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Trade up? Trade back? Stand pat? Looking at the draft landscape for the Cowboys

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Before you make your arguments, make sure you have a handle on things.

2018 NFL Draft Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

While so much has been cancelled or delayed indefinitely, the NFL Draft is still scheduled to begin on April 23rd. It is one of the few distractions available to us as we go through these strange and difficult times. The Dallas Cowboys have lots of ways they could improve the team this year. However, they are not blessed with a lot of draft capital. They only have seven selections, having traded away their sixth-round pick for Robert Quinn while adding a fifth-round compensatory pick for Cole Beasley’s departure. And their positioning in each round is distinctly average, picking 17th overall in the first.

That leads to the annual discussion born of team history. Should Dallas consider a first day trade? Jerry Jones (and presumably his son Stephen) have been quite willing to make moves in the past. We don’t know how Mike McCarthy feels about that subject. But free agency moves, and particularly the low risk gamble on Aldon Smith, indicate that he is all about the talent and willing to do whatever it takes.

From a purely entertainment view, trades are exciting and lead to endless calm, polite, and completely rational discussion of the wisdom of doing so. Or something like that. But giving us meat for debate is hardly a reason for making a trade. It should only be done to benefit the team, in this case by getting more value than sticking at 17. The pros and cons of doing so are already being hotly discussed. If we are honest with ourselves, we will understand that this is a decision that cannot be made in advance. It is very much a function of how the draft has gone earlier, the evaluation of players by the Cowboys, and whether a partner can be found.

To try and get an idea of what might and might not be even feasible, it is worth a broad look at the draft class and why other teams might be willing to make a deal with Dallas.

First, we need to set the table with the prospects who realistically would be around a few spots ahead of 17 as well as who is likely to still be available if the Cowboys move back. Using the big board from CBS Sports (which I use through most of the draft run-up for consistency, as well as their pretty good track record), here are the players listed there as the top 32.

  1. Chase Young EDGE Ohio State
  2. Joe Burrow QB LSU
  3. Isaiah Simmons LB Clemson
  4. Jeff Okudah CB Ohio State
  5. Tua Tagovailoa QB Alabama
  6. Jedrick Wills Jr OL Alabama
  7. Derrick Brown DL Auburn
  8. CeeDee Lamb WR Oklahoma
  9. Tristan Wirfs OL Iowa
  10. Javon Kinlaw DL South Carolina
  11. Mekhi Becton OL Louisville
  12. Jerry Jeudy WR Alabama
  13. K’Lavon Chaisson EDGE LSU
  14. Henry Ruggs III WR Alabama
  15. Andrew Thomas OL Georgia
  16. A.J. Epenesa EDGE Iowa
  17. Xavier McKinney S Alabama
  18. C.J. Henderson CB Florida
  19. Jordan Love QB Utah State
  20. Justin Herbert QB Oregon
  21. Yetur Gross-Matos EDGE Penn State
  22. Kristian Fulton CB LSU
  23. Grant Delpit S LSU
  24. Jonathan Taylor RB Wisconsin
  25. Kenneth Murray LB Oklahoma
  26. Tee Higgins WR Clemson
  27. Neville Gallimore DL Oklahoma
  28. Trevon Diggs CB Alabama
  29. Ross Blacklock DL TCU
  30. A.J. Terrell CB Clemson
  31. Justin Jefferson WR LSU
  32. Josh Jones OL Houston

These are, according to this list, the most likely first-round selections. That doesn’t mean that they are first-round talents, however. Most years, there are only around fifteen to twenty of those, with the remainder of the first day picks being high second-round talent in reality.

Sitting at 17, the Cowboys may not have a true first-rounder to draft there according to their board. Even if there is, it may not be one that Dallas would use a draft pick for. There are only certain positions that they are likely to see as worth that first-round capital, and it varies depending on the needs of the team. Best player available is at best a limited concept in the first round. This year, those probably include EDGE and CB. Depending on the talent, it may also include WR, S, DT, and LB. However, the signings of Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and Aldon Smith have to be factored in.

It does feel safe to say that the front office would have little to no interest in selecting a QB, RB, TE, or OL in the first. There is too much talent on the roster already except for tight end, and in this class, there is no TE talent that really looks worth a first-round chip.

Of course, the ranking order used here will likely have limited relationship to how the players will actually be taken. Many people believe that Chase Young is clearly the best player out there, but if the Cincinnati Bengals keep the first overall pick, they will most likely take Joe Burrow, or if they have him graded higher, Tua Tagovailoa. They can talk all about the confidence they have in Andy Dalton, but no one really thinks of him as that guy. He is also 32 and on the last year of his contract, with zero dead money involved if he should be cut. It is a situation just begging for them to draft the QB of the future, without being absolutely forced into starting him immediately.

That in turn circles around to what is likely to happen in the first ten to sixteen picks. Although it is not possible to predict just what the Cowboys may be willing to do, trading up beyond the eleventh spot or so seems prohibitively expensive, no matter how talented or badly needed the player is. I’m sure many fans of the team would profess to being willing to sacrifice half of their reproductive glands to get Young, but their future progeny are safe, because that ain’t gonna happen.

This is where things could get really interesting. Note those two names just a couple of spots behind 17 on this list, Jordan Love and Justin Herbert. They have the most potent booster of draft position attached to their names - QB. Besides Cincinnati, there are at least four other teams that could be looking to get a quarterback this year because of their current roster. In no particular order (OK, by conference and division, because that is how Ourlads has them listed): The New England Patriots, Jacksonville Jaguars, Denver Broncos, and Los Angeles Chargers. A few that may be thinking about it because they are not completely sold on what they currently have, despite any sunk costs, include the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, Cleveland Browns, Las Vegas Raiders, Washington, Chicago Bears, and Arizona Cardinals. There are also teams with aging QBs that just might want to invest now in a starter for a year or two down the road, such as the Pittsburgh Steelers, Indianapolis Colts, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Atlanta Falcons, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And a special case is the Seattle Seahawks, who have a starter who may have years ahead of him in Russell Wilson, but have exactly zero other QBs on their roster at the moment.

That is a very long list of teams that could conceivably decide to invest in a quarterback in the first round, and a whole bunch of them are currently ahead of Dallas in the draft order. It seems all but certain that all four of the first round-likely QBs above will go before the Cowboys go on the clock - and some team might even make a major reach for a player like Jacob Eason or Jake Fromm.

That’s great news for the Cowboys, because now maybe a player like Kinlaw, Jeudy, or Chaisson might be pushed down all the way to them. What might be interesting is if Chaisson is around when Denver at 15 goes on the clock, and the Cowboys think Atlanta at 16 is interested in him. Suddenly there is a situation where Dallas could afford to trade up a couple of spots if they really are sold on Chaisson, perhaps as the last real first-round talent on their board.

But if I were a betting man (which I am not), I would want to go with the Cowboys being much more likely to look at a trade back. There are some players in that 17 to 25 range, outside the two QBs, that could get drafted higher depending on the needs of teams. Gross-Matos, Fulton, and Delpit are three names to watch. And someone always seems to overdraft a running back, so throw Taylor in as well. Players that will slide, and some will, also have to be considered here, especially if it is a position like OL that the Cowboys won’t see as a priority.

If that transpires, the Cowboys might just be fortunate enough to have four or five players remaining on their board they feel are worth a first-round pick, and teams that are willing to trade with them to get their guy at 17. Las Vegas and Jacksonville are two teams that might be willing to give up some kind of draft capital to jump over Miami. All have two first-round picks at the moment, and the first two might be willing to part with a third- or fourth-round selection to move up a little. If things get really crazy ahead of their turn, the Cowboys might even be willing to risk a deeper move back.

Obviously, there are a lot of moving parts here, but this is just how the draft landscape tends to shape up every year. It all might be moot, because we don’t know what the Dallas board will look like. Fulton and Delpit, for instance, might be exactly who the Cowboys want when their turn rolls around.

And there is that other factor. The draft process has been seriously impacted by the pandemic. Teams are having to operate in very different ways this year with the loss of pro days and visits. That will have unknown effects on decisions, which could really jumble things up.

In any case, this is a rough map of what lies ahead in just a few days. Now we will see how well the Cowboys navigate it.