For 24 teams in the NFL, including of course the Dallas Cowboys, it is now draft season. While free agency and coaching hires also have to be addressed (the latter is especially big for Dallas), the draft is the biggest, sexiest thing once the playoffs are over. Additionally, the Cowboys have long been one of the teams that leans most heavily on drafting to build their roster each year.
In that light, ESPN put up an article with the biggest draft needs for all 32 teams. Their Cowboys beat writer Todd Archer contributed this:
Add depth at linebacker and/or wide receiver
This will sort itself out in free agency to a degree, but the Cowboys need to find some linebacker help with Anthony Hitchens set to test the market and Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith as injury questions. They also have Damien Wilson going into the final year of his contract. Receiver will be a need whether they keep Dez Bryant or not. They have to get Dak Prescott some playmakers or adjust the scheme more to his style of play. Bryant is not the same consistent game-breaker he was three years ago, in part because of injuries but also because of scheme change. -- Todd Archer
Archer is one of the most reliable and well-grounded writers at any national outlet, and his takes on the Cowboys are usually very good. But in this case, he left out what may be an even bigger need: Offensive line depth, particularly at tackle.
The Dallas offense is based on the line, and the success they had in 2014 and 2016 can largely be attributed to the holes they opened up for the running game and the protection afforded the quarterbacks. For several years, they were seen by many as the most dominant line in the NFL. But that came to a crashing halt last season. Partly it was due to having to incorporate new players at both left guard and right tackle, but the real issues came up when supremely talented left tackle Tyron Smith was forced to sit with multiple injuries, and was hardly right when he did get back on the field.
The simple fact is that the replacements were far less effective than Smith. No one could expect a backup to come in without missing a beat when replacing someone of his caliber, but Chaz Green and then Byron Bell were both too much of a dropoff. Add in the fact that starting left guard Jonathan Cooper is a free agent, and finding some more O line talent is arguably the biggest issue Dallas faces in the draft.
That does not mean that they need to lock in on the line in the first round. Taking a tackle or a guard may not be the best use of the nineteenth pick overall. But the team needs to be working hard to find good talent for the line with their ten overall picks, including the expected compensatory selections, and they probably need to be looking hardest in the second through fourth rounds, before the talent pool is too picked over. According to some of the early draft boards, the guard position is somewhat shallow this year, while the tackle position is more robust, which means they also may need to look for players who can move inside.
This is also something that can be addressed in free agency, which is how they found Cooper. But that is also how Bell was brought to the team, so obviously care must be taken with this approach. We all know that Dallas is not going to spend a lot on a top- or even second-tier free agent. How the market shapes up will have much to do with determining if they can find help along the line.
No discussion of what to do on the O line can omit the ill-considered approach the team used last year, however. In hindsight, the staff, for whatever reason, tried to force-feed Chaz Green, first as the starting LG, then as the swing tackle. He was just not capable in either position, and while Cooper turned out to be at least a workable option, Bell was not. That hampered the running game and, when Smith was gone, seemed to really hurt Prescott’s confidence in being able to throw the ball without getting blasted.
The Cowboys have a broad-but-thin talent base. It looks like the starters in most positions, if they are all healthy, are good or at least serviceable, but when the team has to rely on backups, the dropoff is far too big at some positions. It is good when you don’t have a lot of starters to replace during the offseason, but finding better depth at many positions is going to be key to success this year. Archer is right about needing more at wide receiver and linebacker. But he overlooked what may be the biggest limiting factor for the team. The Cowboys invested a lot in the offensive line in recent years, and it paid off. It looks like it is time to return to that formula in 2018.