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What you need to know about the Cowboys’ roster needs: Defense and ST

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Time to look at the other side of the ball for the Cowboys.

NFL Draft
Defense should be a priority for the Cowboys in the draft.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

In the first half of this little mapmaking exercise for the Dallas Cowboys as they ready for the NFL draft, we examined the offense. Quick takeaway: They have a big need at wide receiver, but everywhere else the needs are pretty much depth related, with the possible exception of tight end. Defense, however, is a different story. The needs there are much more pressing.

Defensive end

Starters: DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford

Big maybes: Aldon Smith, Randy Gregory

Backup: Dorance Armstrong

Longshots: Joe Jackson, Jalen Jelks,

Right off the bat, we have the unique situation with Smith and Gregory. Both were extremely talented and effective when they played. Both have been out of the league, with Smith out for years. Both are waiting on Roger Goodell to make a call on their reinstatement. That puts the Cowboys in a bit of a quandary. If Goodell would just decide on them, Dallas would have a much better idea of how to approach DE in the draft, but there is no indication that an edict will be handed down from the mountaintop anytime soon.

Without those two, the need is glaring. Just to have two starters, Crawford, who is really a utility player that can also serve as a 3T DT, has to be included here. Depth is also an issue.

Priority/draft capital: High/all rounds

This is definitely a position where a first-round pick would be justified. It has to be the right player, of course, and DE is hardly the only spot that is going to be considered. It will all depend on how the draft shakes out. If Dallas doesn’t find a DE in round one, they really need to try and pick one on day two. If they don’t, then things are really dicey unless the commish cooperates. It also might be one of several positions where taking another DE later would be an option.

Defensive tackle

Starters: Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe

Backups: *Antwaun Woods, Trysten Hill

Longshot: Justin Hamilton

*currently not signed

There’s no question that the free agent signings of McCoy and Poe has completely changed the picture here. This is probably the best shape the interior of the defensive line has been in for years. Both are not long-term solutions, however, and there is still a need here. Woods is still not officially signed, but as an exclusive rights free agent, the team has control there, and it is hard to see why they wouldn’t bring him back. It may be more a matter of cap management than anything else, since for now he doesn’t count. It remains to be seen whether Hill is going to pan out, of course.

Priority/draft capital: High/day two and three

It is not inconceivable that, should the right player fall, it would be worth a first-round pick. But the Cowboys just aren’t that crazy about using a first-round chip on the position, and there does appear to be good talent in the middle rounds.

Linebacker

Starters: Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch

Backups: Sean Lee, Joe Thomas, Luke Gifford, Justin March

Longshot: Chris Covington

You only need two starters given how much time the team spends in nickel packages, and Lee is a very good option as the SAM when you want to have three on the field. The other backups are all likely to be core special teams players as well. This is actually a pretty good group to roll into camp.

Priority/draft capital: Medium/day two or three

A caveat: The Cowboys seem to be at least somewhat interested in including linebacker in the mix for the first round. I don’t think that is a very good idea, but the team doesn’t care about my opinion. However, there is always a question mark about the health of both starters, so that may be a factor as well.

It would be very surprising if Dallas didn’t spend one pick on a LB, but again, other needs and the way things pan out could lead to not taking one at all. They will almost certainly add to the group from the UDFA pool however the draft goes because of that need on teams.

Cornerback

Starters: Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown, Jourdan Lewis

Backup: Maurice Canady

Longshots: Deante Burton, C.J. Goodwin, Savion Smith, Chris Westry, D.J. White

The longshot designation is a bit inaccurate, since there is an excellent chance that one or two of these can emerge. Still, this is a bit skimpy.

Priority/draft capital: High/all rounds

This is a position where there is talent in the first round and more than enough justification to pull the trigger for Dallas. And it is another place where double dipping is very possible.

Safety

Starters: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Xavier Woods

Backups: Donavan Wilson, Darian Thompson

It feels weird to not be discussing whether Jeff Heath should be a starter, but here we are. This is a position where the numbers are just not enough at the moment, and again special teams will influence things.

Priority/draft capital: High/all rounds

Just as with DT, the Cowboys have not been eager to take a safety on the first day of the draft, but Clinton-Dix is another short-term solution. There are some really good safeties that will merit some consideration. This is another place where a pick should be used at some point, and waiting until the fifth round seems a bit unwise.

Special teams

Starter: LS L.P. Ladouceur, P Chris Jones

The competition: K Kai Forbath, K Greg Zuerlein

Long shot: K Tristan Viscaino

With Zuerlein’s signing, it is rather surprising that Viscaino is still on the roster. He is certainly doubtful to make it all the way to the start of camp.

Priority/draft capital: Low/late day three or UDFA

The team will want to bring someone in to compete with Jones. That may be somewhere that they could use their seventh round-pick, although UDFA is more likely. There will be another long snapper brought in to spell Mr. Perfect as well.

Numbers

If you have been keeping track, you have noticed that there are more needs than draft picks for the Cowboys. The argument for a trade back is strong. Picking at 17 is a place where you are looking at a lot of players who are more high-second-rounders than legitimate first-round talents anyway, and if things shake out the right way, Dallas could benefit by moving back and adding a third-rounder.

That requires a partner, however, and constraints of the virtual draft process might make teams less willing to move up. It is a speculative take, however. What is more likely is that any trades may have to be arranged a bit earlier this year, because teams don’t have a war room this year. Having your staff dispersed to their homes makes getting a trade done while on the clock dicey. But most of those last minute trades are also pre-arranged in any case, so it may not be as much of a factor as some think.

In any case, the Cowboys need to do a good job this year. They definitely need to add talent at many positions, and with only seven picks to work with, that is a bit harder than in some past years.