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The Cowboys draft position offers up some new challenges that haven’t been there in years past

The Cowboys can still land a gem, it’s just going to be a lot harder this time around.

Pittsburgh Steelers v New England Patriots Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

All signs are pointing to the Dallas Cowboys acquiring a Day 1 starter with their first pick of the draft. The talent pool is large enough and we’ve seen time and time again that the front office does a magical job of somehow pulling an All-Pro out of their hat regardless of where in the order they are picking.

Yesterday, we presented some compelling evidence showing how the Cowboys are one of the best drafting teams in the league. We even went as far as suggesting that even at pick 24, these draft wizards could still pull off one of the biggest steals in the first round. Is that being overly optimistic? Probably, but we know they have it in them to do it. However, today we are going to tap the breaks a little bit and explain how landing a steal could be a lot more challenging this time around.

REASON #1: There are good drafting teams ahead of them

The Cowboys selections have been winners at times, but they shouldn’t get all the credit. When they are following poor drafting teams (usually positioned at the top of the draft), their chances of hitting the jackpot increases. The 2020 NFL Draft is a perfect example as there were missteps after missteps in the front half of the draft allowing the Cowboys to come away with a top 10 prospect in CeeDee Lamb.

For example, the New York Giants and Cleveland Browns couldn’t even select the correct tackle with their pick gifting the eventual Super Bowl champion Tristan Wirfs to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The same goes with the Las Vegas Raiders and Denver Broncos in terms of picking the correct wide receiver. They opted to go against conventional thinking and take an Alabama guy over the nation’s top collegiate pass-catcher in Lamb. Thanks, guys.

The Cowboys might not be so fortunate this time around. Not only are they way down at 24, but some of the stronger drafting teams are coming off slightly down years where they are actually ahead of Dallas in the draft order this year. Teams like New England, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and New Orleans didn’t eclipsed the 10-win mark last season and all of them have better draft positioning as a result. Based on the drafting efficiency data provided by Football Outsiders (during a 10-year period starting at 2010), here are the rankings of the 10 teams picking ahead of the Cowboys this year.

It’s a little unsettling that five of those 10 teams picking ahead of Dallas are all ranked within the top eight in drafting efficiency. Even the Green Bay Packers have a pick ahead of the Cowboys via the terrible-drafting Las Vegas Raiders due to the Davante Adams trade. And the Los Angeles Chargers, who haven’t been good historically, have stepped things up as of late with top-notch selections of Justin Herbert and Rashawn Slater (both have earned Pro Bowl honors already).

That means we shouldn’t expect a lot of mistakes happening in front of the Cowboys as their pick grows closer. Sure, the Philadelphia Eagles have not one, not two, but three picks ranging from 15th to 19th overall, so let’s cross our fingers they stay true to form; however, with three chances we should brace ourselves that at least one of our favorite draft targets are going to be wearing a kelly-green jersey in the future.

REASON #2: Too many teams with similar needs

Entering the new season, the Cowboys draft needs are as follows (courtesy of NFL Mock Draft Database):

For the first round, we should eliminate the defensive tackle and safety positions from this list. The only players from those positions who would be draft steals at 24 are Alabama’s Jordan Davis and Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton and it seems highly unlikely either of those players would fall that far (Davis possibly, Hamilton no chance).

For the Cowboys, what we’re really looking at is interior offensive line, edge rusher, wide receiver, and maybe an off-ball linebacker. How does that line up with those 10 teams picking ahead of them? I’m glad you asked.

Crossing off positions that aren’t huge needs for Dallas, we get a feel for some of the shared needs. Since teams have a multitude of needs, we wanted to just focus on the four most pressing needs from each team. Tallying up the data, here are how many times each of the Cowboys top four most pressing needs come up for these other teams:

8 = Wide Receiver

5 = Edge Rusher

4 = Interior Offensive Line

4 = Linebacker

It’s worth mentioning that the Eagles top draft needs were each counted three times since they have three picks. It’s not surprising that two of the “Money 5” positions are the most coveted here as there should be high demand for wide receivers and edge rushers. That’s not welcoming news for a team that just lost Amari Cooper and Randy Gregory. To replace those guys, they’ll need a little help, which brings us to our final reason.

REASON #3: Limited availability at certain positions

To come away with a huge draft steal, the Cowboys need things to line up just right. What’s available will come down to good old supply and demand. With an understanding of what these teams need, let’s check in on the availability of players at these positions.

For this tally, we’re including all players with a 1-2 draft grade who are not obvious blue-chippers, but still have a good chance of being selected on Day 1. That list includes:

WR (5): Chris Olave, Jameson Williams, Garrett Wilson, Drake London, and Treylon Burks

EDGE (2): Jeremiah Johnson and George Karlaftis

iOL (4): Kenyon Green, Zion Johnson, Tyler Linderbaum, and Trevor Penning*

LB (2): Devin Lloyd and Nikobe Dean

* Penning is listed here because he has guard flex as well as tackle being a partial need for the Cowboys. If we divide the amount of players available by how many times they show up as a top need, the percentage of availability comes out as follows:

Interior Offensive Line (4/4) = 100%

Wide Receiver (5/8) = 63%

Linebacker (2/4) = 50%

Edge Rusher (2/5) = 40%

While these percentages are based on my own formula to estimate availability, they pass the eye test. Most would agree that a quality iOL has a great shot at being there for the Cowboys at pick 24. In fact last week we’ve already proclaimed that the Cowboys first-round draft pick will almost certainly be Kenyon Green or Zion Johnson. It’s also reasonable to think a wide receiver they like will be there, that it’s a coin flip that one of the top linebackers last, and that a shot at one of the better edge rushers is not probable yet not impossible.

What does this all mean?

The Cowboys can still come away with one of the top players in the draft. We’ve seem them do it in 2013 with Travis Frederick picking at 31. It’s just going to be a little harder this time around with so many things working against them. With great drafting teams ahead of them and those teams possessing many of the same needs as Dallas, most of the stars could be gone when 24 rolls around.

But there will be a lot of variation of how these prospects are viewed, so it’s not impossible for the Cowboys to have one of their elite wide receivers/edge rushers fall to them. A more realistic scenario is that the Cowboys will miss out on that blinking light that would have all the TV analysts praising them for their draft steal, and instead have to “settle” for a boring fundamentally sound, athletic guard from Boston College.