Thanks (if I may use the word a bit sarcastically) to their 4-12 record, the Dallas Cowboys go into the 2016 NFL Draft in a very strong position. They have the fourth-overall pick and a correspondingly early spot in rounds two through four, and although they don't have a fifth-round selection, they are expected to receive a fourth-round compensatory pick to make up for it. Add the other compensatory picks they should get, and they have nine overall selections, all before the seventh round. (Pending any trades up or down, of course, which is always a possibility for the Cowboys.)
In recent years, the Cowboys have used free agency to fill needs to ensure that they could rely on the "best player available" approach in the draft, taking into consideration how draft prospects fit the schemes and existing talent on the roster. But this season, it already is clear that the needs are all over the roster. However, some needs are also greater than others. Here is a breakdown of the position groups, broken into tiers of need.
The special case.
Quarterback. With a top five pick, the Cowboys have an opportunity that may not come again before Tony Romo ends his days in Dallas. As our own Jim Scott laid out, the chances of getting an eventual starter at the position go up considerably with the investment of one of those premium picks at the top of the draft. And quarterback is the linchpin of success in the NFL. The issue is whether there is a quarterback worthy of the pick available, and even going fourth is no assurance of that, given how few legitimate franchise talents there are each year. Because of the unique nature of the position, it cannot really be ranked effectively. The Cowboys will try to have an experienced and effective veteran backup to hopefully preclude a similar meltdown this year if Romo suffers another injury (knock fervently on the nearest piece of termite fodder). But a draftee might also be that, as well as a potential future replacement for the starter. The decision of how to approach QB in the draft is going to be crucial. The scouting department really needs to earn all their money on this one.
Defensive line. The Greg Hardy experiment had mixed results, especially with the controversy he brought with him. And the team also has to sort out Jeremy Mincey, Jack Crawford, and Nick Hayden, all free agents. The pass rush was still not as effective as it needed to be. The Cowboys could go for one of the top edge rushers, and this year's draft class looks to be deep at defensive tackle. The pass rush is the engine that drives the Rod Marinelli defensive scheme. If there is one position group that is a candidate for the use of multiple high picks, it is here.
Running back. Darren McFadden had a very good year. Had he started the entire season, he would have likely amassed 1,300 yards or more rushing. However, he is the only proven running back currently on the roster, and with his age, the team is not going to put all their running back eggs in his basket. Lance Dunbar is uncertain given his injury last season, so the team is going to be looking for a change-of-pace upgrade. Free agency is also an option, but more than any other position, youth is a plus for running backs. It is highly unlikely that running back is an option in the first round, but after that, it becomes one of the biggest needs that needs to be addressed. One advantage is that you can often go quite deep in the draft and still find a quality player.
Linebacker. Like Hardy, Rolando McClain provided less on the field than was hoped for. He had some games where he looked like the 2014 version of himself that was so important to the team, but inconsistency was his biggest issue. He also has a reputation for not practicing hard, a big black mark on a Jason Garrett-coached team. Sean Lee had an excellent season, but the rest of the linebacking corps is not outstanding. A new middle linebacker is roughly on par with running back in terms of need. And with the presence of Myles Jack in the draft, it could be one place that fourth overall pick might be used.
Next highest priorities.
Defensive back. Morris Claiborne may be gone in free agency, and 2015 was really his only good year. Orlando Scandrick is coming back, but the team may decide not to stick with Brandon Carr given the potential cap savings he represents combined with the relative disappointment he has been for his price. Byron Jones is very promising as a safety, but there is plenty of room to upgrade there. Again, the team may want to invest more than one draft pick here.
Wide receiver. The loss of Dez Bryant in the first game and his obvious limitations after he returned to action left the team without a potent threat here. The team needs a better WR2 or perhaps WR1b option to pair with him and to provide a fill in if he misses any time. Brice Butler may have some potential here, but he is still too unproven. Romo needs to have reliable targets in his closing years.
Offensive line. Four of the starting jobs have first-round talents in place, and they are young. Doug Free is the only candidate to really be challenged as a starter, and he was still effective last year. But the two key backups inside are free agents (Ronald Leary is restricted), and Chaz Green is more of a hope than anything else as a potential swing tackle. Drafting an offensive lineman would be for depth, but it is needed.
Tight end. The Cowboys should have all four of the tight ends they started the season with back and healthy. Still, there seems to be a real fondness for drafting tight ends in Dallas. It looks like draft capital could be better spent elsewhere, but that was probably just as true when the Cowboys traded to get an extra seventh-rounder to take Geoff Swaim with last year.
Fullback. If the team chooses to move on from Tyler Clutts, it would just not make sense to use a draft pick here. The position is just not that valuable in the NFL any more, despite Garrett's love for it.
Specialists. All three are under contract, and Dan Bailey is arguably the best place kicker in the league. You don't normally use draft picks on these positions anyway, and there is absolutely no need to do so this year.
That is one take on how to rank the needs for this year's draft, although free agency will likely shift some of them a bit. Still, there are probably more spots where the Cowboys could really use an upgrade than there are draft picks, especially in the top four rounds. This will be a challenge for the team. How would you rank the needs? Give us your take in the comments.