I like maps. Always have. They are such a great way to get a big picture and figure out where you want to go in a way you can’t do otherwise. Even with GPS available, having the big overhead view is still a good thing. It makes it so much easier to figure out where you have to go.
So at this time of year, I tend to spend a lot of time trying to build some maps for the Dallas Cowboys and the NFL Draft. One such effort was some thoughts about the draft interviews the team is conducting via Zoom. (Just as an aside, if teams are doing this across the league, just why the worries about using it during the draft?) Now, let’s draw up a different map that also has a lot of relevance for them. This is a look at the team, position by position, to determine what they currently have, what holes need to be filled, and just where in the draft they might seek to address them.
To begin, the Cowboys currently have 68 players under contract, according to Over the Cap. That still includes Travis Frederick, so it really is 67. While they still could sign outside free agents, that will just be one or two, most likely. So figure they have at least 20 spots to fill from the college ranks. We know they have seven picks scheduled in the draft, but those other spots will be filled via the UDFA route. That is important, because with the current state of the roster, seven draft picks is not really enough.
Now on to the breakdowns. Due to length (or long-windedness) this will be the first of two parts, with the offense up first.
Presumptive starter: Dak Prescott
Backup: Cooper Rush
Longshot: Clayton Thornson
We know that the team has used the franchise tag on Prescott, and with the suspension of all offseason activities, they really have no rush to hammer out a deal before the draft. It will get done, and Prescott is the starter. Any arguments to the contrary envision a future in quarterback purgatory that is too horrid to add to the list of things we all have to worry about.
Rush was brought back as Prescott’s backup, but his best attribute is his familiarity with Kellen Moore’s offense. Thornson is one of the reasons to do these kinds of posts, because many people had either forgotten he was on the roster, or didn’t know it to begin with. The use of the “longshot” term is better because “camp body” just seems a bit cruel - and you never really know when something strange and kind of wonderful can happen.
Priority/draft capital: Low to medium/day three or UDFA
Obviously the Cowboys don’t need to spend any significant draft picks here, but they should be on the lookout for someone to compete with Rush. Also, in the past, Dallas has usually preferred to have four passers in camp, although that is not a rule. We don’t know how Mike McCarthy and Moore will want to approach this, but given the way an eventual training camp will have to compress things, it just makes sense to have that extra body to spread the load. Betting money says the Jalen Hurts interview was a smokescreen. They have a need here, but probably not worth a day one or day two pick. That probably means Hurts will not be a factor, since he is a borderline third-round prospect.
Of late Dallas has found the UDFA route sufficient for their needs here. That may be different under McCarthy, who liked to draft a QB every year with the Packers. Keep an eye on the fifth round here.
Starter: Ezekiel Elliott
Backup: Tony Pollard
Fullback: Jamize Olawale
Longshot: Jordan Chunn
The Cowboys have been very fortunate with Elliott, who can only be kept off the field by being rested in week 17 or Roger Goodell, apparently. But it’s a tough position, and it would be risky to assume that luck would hold out if they went into the season the way they did last year, with only Pollard to back him up. Pollard should have his own role, anyway. Chunn might emerge to claim a roster sport, but you’d think the team has to have another body or two going into camp.
Olawale remains the white whale of the offense, a weapon that never seems to be used, or even fully understood. We know McCarthy has used fullbacks very successfully in the past, so they might want to add an option here.
Priority/draft capital: Low/day three or (most likely) UDFA
Elliott may be the highest-paid running back in the league. and was of course the fourth overall pick entering the league, but hopefully the Cowboys won’t over-invest in the position again. And he was just that, despite how good you may believe him to be, because the NFL game just doesn’t allow running backs to pay off the way they once did - or at least were perceived to. There are also so many examples of late round or even UDFA backs not just being capable backups, but good starters. The smart move here is for the Cowboys to address things in the UDFA free-for-all.
Starter: Blake Jarwin
Backups: Dalton Schultz, Blake Bell
Longshot: Cole Hikutini
The Cowboys are beginning the post-Jason Witten era. Again. Jarwin is the presumptive starter, and while his participation was still somewhat limited last season, he looks to not only be capable, but someone whose strengths were not properly employed. Schultz has tenure with the team in his favor, and Bell has a good shot to make the team after his year with the championship Chiefs.
But. Both Schultz and Bell seem to be more blocking than receiving tight ends, and that may be a bit of a surplus for that role. The draft class seems a bit weak at TE, but the Cowboys may be looking for some additional help here rather than focus on coaching Schultz and Bell up as pass-catchers.
Priority/draft capital: Medium/day three or UDFA unless something weird happens early
Dallas is somewhat more likely to spend a draft pick on a tight end after day two than either quarterback or running back, but, again, McCarthy may change the dynamic.
Starters: Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup
Backups: Cedrick Wilson, Noah Brown, Devin Smith, Lance Lenoir
Longshots: Ventell Bryant, Jon’Vea Johnson, Tevin Jones
There’s a problem here, and that is the lack of a third starter/slot receiver. Wilson, Brown, and Smith have all had problems staying on the field and/or proving they belong there. To be blunt, this has to be addressed.
Priority/draft capital: High/all rounds
It’s a deep draft class, and there is a possibility of getting a contributor in all rounds. But the odds of a player panning out decline with each one, so the Cowboys will probably use one premium (day one or two) pick on a wide receiver. Then they will likely double dip as well by grabbing one or two as a UDFA. Just when they first pull the trigger at this position will depend on how the draft shapes up in the first couple of rounds. It is also one position that may nudge the team towards a trade back to acquire an extra pick or two.
Starters: Tyron Smith, Connor Williams, Joe Looney, Zack Martin, La’el Collins
Backups: Mitch Hyatt, Brandon Knight, Connor McGovern, Adam Redmond
Longshots: Wyatt Miller, Cody Wichmann, Marcus Henry
Looney gets the nod as the starting center to replace Travis Frederick because of his experience there, but McGovern is likely to be competing for the job in camp, and could take over mid-season. However, it would be better to settle on the starter at the beginning of the season for continuity.
Knight and Hyatt are likely competing for the swing tackle job, but the expanded roster may allow the Cowboys to carry two there. (The roster expansion, which basically means two practice squad players are elevated each week, appears to be going into effect this season, and one of the extra spots apparently has to be an offensive lineman according to ESPN’s coverage of the new CBA.)
Priority/draft capital: Medium/day three and UDFA
You want to have three healthy lines at least to start camp, so the Cowboys will need more than one addition here. But with the starting jobs all covered or likely sourced from within at center, there is no real need to use a premium pick. The team seems to have good opinions of Knight, Hyatt, and Redmond, who were all UDFAs, so Dallas may not use a draft pick and try to duplicate that, but could see someone who is too good to pass up in the latter rounds.
That’s one map for the Cowboys’ current offensive group, and how they could address things in the draft. Next up we have the defense and special teams - and the needs there are more pressing. Stay tuned.