In part one of this 10-part series, we set the ground rules by discussing the Cowboys’ team-building philosophy. In parts two, three, and four, we looked at where the Cowboys are strong, okay, and weak. In part five, we showed how the Cowboys can create cap space to sign in-house and outside free agents. In part six, we divided the Cowboys’ in-house free agents into three piles, likely to keep, possible keepers, and unlikely to keep. In part seven, we looked at the external free agent options on offense. In part eight(a), we talked about outside free agents for the secondary, and in eight(b) we discussed the defensive line. This article will discuss the draft.
As we discussed throughout, the Cowboys like to go into the draft with their holes filled, so they can take the best player available, or at least the best player available who fills a need and fits the team.
It’s hard to project the draft at this point because, while we have looked at the Cowboys’ needs in great depth, we don’t know where the team will be once free agency settles. Also, drafting near the end of each round makes it hard to project what players might be available when Dallas picks.
Assuming the Cowboys were to lose nearly all of their free agents, the biggest needs were laid out in Part 4, Where is Dallas Weakest. Those gaps were: cornerback, safety, pass rush, wide receiver, backup quarterback, and backup running back.
If you look at our article on Dallas’s roster over the next three years, you can see that Dallas will also soon need to address the tight end position, and make sure it has young, and cheap options to fill in the offensive line.
Some of these positions demand higher-premium players. A couple of years ago, Bucky Brooks of the NFL Network ranked the top 25 positions in the NFL. It’s a reasonable list, though one that we could all quibble with. Let’s see where the Cowboys are in terms of filling in this list. Those in bold demonstrate the Cowboys are in great shape at this position.
- Quarterback - Dak Prescott
- Designated pass rusher (DE/OLB) - DeMarcus Lawrence
- Left tackle - Tyron Smith
- Left cornerback - Orlando Scandrick
- Wide receiver 1 - Dez Bryant
- Defensive tackle - Maliek Collins
- Running back - Ezekiel Elliott
- Designated pass rusher 2 - David Irving
- Middle linebacker - Jaylon Smith
- Tight end - Jason Witten
- Free safety - Byron Jones
- Weakside linebacker - Sean Lee
- Right tackle - Doug Free
- Right cornerback - Anthony Brown
- Right guard - Zack Martin
- Wide receiver 2 - open slot
- Center - Travis Frederick
- Strong safety - open slot
- Strong side linebacker - Anthony Hitchens or Damien Wilson
- Left guard - La’el Collins
- Nose tackle - Cedric Thornton
- Wide receiver 3 - Cole Beasley
- Kicker - Dan Bailey
- Punter - Chris Jones
- Return specialist - Lucky Whitehead
The Cowboys have 12 exceptional players for 25 slots, and another eight or nine slots filled with adequate players. The two biggest holes are second wide receiver and strong safety, and one might expect Dallas to try to fill both with free agents.
Dallas has seven picks, one each near the end of the first through fourth rounds, the sixth and seventh round, and an earlier seventh rounder. Dallas can also fill holes with undrafted free agents.
Given this, expect Dallas to focus it’s highest picks on the highest value positions - defensive end and cornerback, with wide receiver, defensive tackle, safety, offensive lineman, and possibly tight end coming in the middle rounds. Any position might be taken in the sixth and seventh round.
In 2016, Dallas somehow came away with four starters from its draft, with Dak and Zeke leading the way, but Maliek Collins playing more snaps than anyone else on the defensive line, and Anthony Brown playing more than all but Brandon Carr at cornerback. Dallas also drafted a redshirt starter in Jaylon Smith, and a rotational defensive lineman in Charles Tapper. Kavon Frazier will likely take some of the lost snaps at safety in 2017, and Rico Gathers could make the active roster at tight end.
If Dallas could draft even three starters or significant rotational players this year, being much lower in the draft, it would have to be considered a success, especially if they strengthen their defensive line and secondary as a result.
One final note: every player on the list above except for David Irving was drafted or picked up as an unrestricted free agent by the Dallas Cowboys, so Dallas has proven it can fill its roster through the draft.