In the spirit of the ubiquitous “way too early” 2018 mock drafts floating around in the wake of the conclusion of the 2017 draft, let’s make a “way too early” projection of where the need spots will be on the Cowboys roster about a year from now.
Of course things can and likely will change drastically between now and this time next year, but that won’t stop us from trying. So without further ado, let’s take a look into the very murky crystal ball and see what areas the Cowboys may be looking to address 12 months from now.
Defensive End: Despite investing the 28th overall pick in Taco Charlton, defensive end will most likely be at or near the top of the wish list yet again going into the 2018 offseason. DeMarcus Lawrence is going into the final year of his rookie contract and there is no reason to expect that he will miraculously become the pass-rusher the team envisioned when they selected him at the top of the second round in 2014. He did put up 8 sacks in 2015 but that season has been sandwiched by two seasons where he has just one single regular season sack while playing in only 16 out of a possible 32 regular season games. He has shown to be unreliable for a variety of reasons (injuries, substance abuse suspensions, etc.) and even if he has a breakout year in 2017 where he has another 8 or so sacks, would anybody feel comfortable paying him $10+ million a year and banking on him as a full-time starter?
Aside from Lawrence, Benson Mayowa looks like a reliable rotational piece and Charles Tapper will hopefully be able to work his way into that group, but that remains to be seen. Tyrone Crawford has only 9.5 sacks over the last two seasons after signing an extension that will pay him upwards of $9-10 million per season through the 2020-21 season, and he may be a better fit on the interior. He could also be a player the Cowboys look to unload an offseason or two down the line given his contract if his level of play doesn’t improve. And Randy Gregory continues to disappoint in every way since being selected in the second round.
Neither David Irving or even Charlton are the “quick twitch, explosive” speed threats that you’d ideally like off the weak side, and if a player with that quality is available don’t be surprised if the team spends yet another first-round pick on a pass rusher.
Offensive Line: I’m not going to single out guard or tackle here because we don’t exactly know where La’el Collins will end up, although ideally I’d imagine the team would like to find a player with the versatility to play both spots. What we do know here is that the Cowboys will have a significant amount of their cap space tied up in Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin for at least the next 3-5 years. Collins will be a restricted free agent in 2018, which means he will be unrestricted two offseasons from now and in need of an extension.
Will the team pony up the money to extend Collins after seemingly showing no interest in re-signing Ronald Leary?
It’s anybody’s guess, but either way the team will need to look at supplementing their three All-Pro’s with cheap, young talent when possible. Furthermore, Chaz Green will be on the final year of his deal going into the 2018 season, while Jonathan Cooper and Byron Bell are both currently on one-year deals.
One or more of these players could step up and solidify a starting spot, but given each of their careers to this point, I wouldn’t bank on it. With all those contracts ending between now and the spring of 2019, the 2018 draft may be the time to get some young, preferably versatile talent in the pipeline.
This is the strength of the team and the foundation that the rest of the roster is built on, let’s be proactive and keep it that way.
Linebacker: Sean Lee will be 32 when the 2018 season kicks off and we all know his injury history, and it’s anybody’s guess as to what Jaylon Smith will be coming off a nearly two year layoff from playing in a real game. Anthony Hitchens and Kyle Wilber will be free agents after this season, and so far neither Damien Wilson or Mark Nzeocha have shown the ability to be anything more than special teamers/depth.
There are a wide range of possibilities that could occur here depending on the effectiveness of Jaylon Smith and the health of Sean Lee, but I think it’s a safe bet to say that the Cowboys will be looking to add depth here at the very least, and there’s a distinct possibility that there could be a need for an immediate starter.
Safety: As of right now Byron Jones is the only safety on the roster who has any sort of significant starting experience at safety, and even then he functions as a cornerback close to 40%-50% of the time. Jeff Heath will likely be the starter against the Giants in about four months and Xavier Woods looks like a steal in the sixth round, but at the end of the day nobody knows what either of them will look like in full-time roles. Robert Blanton is an afterthought and will likely only be a special teamer who plays in sub-packages on occasion. Kavon Frazier has yet to establish himself as deserving of playing time.
Chidobe Awuzie could be another option here but I doubt the team would move him to safety as a rookie unless he was an unmitigated disaster at cornerback. Like linebacker this is probably one of the more fluid positions on the roster, one that could end up being close to the very top or very bottom of the list depending on how the 2017 season goes.
Wide Receiver: At this time next year Dez Bryant will have only two years remaining on his contract, and he will turn 30 in November of the 2018 season. Will Stephen Jones want to hand out a third contract to a 31, going on 32-year-old receiver when his contract is up after the 2019-20 season?
Unless Dez is willing to accept a reasonable deal below what he is making now it would seem unlikely.
The Ryan Switzer selection in the fourth round provides insurance for Cole Beasley (whose contract runs out following the 2018 season) so perhaps the 2018 draft will be when the team looks to add similar insurance for Bryant?
Unless Brice Butler or Noah Brown magically develop into elite, “number one” types you have to imagine the Cowboys will be more than happy to invest a high draft pick in the heir apparent to Bryant.
Tight End: This comes down to two people - Jason Witten and Rico Gathers. Geoff Swaim flashed last year but ideally you don’t want him as the best tight end on your roster, while James Hanna is a special teamer/depth piece. So whether or not the Cowboys feel the need to invest significant resources into a tight end comes down to whether or not Rico Gathers shows that his impressive physical gifts could one day translate into a starting-level player, and of course how long Jason Witten decides to play.
If Witten retires following the 2017 season, or indicates that he will do so after 2018, you could see this position rocket up to the very top of the list, depending on what Rico Gathers is able to show over the course of the next year. For now, I won’t believe that this is a major need until I see the tears flowing at Witten’s retirement press conference.
Defensive Tackle: 2016 third-rounder Maliek Collins looks like a foundational piece after putting up an impressive five sacks as a rookie, but behind him there isn’t a whole lot that impresses. Cedric Thornton failed to win a starting role last season after the team signed him to a deal that will pay him about $5 million per year through 2019-20, and he could be a cut candidate a year from now if he doesn’t up his level of play. Stephen Paea is a journeyman who will likely be fine playing the role of an early-down run-stuffer in a rotation, but he is only on a one-year deal.
The rest of the rotation on the interior is filled out by guys who play just as often outside as they do inside, if not more, in Tyrone Crawford and David Irving. The only reason this need isn’t higher on the list is because Rod Marinelli seems content to get by without putting much emphasis on this position.
Cornerback: I can’t see this being much of a concern given the promise shown by Anthony Brown as a rookie, the investment made in Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis, as well as the reasonable deals that veterans Orlando Scandrick and Nolan Carroll are on. There isn’t a “number one/shutdown” type on the roster (if they even exist anymore) so if the team somehow finds themselves in a position to draft a Patrick Peterson type you do it, but overall the depth, talent, and youth here is almost ideal.
Running Back: Alfred Morris and Darren McFadden will both be free agents after this season, and each are likely at the end of the line with McFadden turning 30 in a few months and Morris 29 a few months after that. With that said Ezekiel Elliott is a legitimate MVP candidate who should be getting 25+ touches a game, so see what you can find to give him a rest on Day 3 of the draft or for cheap in free agency.
Quarterback: Throw a dart on Day 3 of the draft.