. Taking someone like Hill, who didn't belong on an NFL field was a surefire way to mess up the roster, when that space could have been taken by a productive player. In his two years, Hill didn't start a single game in the secondary for Dallas, and the team was happy to send him on his way after showing his lack of skill.
3 BEST: Michael Irvin
A member of the legendary Miami Hurricanes teams of the late-80s, the Cowboys knew that they would be getting a prime-time receiver when they took him 11th overall in the 1988 draft. Irvin lived up to the hype. His elite production is well-documented, and he was one of the first steps taken into making the Cowboys a contender for the 1990s. There's no denying that Irvin is one of the best receivers of his era, and perhaps the most charismatic player in the history of the team. He set a new standard for the offense during his time in Dallas, and is simply an all-time great. His career would be ended due to injury in the 2000 season, right before every went haywire for the Cowboys.
2 WORST: Bobby Carpenter
Carpenter is likely the biggest defensive bust in the history of the team. Selected 18th overall in 2006, he was supposed to be the linebacker that made Dallas a force in the middle of the field. The team was coming off of several mediocre seasons, and wanted a presence that would rebuild their defense from the ground up. Carpenter turned out to be a whiff. He spent only four years in Dallas, starting just a single game, and finished his career with as many tackles as an elite linebacker has in one season. It was a failure of a pick in every sense of the phrase. Carpenter never established himself as even a starting linebacker in the NFL (with any of the four teams he played for, though he spent the most time in Dallas), and the Cowboys defense was left to toil in mediocrity without an identity, until they got Sean Lee.
1 BEST: Emmitt Smith
This is the pick that made the Cowboys a dynasty, and the cream of the NFL crops in the 90s. Selected 17th overall in 1990, Smith was the catalyst that turned the Cowboys into the best NFL team of the 90s. While Aikman and Irvin were key aspects to the offensive scheme that Dallas ended up putting in place, Smith was the player that the offense ran through. His career statistics were absolutely eye-popping, defining the offensive nature of the team in general. Countless 1,000 yard rushing seasons, multiple seasons with 20+ touchdowns; Smith was simply a force of nature, and on the short list for greatest running backs to ever lace up a pair of cleats. Other than the last two seasons of his 14-year career, Smith played his entire career with the Cowboys, and is probably the best (or at least most talented) player in the history of the franchise. Short of Barry Sanders, there wasn't anyone of his era even in the same league, and he gave Dallas the workhorse necessary to become a dynasty during the 1990s.