The Dallas Cowboys ultimately couldn't get out of their own way in the playoffs, but it's soul-crushing to think about what could've been if they had an impact rookie.
That's not to say a rookie would've carried them to a victory over the Packers, but it says a lot that Green Bay's roster is stacked with first- and second-year players.
Much has been made about the Cowboys' 2023 draft class since their season ended, and understandably so. Of the 14 teams that qualified for the playoffs, no one got less production from its rookie class than Dallas, which is widely regarded as one of the best drafting teams in the league.
It's an ironic turn of events, but the Cowboys got nothing from their 2023 class. That's not why they crashed out of the playoffs in the first round, but it does create questions in terms of what if they had more firepower. An extra playmaker. One more difference-maker.
The Lions, who are headed to the NFC Championship Game, are a great example. Despite having a roster full of talented vets, Detroit's leading rusher, leading receiver and leading tackler in Sunday's Divisional Round win were all rookies taken in the 2023 draft.
Lions' Divisional Round win makes Cowboys 2023 draft class look even worse
The Cowboys deserve to wear this. Granted, they weren't equipped with the same draft capital as Detroit, which had four top-45 picks, but the Lions' 2023 draft turned them from a borderline playoff team into a Super Bowl contender.
Jahmyr Gibbs, who was controversially selected No. 12 overall, compiled 114 yards on just 13 touches and scored the deciding touchdown early in the fourth quarter with the score tied at 17-17. We're old enough to remember Cowboys talking heads chastising the idea of drafting a running back in round one.
The Cowboys used their first-round pick on Mazi Smith, a game-wrecking nose tackle at Michigan whom they inexplicably converted to a three-tech DT. Smith finished his rookie year with 13 tackles and three tackles for loss in 17 games. It was a development-pick-turned-project-pick for a win-now team.
Smith was selected ahead of Sam LaPorta, whom Detroit took No. 34 overall. LaPorta led the Lions with nine catches on Sunday. During the regular season, he tallied 89 catches for 889 yards and 10 touchdowns. He would've finished second on Dallas in all three categories.
The Cowboys were interested in taking LaPorta in the first round, but they waited until round two to draft a tight end -- Michigan's Luke Schoonmaker -- who finished year one with less than 70 receiving yards in 17 games.
Eleven picks later, Detroit nabbed Alabama safety Brian Branch, who led the team in tackles on Sunday. In 15 games, Branch produced 75 tackles, seven tackles for loss and three interceptions. Those stats don't quantify his elite run defense and elite coverage.
There's no shame in the Cowboys not selecting Branch, but he's another example of the Lions benefitting from drafting readymade prospects. Third-rounder DeMarvion Overshown was the only member of Dallas' rookie class who would've had a big role in year one and he tore his ACL in preseason.
The Cowboys' 2023 drafting strategy was beyond comprehension. Hopefully this year decision-makers recognize they've made the playoffs three years in a row and draft impact players who can take the team to a higher level instead of development projects who need a year or two before they're ready to contribute.
That's just one reason why the Lions are headed to the NFC Championship Game and the Cowboys are watching from home, but it's a biggie.