The Cowboys have plenty of work to do before they reach the NFL draft. Everyone knows they need to work out contracts with Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper. There’s also been talk about how Byron Jones may not be in their plans for 2020 considering how much he’s likely to get offered by other teams in free agency. Dallas also has decisions to make on guys like Robert Quinn, Maliek Collins, heck, even Jason Witten is in the mix at this moment. All of those moves could affect the draft one way or the other.
But there is one free agent who seems to make little difference in what pundits are thinking. Cowboys safety Jeff Heath is a free agent, but whether the Cowboys sign him or not, most draftniks have written him out of the Cowboys plans. That’s because safety remains the number one choice for the Cowboys pick at 17.
And there is a battle brewing between Grant Delpit and Xavier McKinney for the hearts and minds of pundits. Let’s take a look.
LSU • JR • 6’3” / 203 LBS
The Cowboys need help at safety and corner, and with the top corners already off the board, they take who I believe is the best safety in this class.
17. Dallas Cowboys – Grant Delpit, S, LSU: No need to give up the ship for Jamal Adams when you can enlist another highly capable Bayou Bengal in Delpit, last season’s Jim Thorpe Award winner, to shore up the back line.
17. Dallas Cowboys (8-8)
Grant Delpit, S, LSU
The Cowboys need an upgrade at free safety from Jeff Heath to get better at covering backs and tight ends. Delpit flies around the field, stopping the run like an extra linebacker and making big plays on the ball in downfield coverage. He plays like the Chargers’ Derwin James with tremendous hybrid size (6-3, 203 pounds) for the position.
Dallas Cowboys: Grant Delpit, S, LSU
The Cowboys tried to land Earl Thomas last offseason, but they haven’t been able to upgrade their hole at safety. Perhaps they’ll do that with this pick.
Grant Delpit is an exceptional talent who was once considered a top-10 lock, but has struggled a bit in 2019.
17. Dallas Cowboys: Grant Delpit, S, LSU
The Cowboys defense has plenty of talent, especially at linebacker, but star cornerback Byron Jones is a free agent and safety Jeff Heath has struggled. Delpit’s athleticism and instincts would help improve a pass defense that ranked 23rd in DVOA.
That’s five mocks for Delpit, but Xavier McKinney is putting up a battle with three mocks of his own.
17. Dallas Cowboys
Xavier McKinney, S, Alabama
Jerry Jones has quite an offseason ahead of him. Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, Robert Quinn and Byron Jones headline a talented — and expensive — list of players headed toward free agency. If cornerback Jones is one of the odd men out, a secondary that mostly held passing offenses at bay but struggled to produce takeaways gets weaker. And the Cowboys have needed a safety since the days when Roy Williams and Darren Woodson roamed the defensive backfield. McKinney has some range as a deep safety — he pulled in three interceptions on the back end for Bama last season.
17. Dallas Cowboys: Xavier McKinney, S, Alabama
McKinney over LSU’s Grant Delpit might seem surprising, but the feeling on this year’s two top safeties could go back-and-forth in the lead up to the draft. McKinney is a capable coverage safety and in nickel situations will come down and play linebacker. While he’s not quite on Simmons’ level in that regard, McKinney’s skill set is attractive.
Xavier McKinney S, Alabama
This pick is a bit of a surprise, but the more you watch Xavier McKinney’s 2019 film the easier it is to get on board with the prospect that he’s the best safety available in the 2020 NFL Draft. McKinney does all the same things the Cowboys ask of Xavier Woods, but McKinney is a top shelf version of the same player. This would be a welcomed upgrade in the secondary for Dallas, especially as they face the prospect of bidding farewell to Byron Jones this offseason.
Looking for something a little different? Well, you could make a small move over to cornerback. If the Cowboys don’t re-sign Byron Jones before the draft, you can bet a lot more mocks will be shifting over to corner in the first round. Some are beating the rush.
17. Dallas Cowboys: CB CJ Henderson, Florida
As much as any team in the NFL, the Dallas Cowboys will have their draft shaped by free agency. With Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper and Byron Jones all set to become free agents, the Cowboys could be set on a path of drafting to replace high-level starters if one or more leaves on the open market.
It’s fairly reasonable to expect Prescott to return. Cooper sounds like he wants to be back. This could leave Byron Jones as the odd man out as the Cowboys look at their salary-cap health in the present and for the future. Enter CJ Henderson.
A feisty, fast cornerback from Florida, Henderson has excellent ball skills and the instincts to be a major factor playing the ball in the pros. He’s never going to win awards for his tackling skills, but like Deion Sanders always said, you’re not paying cornerbacks to tackle.
17. Dallas Cowboys: C.J. Henderson, CB, Florida
Amid all the talk about contract extensions for Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper, All-Pro cornerback Byron Jones is set to hit free agency. The 6-1, 182-pound Henderson has the length teams look for in an outside cornerback, as well as the athleticism, fluidity and ball skills to match. Previous pick: Trevon Diggs, CB, Alabama
And now, for something completely different.
Round 1, pick 17 overall
A.J. Epenesa, DE, Iowa
Interestingly enough, many of the names most commonly mocked to the Cowboys (Grant Delpit, Javon Kinlaw, Henry Ruggs III) were all off the board once pick No. 17 came around, leaving Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa as the next-best choice.
Epenesa isn’t the most exciting first-round prospect because he lacks the high-end athleticism that could push his potential through the roof. He isn’t the edge-bending speed merchant the Cowboys have used opposite DeMarcus Lawrence, but he is a high-floor prospect who would improve the defense from the moment he walks on the field, especially if Robert Quinn departs for big money elsewhere.
Where are you on these mocks, BTB?