The Dallas Cowboys’ team philosophy is to fill holes in free agency at modest cost to give them more freedom to seek the best player available when their turn comes in the NFL draft, because it’s the draft where Dallas seeks to build the team and get better.
So far this offseason, the Cowboys have let quite a few of their free agents sign elsewhere. Four major players in the secondary, who played a combined 2,656 snaps last year, have departed: Brandon Carr (1,015) and Mo Claiborne (408) at cornerback, and Barry Church (676) and JJ Wilcox (557) at safety. The knock against Carr was that he never generated any turnovers, even if he also never missed a snap. Claiborne also didn’t generate interceptions, but his bigger problem was staying healthy. Church and Wilcox were solid safeties, but also didn’t generate many turnovers.
To replace these four, the Cowboys have only signed Nolan Carroll, a speedier but maligned cornerback who previously played for Philadelphia and Miami. Along with Orlando Scandrick and second-year corner Anthony Brown, that gives Dallas three starters, but almost no depth should one or more of the top three get injured. And it’s not as if these three are exceptional corners. Clearly, if Dallas wants to improve, it’s going to have to find higher-quality corners in the draft.
The same is likely true at safety, where journeyman Jeff Heath and second-year player Kavon Frazier could move up to join former first-rounder Byron Jones. How good can they be? No one really knows. Heath at least seems to be able to make some plays on the ball in the air, tying for the team lead with two interceptions in 243 snaps. But he didn’t supplant either Wilcox or Church in four years, so it’s hard to see him as an upgrade. Frazier is a complete unknown as he got in only 37 snaps last season.
Of course the defensive secondary is not the only area where the Cowboys need upgrading. After several years of trying, the Cowboys have turned over their defensive line with youth, but it hasn’t gelled yet, and most analysts believe the Cowboys will look for another defensive end to bolster the pass rush. Linebacker seems to be better covered, especially if Jaylon Smith can play at a level close to his potential. At a minimum he should be an upgrade over the departed Justin Durant.
On the offense, the two changes are on the offensive line, with left guard Ron Leary leaving in free agency and right tackle Doug Free retiring. The Cowboys have La’el Collins and re-signed Jonathan Cooper to cover the left guard gap, and have Chaz Green and newly signed Byron Bell to compete at right tackle. Plus Emmett Cleary and Joe Looney return as potential backups. The Cowboys returned their starters and backups at wide receiver, tight end, running back, and quarterback, except that Tony Romo will eventually move on.
As a result, the priorities in the draft have to be: defensive secondary and defensive line, with other positions open to upgrades but not in immediate need of them.
Given that backdrop, let’s look at the last seven Cowboys’ drafts to see what might be expected. I did not look at undrafted free agents in this article, though the Cowboys have had some great success there. Tony Romo would lead this group, but the Cowboys also picked up starters Cole Beasley, Barry Church, Ron Leary, La’el Collins, Dan Bailey, Chris Jones, and Keith Smith, and backups Jeff Heath, Lucky Whitehead, and Lance Dunbar this way. David Irving, Benson Mayowa, Cedric Thornton, and Emmett Cleary were also not drafted, but came to Dallas after playing with other teams.
The Cowboys Have Seven Picks Right Now
Here are the picks:
First round - number 28
Second round - number 60
Third round - number 92
Fourth round - number 133
Sixth round - number 211
Seventh round - number 228
Seventh round - number 246
Cowboys 2016 Draft
This data is courtesy of Pro-Football Reference.
To read the headings from left to right, we have the draft round, player name, number pick, position, last season they played in the NFL, all-pro seasons, pro bowl seasons, years as primary starter, career approximate value, and games played through 2016.
Needless to say, this was one of the Cowboys’ best ever drafts, as they picked up a new franchise quarterback at the end of the fourth round named Dak Prescott, who earned Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, and a Pro Bowl running back and runner up Offensive Rookie of the Year named Ezekiel Elliott. Both had approximate values of 16 as rookies, tying them for seventh in the NFL. They also gained a starting three-technique on the defensive line in the third round named Maliek Collins, with an AV of seven, who played the second most DL snaps on the team, and a starting cornerback in the sixth round named Anthony Brown, who played the second most CB snaps.
Getting four starters out of one draft ranks the 2016 draft the best of the Cowboys’ since 2008, when the Cowboys drafted Felix Jones, Mike Jenkins, Martellus Bennett, Orlando Scandrick, and Erik Walden (who didn’t start for Dallas, but has started six seasons and has the highest career approximate value - 37 - of that draft).
Of course, if Jaylon Smith returns to form, Charles Tapper makes an impact as a rotational defensive lineman, Kavon Frazier works his way onto the field at safety, and Rico Gathers ever figures out how to harness his immense physical talent at tight end, this draft could be off-the-charts good. The Cowboys cannot expect that kind of return in 2017, especially since they will be picking near the end of each round, not the beginning.
Cowboys 2015 Draft
In terms of draft slotting, this draft most resembles the 2017 draft, with the 2015 draft slotting first: 27 v. 28, 60 v. 60, 91 v. 92, 127 v. 133, 163 v. __, 236 v. 211, 243 v. 228, 246 v. 246. But that’s the problem. 2015 is also the worst Cowboys’ draft of the last seven years (with 2012 a close second), with only one bona fide starter in the group - Byron Jones. Randy Gregory was an off-field risk who hasn’t played much because of multiple suspensions. Chaz Green has promise at offensive tackle, but has been injured both seasons he’s been in the NFL. He’s going to get his shot to start this season, so he might pay off, or he might not. Damien Wilson has been a good depth linebacker. Geoff Swaim has gotten reps as a second or third tight end. None of them has been stellar, however.
If the Cowboys 2017 draft looks anything like this, it will be a failure.
Cowboys 2014 Draft
This draft produced a mainstay on the offensive line - right guard Zack Martin. Martin has been so important, one might say he elevated the Cowboys offensive line from good to great. He’s expected to sign a long-term extension to keep him in Dallas with his linemates Travis Frederick and Tyron Smith for the foreseeable future. The Cowboys also drafted a solid linebacker in Anthony Hitchens, who has played in 16 games each season and turned in a career approximate value of 17. Not bad for a fourth-rounder. It’s possible this will be Hitchens’ last year in Dallas, however, as Jaylon Smith should take over his starter role, and Damien Wilson has another year on his rookie deal. The only other starter in this draft was DeMarcus Lawrence, who the Cowboys invested two picks in to move up to get. It’s been a mixed bag, as Lawrence fought a four-game suspension and back problems last season in registering only one sack. He’ll be a free agent in 2018. Will he remain a Cowboy after this year? It’s hard to say. The bottom six players of this draft produced nothing for Dallas.
Cowboys 2013 Draft
This draft is notable for the Cowboys’ decision to trade down in the first round, where they picked up perennial Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick, and added third-rounder Terrance Williams. Both players are on their second contracts for Dallas. J.J. Wilcox, B.W. Webb, and Gavin Escobar are all still in the NFL but have moved on.
Cowboys 2012 Draft
This draft is notable for a trade of the Cowboys’ first- and second-round picks to get Mo Claiborne as the sixth pick. Claiborne could never stay healthy, however, and is now playing for the Jets. Tyrone Crawford was selected in the third round, and is now being overpaid on his second contract. James Hanna was given a second contract as a backup blocking tight end but missed all of 2016 to injury, and his return is uncertain. Kyle Wilber has stuck around on a second contract as a special team ace. This was a bad draft.
Cowboys 2011 Draft
Tyron Smith headlines this draft, which also produced all-time Cowboys single season rushing leader DeMarco Murray, and special teams ace Dwayne Harris. Only Smith remains on the Cowboys, but his impact is still immense. He has the highest career approximate value of any player in this article at 60. Bruce Carter started three years at linebacker, but never realized his hoped-for potential and moved on.
Cowboys 2010 Draft
Dez Bryant and Sean Lee headline this draft, and have been Cowboys’ mainstays, though both have had to deal with multiple injuries in their careers.
We stopped here because there are no players left from the Cowboys’ disastrous 2009 draft in which they had 12 picks, though none until the third round. Victor Butler led that group with a career approximate value of 6. That’s horrible.
In these last seven years, the Cowboys have drafted two starters (2010), three starters (2011), two starters (2012), three starters (2013), three starters (2014), one starter (2015), and four starters (2016). 24 out of 54 draft picks are still on the Cowboys, and 37 were still in the NFL in 2016. They’ve collectively had 21 Pro Bowl seasons, and nine All Pro seasons.
The draft position most similar to this year was 2015, which was also the Cowboys’ worst draft in the last seven years (2012 is a close second), though it could pick up if Chaz Green can stay healthy and be a solid right offensive tackle, and Randy Gregory could ever stay clean and get back on the field.
On average, the Cowboys have drafted 2-1/2 starters per year.
Looking at career approximate value, the highest scoring players have all been drafted in the first three rounds, with the notable exception of Dak Prescott, who was a late fourth-round supplemental pick. Interestingly, undrafted free agents Cole Beasley (21), Barry Church (24), Dan Bailey (27), and Ron Leary (21) have all had higher career approximate value scores than anyone Dallas has drafted below the third round since 2010.
Also, looking at the Pro Bowl and All Pro players of the last seven drafts, half were taken higher than the Cowboys will pick in the first round this year and half lower - Dez (25), Lee (55 - was redshirt), Tyron Smith (9), DeMarco Murray (71), Frederick (31), Martin (16), Zeke (4), and Prescott (135).
So as we set expectations, the Cowboys can hope for perhaps one Pro Bowler if they are fortunate and two starters out of this draft given where they draft. They might do better, as they did in 2016, but the odds are not with them. They could also do worse.