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The Dallas Cowboys have already tipped their 2018 draft strategy

Put free agency and what we know about the pre-draft visits together, and it paints a pretty clear picture.

NFL: AFC Championship-Jacksonville Jaguars at New England Patriots
The big get for Dallas is just one of the clues.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys are, at times, a pretty transparent organization. This is a function of the long established tendency of Jerry Jones to speak what is on his mind to just about any microphone he encounters (something Stephen Jones is also doing more and more). Jason Garrett tries to withhold as much information as he can, but it is a losing battle for the head coach.

This year, however, the most important data concerning the plans of the team for the NFL Draft is not really coming from the Jones family. That is something that has also been true in recent years. The team makes things about their plans for the draft pretty clear in who they sign in free agency and the prospects they invite in for pre-draft visits.

The conclusion: The big targets for the draft this year are offensive line, wide receiver, and linebacker. There also may be an increased priority this year on defensive tackles, while defensive backs and a backup running back are going to be looked at in the later rounds.

The top three priorities were laid out first in free agency. The team signed three offensive linemen (all of whom have position flexibility) in Cameron Fleming, Marcus Martin, and Joe Looney, and added LS L.P. Ladouceur for good measure. They picked up two wideouts in Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson, and their first signing was linebacker Joe Thomas.

For several years, Dallas has made no secret of the fact that they use free agency to plug the most crucial holes to keep them from being too bound by need in the draft. In addressing three position groups in free agency, the staff made it pretty clear those were the top needs they saw. And unlike many teams that sign big-ticket free agents, the Cowboys’ new acquisitions do not make it less likely those are what they will address in the draft. It is quite the opposite. Remember that the biggest (failed) signing last season was CB Nolan Carroll. That was followed by a big restocking of the secondary in the draft, where they took corners Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Marquez White, plus safety Xavier Woods. Three of them became key contributors last season, with White waiting in the wings.

Now we are getting a clearer idea of where they are looking with the known pre-draft visitors, as laid out by our own Dave Halprin earlier. Building on what he concluded, the team has a lot of offensive linemen, linebackers, and wide receivers already coming in. And the visitors are spread out, with expected day one, day two, and day three prospects scattered through the group. And based on the Dane Brugler and CBS big boards used to project where these names might go in the draft, all but one of the visitors they have booked so far are likely to be available to the Cowboys at various spots in the draft.

There is one very intriguing outlier there, however. They are also bringing in DT monster Vita Vea. He is seen as a top ten pick, or near that. The fact Dallas sees fit to use one of those limited visits to bring him in may indicate that they will be watching to see if he gets pushed down in range for them to trade up for him, or even see if he makes it all the way to 19. The team has a well-known reluctance to spend a lot of draft capital on interior DL, but perhaps that is changing, especially in light of how wildly talented and effective Vea is. If the team should add Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne to the visits, then the evidence of at least a minor sea change concerning the position will start to become convincing.

With three premium picks (at the moment), the Cowboys can only address that many positions with players who should have a high likelihood of making the roster. But there are a lot of other needs, particularly for depth. And the appearance of a running back and a safety seen as day two or three prospects shows where they may be looking to handle a couple of those needs.

There is still a lot of time to set the board for the draft, and the visits will have a lot to do with that. And there are sixteen more names to be added, plus the Dallas Days visits, which serve as a way to get an additional look at players like WR Courtland Sutton of SMU without having to spend one of the 30 visits on them.

Still, the outline of the draft strategy looks to already be pretty clear. Past history bears this idea out. Things may shift as the rest of the visits come out, but don’t be surprised if current trends hold up.

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