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Top 81 players graded: What positions will the Cowboys target in the first three rounds?

Does the distribution of talent in this draft help show what positions the Cowboys may end up drafting in the first three rounds?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 08 CFP National Championship Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Last season, the Cowboys front office knew that the 2017 NFL Draft was going to be rich in talent at the cornerback position. This played a big part in the team allowing four of their free agents to leave in free agency. It also played a part in their decision to draft Taco Charlton in the first round when some really good cornerbacks were still on the board when they picked. That strategy paid off as they got great value when they selected Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis in the next two rounds.

This type of foresight is helpful when making player personnel decisions. It can alter the way the team approaches free agency or help tilt the table when making a difficult early round decision. Recently, released their draft grades for the 2018 college prospects entering the draft.

[Note: Some underclassmen are included in their rankings that decided to stay in school and won’t be available in the draft, but not so many that it should change the ranking clusters too much.]

Like all ranking sources, it’s subjective and up for scrutiny by all those who happen upon them. One thing that’s helpful from getting a specific score assigned to each prospect is that it allows us to stack players from one position against another. This would be a great time to take a look at how the talent at each position is distributed throughout the draft.

This assessment is limited to the top 81 players graded. We are looking for players who can step in and start right away so the focus will be on the first three rounds only. Since the Cowboys third-round pick is at the 81 spot, we’ll only concern ourselves with this group of players. Based on the grades of these players, how is the talent spread out? Don’t get too caught up in individual scores or players grades you don’t particularly agree with. This isn’t really about honing in on certain players, but rather just a numbers game to see which rounds would be more rich at certain positions and which ones are lean. We’ll focus on the positions where the Cowboys are likely to look for upgrades so there won’t be any time spent on trying to guess where the team might opt to draft a new starting quarterback or running back.

Let’s kick this thing off with a fun one...

When should the Cowboys draft a wide receiver?

2016 was an exciting draft as we all knew the team was going to go after two important skill position players - quarterback and running back. They chose wisely, selecting Ezekiel Elliott (4th overall) and Dak Prescott (135th overall). This year, all eyes will be on when the team decides to take a wide receiver. Day one? Day two? Never?

How big of a need WR is could largely be based on what you think of Dez Bryant. Some people would love to get one early, others can wait. Based on the NFL grades, there is only one blue-chipper who would warrant a first round pick.

If Calvin Ridley somehow manages to be there at 19, many fans would be ecstatic to hear his name called. But if he’s gone, waiting until later is the way to go. Yes, there are some other names that are likely to go sooner than these grades would indicate. SMU’s Courtland Sutton could very easily be gone before the Cowboys are on the clock. And everyone has their favorite who they feel may be worthy of a first-round investment.

If you can contain your love for a wide receiver early, it might work out favorably because there is a sizable group of WRs to choose from in subsequent rounds whose grades are very closely packed together. This is a good indicator that round three could be the most optimal time to target a pass catcher.

What about some beef on the interior defensive line?

In 2016, the Cowboys defense allowed the fewest rushing yards in the league. Part of that was attributed to the health and awesomeness of All Pro Sean Lee. Part of that was the result of a complementary offense that forced opponents to throw a lot. And part of that was because of Terrell McClain.

The Cowboys were without all those things at different times last year, but the lack of a push in the middle of their defensive line is something the team should address in the draft. The defense could really use a 300+ pound defensive tackle who could play alongside Maliek Collins and DeMarcus Lawrence. My early pet cat right now is Washington’s 344 pound monster, Vita Vea. And when you throw Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne in the mix - the Cowboys increase their chances to land one of these blue-chippers if one of them should slide to 19.

It would be great if need and BPA crossed paths and they were able to get a great 1-tech DT, but if it doesn’t work out that way - it’s okay. This is a deep group so the Cowboys will have options.

Getting some insurance for Sean Lee

There have been some mocks that have Georgia’s star linebacker, Roquan Smith, sliding in the draft. Personally, I believe that is just a tease because a player of his caliber won’t last that long. If he’s there - great. Punch that ticket and enjoy all the first day analysis centering around how the Cowboys stole a star LB with pick 19.

But in a more realistic scenario where Smith is gone, then what?

While it would be nice to snag a linebacker in one of the premium rounds, the Cowboys may find themselves in an awkward draft position where it would be difficult to land one of the better ones. This could result in them going back to the fourth round to select their linebacker.

O-Line help is on the way

The Cowboys would love to find a new starting left guard in this draft. And as luck would have it, this is a good draft to do just that. The assortment of quality offensive linemen in this draft is plentiful. Whether they select a natural guard or a tackle they can convert inside, the Cowboys should be able to find a player who can step in and play right away. Zack Martin played tackle at Notre Dame. La’el Collins played tackle at LSU. Both have played the guard position for the Cowboys. So when looking at offensive linemen in the draft, both positions are in play.

The offensive line position in this draft is the equivalent of the cornerback position in last year’s draft. There are good ones in each of the first three rounds in the draft. The team can be patient and find a starter caliber player on day two as there will be plenty to choose from.

Are they ever going to find a strong safety?

In 2002, the Cowboys selected Roy Williams with the eighth overall pick in the draft. Since then, only once has the team invested in a safety within the first 100 picks in the draft and that was in 2013 when they took J.J. Wilcox in the third round. With Barry Church leaving last offseason, the team has been on the look out for a quality strong safety. They have a slew of coverage guys who can play free safety. Bryon Jones, Xavier Woods, and even Jeff Heath are more adept in chasing receivers around than punishing ball carriers at the line of scrimmage. Even Chidobe Awuzie could be a free safety option if needed.

What the team could really use is a strong safety. Kavon Frazier started flashing some decent play in limited action, but is he the answer long term? What kind of safety options are the Cowboys looking at this year?

If these draft grades are any indication, the talent at the safety position could be slim pickings. There are a couple players that are ranked right where the Cowboys pick in the second and third round so it’s possible things could align for them, but fans shouldn’t hold their breath that a day one starter is found in this year’s draft.

Will they continue to stack the cornerback position?

The Cowboys made a lot of progress in changing up their cornerback position group with the youth movement from the 2017 draft. Both Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne are gone and Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis are holding down the fort now. Is it possible the Cowboys would add some more young talent in this draft?

While it may not be at the top of their priority list, it just could end up that a quality corner falls in their lap.

Is another edge rusher still in the mix?

Targeting a defensive end always seems like it’s a position of urgency in pasts drafts, but after the breakout season of DeMarcus Lawrence, is that still the case? The Cowboys also made a first round investment in Taco Charlton last year and there are only so many snaps to go around.

Like the cornerback position, the Cowboy don’t necessarily need to go early here, but that doesn’t mean they will pass up on a quality pass rusher if one presents himself in the draft.

What does this all mean?

Pick 19 is wide open. While most of us had last year’s first round narrowed down to a defensive end or corner, this year it could be anyone. The team is just hoping a first-round graded player makes it to them at 19 and there are several different positions in the mix.

While the Cowboys will be looking for an offensive lineman and wide receiver, don’t expect it to happen in the first round unless a player is available they simply can’t resist. There are too many good choices to choose from later in the draft.

There is a good chance the Cowboys take a defensive tackle somewhere in the first couple days of the draft.

My early prediction based on talent distribution:

  • 1st round - defensive tackle
  • 2nd round - guard
  • 3rd round - wide receiver

Based on where the talent is distributed, do you have any thoughts on what positions the Cowboys are likely to addresss in the first three rounds?

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