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Building The Cowboys Roster: 2016 Draft And Positions Of Strength

As we slog through the long, news-less offseason, we begin our annual series looking at the upcoming draft's projected top players at positions where the Cowboys have present and future needs.

As a member of a deep DE class, Randy Gregory was a potential target at this time last year.
As a member of a deep DE class, Randy Gregory was a potential target at this time last year.
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

As I noted back in mid-May, the Cowboys have done yeoman's work this offseason. Between free agency and the draft, they added fifteen new players--and then supplemented this haul with as many UDFAs, some of whom appear to have a legitimate chance to make the squad. In the process, they filled key roster holes (defensive end, backup linebacker, offensive line depth) that gaped like open mouths in late February. Nevertheless, there are still some evident soft spots on the Cowboys roster, positions that, while not obvious holes, could happily withstand some bolstering: all defensive positions; running back; developmental quarterback

How might the Cowboys address these soft spots as the Jones/ Garrett/ McClay administration continues to build the roster? Today, I'd like to take a (clearly, premature) look at the 2016 draft, to see what kind of players - and, mostly, at what positions - might be available to Dallas next April. This begs the question: how can we possibly know this when most college teams haven't even established their starting lineups?

I'm glad you asked, faithful reader. In recent days, several draft pundits have come out with early "top 100" rankings of players expected to come out next year. Over at NFL.com, Chad Reuter has been hard at work developing his top 100 list; our boy Dan Kadar at Mocking the Draft contributes his list of 125 top prospects (unranked). Not to be outdone, Cat Scratch Reader, the Carolina Panthers site, has a "way too early" list (of 180); and the fine fellows at Pro Players Insiders have concocted one of their own.

A proviso: while I don't believe these are particularly useful in terms of individual player rankings, I do think they are telling about the strength of specific positions. For example, the 2008, '09 and '10 drafts had three, four and four offensive guards, respectively, taken in the top 100 picks. In 2012, however, ten OGs were taken by the time the draft wound around to pick 101. Spikes such as this show when a given position is historically strong; this can - nay, should - impact draft strategy: looking ahead at these perceived positions of strength can help an organization make decisions about which positions to target, since they'll likely get value at deep positions (more on that later).

With this in mind, what I have done is to tabulate how many players at each position are projected to be taken in the 2016 draft's first one hundred picks so that we can compare them with the position distribution that has actually transpired in each of the last five drafts. The strongest distributions by position receive asterisks. Note that, with some positions, like defensive end, there are players who might well have ended up as NFL linebackers or DTs. I've done my best to sort this out, but there is probably some slippage:

2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011
QB 5 4 5 4 7* 7*
RB 6 8 8 6 8 8
WR 10 14 15* 11 15* 11
TE 4 4 7* 6 3 3
OT 9 11 11 8 7 11
OG 7 6 8 7 10* 4
OC 3 2 3 1 2 2
DE 10 13* 11 7 8 13*
DT 7 4 4 11* 11* 9
OLB 12* 13* 11 7 10 10
ILB 3 3 2 7* 4 5
CB 15 14 8 16* 10 14
S 9* 4 7 9* 5 3

A quick perusal of this table confirms that positional distribution is reasonably consistent from year to year, with predictable fluctuations (the offensive tackle number tends to fluctuate between eight and eleven, for example). However, there have also been a few exceptional positional spikes: 2013 saw a tremendous defensive back class, with 16 CBs and nine safeties in the first hundred selections. Last year, pass rushers were abundant; both DE and OLB saw thirteen players chosen. And most aberrant of all: in 2012, a full 10% of the top 100 picks were offensive guards.

As I noted above, positional spikes impact draft strategies. In recent years, the Cowboys seem to have taken this to heart. In 2011, we saw them show interest in three positions of strength: OT, CB, LB. In 2012, it was offensive guard, the richest position in the entire shootin' match, and in 2013 they looked at a lot of linebackers and safeties, both strong positions. In 2014, we saw them invite a passel of OG types (some of whom played OT in college) and, if they had their druthers, they would have drafted two of them. Last year, they invited nearly every viable 4-3 defensive end to Valley Ranch for a look-see.

When a position is strong, and the majority of teams are drafting for need (which they are), it means that at these strong positions good players will drop. That's how, in 2014, Dallas ended up with Devin Street - who they had tagged as a third-round talent - and almost ended up with Trai Thomas later than they had him graded. When pursued over the long term, a strategy of drafting to positional strength yields greater value. In recent years, Dallas seems to have realized this, and strategized accordingly. They haven't always found the intersection of opportunity and value - despite showing a desire to tap into 2012's deep OG class, the draft fell differently - but the approach appears to be smart and consistent.

If this holds true, it promises to work out well for the Cowboys: potential positions of strength in 2016 correlate loosely with Dallas' positions of need. At first glance, the positions of strength in 2016 appear to be three, all on defense: DE/ OLB appears to be strong once again, as do both cornerback and safety. For a franchise that still needs to do further work on the defensive side of the ball, this is good news. And, of course, there is the matter of adding talent at running back.

Who might be some viable candidates at these various positions? In separate posts between now and training camp, I'll take a gander at the 2016 draft's top players at a variety of positions, focusing especially on defensive players at all three levels as well as running backs. I'll probably include quarterback as well, since the search for Tony Romo's replacement continues to produce anxiety among Cowboys fans.

I realize all of this might feel a bit premature, but if you go back and check out the same series from last year, you'll see the various posts included profiles (and, often, highlights) of a veritable cornucopia of the Cowboys' eventual draft targets (Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, T.J. Yeldon, Benardrick McKinney, Eric Kendricks, Bryce Petty, Brett Hundley, Sean Mannion, Randy Gregory, and Alvin "Bud" DuPree). So, paying attention to this year's profiles will give you a leg up next April, when it becomes clearer who the Cowboys are interested in.

After all, isn't watching College football teams play more interesting when you can look out for potential Cowboys?

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