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Driving the draft: How the current Cowboys roster affects the team’s plans

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With the draft almost here, it is time to review just what the team already has.

NFL: 2017 NFL Draft Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

This is the week of the 2018 NFL Draft. In a few days, we will know who the Dallas Cowboys have taken. It is shaping up to be a very unpredictable draft, with very few real “blue chip” players.

This is a sentiment that is showing up a lot leading up to the draft. In the case of the Indianapolis Colts, the article linked in the tweet above has their list of elite players as:

  • RB Saquon Barkley
  • G Quenton Nelson
  • DE Bradley Chubb
  • S Derwin James
  • DB Minkah Fitzpatrick
  • LB Tremaine Edmunds
  • LB Roquan Smith
  • One unknown name that may not be on most other team’s list of elite non-QBs

That is a thought-provoking, and very small, group. None of the quarterbacks that are supposed to be taken early this year. No wide receivers. No offensive tackles.

The staff of the Cowboys likely have a similar small list of top players. Faced with this dearth of top level, “sure-fire” prospects, and currently sitting at 19 for their first pick, they have to figure out who is the best of the rest - and how those players fit the plans going forward.

Dallas has multiple needs - but they also have to look at what they currently have in order to try and figure out how to use their draft capital to get the best return. Right now, there is something of a consensus that the top needs (listed alphabetically) are: Defensive tackle, linebacker, offensive line (most likely a guard, although the option of taking a tackle and moving La’el Collins remains open as well), safety, and wide receiver. Other positions seem relegated to day three.

To try and get a handle on how the Cowboys will approach these needs, here is a look at what they currently have on the roster.

Defensive tackle

Pure DTs: Richard Ash, Maliek Collins, Brian Price, Daniel Ross, and Joe Vellano

“Flex” players who will play inside and outside at times: Tyrone Crawford and David Irving

There are only three players here who are established, Collins, Crawford, and Irving. Price and Ash seem to have some chance of fighting their way onto the roster in camp, but are not exactly good bets, although both showed some flashes in limited work last season.

The Cowboys have not been eager to spend a premium pick on DTs in the past, but remarks this offseason plus the list of pre-draft visitors indicate that they are willing to reconsider that stance. Vita Vea, Da’Ron Payne, and Taven Bryan are players who came in who are also considered to be possible first-round options. But they also are looking at Nathan Shepherd and Da’Shawn Hand, who would be more second-round targets.

Linebacker

The Cowboys currently have six on the roster. Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith seem to be the plan for WILL and MIKE for the nickel package, the most commonly deployed alignment. Damien Wilson and FA acquisition Joe Thomas provide depth, plus one would be the expected third LB when a SAM is on the field (with Smith possibly kicking out as the SAM), and Justin March-Lillard and Tre’von Johnson are the remaining LBs.

This is where the question of just how crucial more LB talent actually is comes into play. And the arrival of Kris Richard on the staff may be relevant to that.

You’ll have to click on the tweet to get to the full charts, but it boils down to this: Richard uses his two top LBs a lot, and the rest are basically getting leftovers. That could push the need for a linebacker in the draft down the priority list.

Offensive line

Four spots are locked up: LT Tyron Smith, C Travis Frederick, RG Zack Martin, and La’el Collins will either be the starting RT or LG, almost certainly to be determined by what the team does in the draft. But that fifth starter is wide open. The only other O linemen currently under contract are Joe Loney, Cameron Fleming, Marcus Martin, Kadeem Edwards, and Jarron Jones. None of them seem to be candidates to win a starting job, although Fleming and Marcus Martin, free agent signings this year, have been mentioned as possibilities. But that seems dicey.

The Cowboys are almost certainly going to be looking for more talent in the draft to help the OL group, probably someone who either played guard or who can be switched to the position (something that happens frequently when college OL move up to the NFL). Given the importance of the OL to Dallas’ offensive philosophy, it would be negligent to not have one by the end of day two of the draft.

Safety

According to Cowboys insider Bryan Broaddus, the team seems to be planning to wait until later in the draft to address this position, likely no earlier than the third round. But they pretty much have to find someone to add. With the move of Byron Jones to corner, their safety room currently consists of Kavon Frazier, Jeff Heath, Xavier Woods, Jameill Showers, and Marqueston Huff. That is three players you can have some faith in and a couple of real long shots. The team may feel it can find a good addition late, the way they grabbed Woods last year, but it seems more reliable to pull the trigger on a safety in the mid rounds rather than wait until the sixth.

Wide receiver

This has become the new favorite for pick 19 with the release of Dez Bryant. However, signs point to the Cowboys moving away from the traditional reliance on having that dominant WR1. The question is whether they have the right ones to accomplish that.

The team already has eight WRs, Cole Beasley, Noah Brown, KD Cannon, Allen Hurns, Lance Lenoir, Ryan Switzer, Deonte Thompson, and Terrance Williams. But they will want to go into camp with a dozen or more to work with, and could be wanting to carry six or even seven on the roster for the regular season. That means that they will add at least one WR in the draft, and it seems a prime position to double-dip.

You can draw your own conclusions from all this. The talent distribution in this year’s class seems to indicate that there are a lot of good options for day two of the draft especially. But with five positions of pretty significant need, there has to be a prioritizing of which ones to address in the first through third rounds.

I’ve been consistent in advocating taking a guard in the first, but there are a lot of other ways to do things. What they already have to work with will be a big factor in how they approach things, so keep the names above in mind as you do those last-second mocks and then wait for the real names to go up to the podium.