Hidden gems aren't usually found in the first round of the draft. Those players are usually expected to perform at a high level. But the Dallas Cowboys do in fact have such a player on their roster.
Let's look at that player and another hidden gem on this Cowboys roster for the 2022 NFL season.
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Cowboys Hidden Gems On 2022 Roster
An injury-riddled introduction to the NFL and an underappreciated role in Dallas' defense have made former first-round pick Malik Hooker into one of the Cowboys' hidden gems.
Hooker was the second safety taken in the 2017 draft. Two surgically repaired knees later, the former Buckeye found himself signing with the Cowboys in July 2021 on a one-year, $920,000 prove-it deal to try to resurrect his career. Although Hooker stayed mostly healthy over the 2021 season, Dallas limited his snap count considerably. Hooker only played 44% of Dallas' defensive snaps last season, but that was all he needed to prove he had a place on the roster.
2021 was the best season of Hooker's career from a pass coverage standpoint. Opposing quarterbacks completed just 57.1% of passes when targeting Hooker for a 80.8 passer rating, both career lows for the veteran safety. Hooker only hauled in one interception last season, but that could have been partly due to his versatility and Dallas' propensity to move him around the field. Hooker spent a significant amount of time inside the box covering the flats for the Cowboys in 2021. Dallas' linebacking corps depleted quickly after the start of last season, and the time Hooker spent defending the run and tracking down ball-carriers in the flats helped keep one of the Cowboys' defensive weaknesses in check.
Dallas' front office took notice of Hooker's performance in limited snaps last season. The Cowboys brought Hooker back this offseason for two years, $8 million, but the Dallas brass weren't the only ones impressed by Hooker in 2021. Conor Orr of Sports Illustrated named Hooker Dallas' “most underrated player,” citing Hooker's versatility as a run defender as a reason why:
“The Cowboys gave up almost half an extra yard on carries in which Hooker wasn’t on the field,” Orr wrote. “He was, essentially, an additional, rangy linebacker in certain formations but also had the ability to swoop down and drop the hammer from the free safety spot whenever he was up top.”
Perhaps Dallas' most underrated player, Hooker is not the Cowboys' only hidden gem.
Another hidden gem resides on the far right side of Dallas' offensive line. Terence Steele garnered enough respect from the Cowboys' front office for them to let former starting right tackle La'el Collins walk earlier this offseason.
The starting right tackle job was Collins' to lose at the start of 2021, and lose it he did. Collins got slapped with a five-game suspension starting in Week 2 of last season for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Enter Steele, a player Cowboys fans had little reason to believe in prior to the 2021 season. Steele started 14 games in 2020 and allowed nine sacks. Despite a lackluster performance in his rookie year, Steele was the next man up for Dallas last season once Collins became unavailable.
Steele made the most of his second chance as a starter on the Cowboys' offensive line and allowed only two sacks in 13 starts last season. Steele was so effective in the right tackle position, Dallas moved Collins to guard once his suspension was up. 2021 was a huge step forward for Steele, a step that he took out of necessity. This year Steele rolls into training camp as the projected starter at right tackle, a distinction he has never held before. If the former undrafted free agent's progression from his rookie year to his sophomore campaign is any indication, the Cowboys could be in for another performance hike from Steele in 2022.