There was a point in this Cowboys offseason where the team had seemingly no direction, with big-name free agents predictably signing elsewhere and top players like Amari Cooper being traded. The Cowboys haven’t exactly inspired confidence that things would be different following the Wild Card loss to the 49ers, but their value free agent signings and focus on internal players has prepared them well for next month’s draft.
Outside free agents James Washington and Dante Fowler have addressed needs at wide receiver and defensive end, while value deals for Leighton Vander Esch, Carlos Watkins, Jayron Kearse, Malik Hooker, Luke Gifford, and Dorance Armstrong have helped shore up all three levels of the defense.
The most obvious need for the Cowboys remains offensive line, where starters La’el Collins and Connor Williams have exited with no outside help to replace the left guard or right tackle. If the Cowboys had to play a game tomorrow, Terence Steele would start at tackle with Connor McGovern at guard.
This roster need falls in line with not only a strength of this draft class, but the Cowboys immediate need for day one starters from their rookie class - where offensive line has a high success rate for plug-and-play starters.
Prospects like Zion Johnson, Kenyon Green, and Tyler Linderbaum may remain the favorites all the way until draft day for pick #24, but there’s another need on the Cowboys roster that quietly could have similar impact if given the chance to add a top player.
Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn deserves praise for getting the most out of players in his versatile scheme, but there should be concern about the transition that’s gone on at linebacker. The speed, range, and instincts from Keanu Neal, Kearse, and Vander Esch has been replaced with only Kearse, Vander Esch, and Luke Gifford. Neal remains a free agent, but one that wants to play his old position at safety - where Dallas already made their move in retaining Kearse for his hybrid role.
Dallas can feel a whole lot better about their linebacker group with a day two pick, but finally addressing defensive tackle in the first round may be the best way to get the most out of this unit.
We discussed this idea as a whole on the latest episode of Hidden Yardage this week on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you don’t miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.
The last defensive tackle the Cowboys drafted in the first round remains Russell Maryland in 1991. This team is no stranger to selling fans on their in-house talent being enough at any position, and it feels likely they’ll do so here with Carlos Watkins being brought back on a one-year deal.
Watkins rejoins a group with promising young players like Neville Gallimore, Osa Odighizuwa, and Quinton Bohanna. While the team’s numbers on the edge are still thin, they also saw rookie Chauncey Golston play snaps on the interior last season. In past years, this would be more than enough for the Cowboys to look elsewhere for a first-round pick, but there’s still time for this offseason to truly be different.
A massive run-stuffer like Jordan Davis, athletic rusher in Travis Jones, or Texas A&M’s Demarvin Leal would go a long way in helping the Cowboys linebackers flow to the ball and avoid blocks.
When Quinn was the defensive coordinator in Seattle, Michael Bennett led the team in sacks both seasons, using his speed and leverage to beat guards in a system that values the DT position. Grady Jarrett had 7.5 sacks in 2019 in Atlanta under Quinn. Without knowing how long Dallas will have Quinn to coordinate their defense, a promising group of defensive tackles shouldn’t be enough to stop them from drafting a ready-made starter at the position. A stronger interior pass rush would also help DeMarcus Lawrence at left end, who the Cowboys committed to with a new contract this offseason.
The Cowboys were exposed in the trenches on both sides of the ball in their most recent loss, and clearly have the most work to do on the offensive line. The team’s struggles running the ball against soft fronts were magnified by opponents running it right at them, a trend that has to end in 2022.