Today brings us officially one month away from the first night of the 2017 NFL Draft on April 27th. While there are still things that can happen in free agency, focus is quickly shifting to this year’s rookie class as the best way to fill roster needs.
Yesterday, I formed a 53-man roster for the Cowboys using only the players we currently have under contract. This project helped to crystallize where Dallas should be looking to add talent through the remainder of the offseason.
After going through that exercise, here are what I see as the Dallas Cowboys’ five biggest roster needs before the 2017 season begins:
1. Defensive End
The Cowboys have plenty of bodies at the DE position. DeMarcus Lawrence, Benson Mayowa, Charles Tapper, and Damontre Moore are the official group while Tyrone Crawford and David Irving both have the versatility to play outside if needed.
The issue isn’t bodies but abilities; none of these guys is a consistently effective pass rusher. The Cowboys defensive line, and perhaps the entire defense, could be dramatically improved by one truly great pass rushing DE who opponents have to focus on. Whether he’s forcing the quarterback out of the pocket or drawing double teams, that player can set up his teammates for success.
With no question as to their biggest need, the Cowboys haven’t been hiding it in their offseason strategy. They are meeting with several of the drafts top pass rushing prospects. Dallas has also used free agency to shore up other holes throughout the roster, leaving them free to focus on defense and especially their greatest weakness at defensive end.
Dallas could still look at some of the veteran options, such as Chris Long or Elvis Dumervil, to provide some help. Still, the 28th pick remains their best option to find a potential game-changing pass rusher and keep them around for several years on a cheap rookie contract.
If the season started today, Dallas would be hoping that Anthony Brown can emerge as a number-one cornerback in just his second year. They would be counting on free agent Nolan Carroll to replace the reliable Brandon Carr. They would also need for Orlando Scandrick to maintain a strong level of play, and stay healthy, after just turning 30-year-old.
There’s a lot of hoping in that plan, which is why the Cowboys should be hedging their bets with at least one significant draft pick spent on the cornerback position. If there’s a run on pass rushers in the first round, I would have no issue with Dallas using their pick on a cornerback who could contend for significant playing time right away.
Scandrick’s days are numbered; 2018 is likely his last year if his play doesn’t call for an earlier release. The Cowboys need help now but especially for the very near future as both Scandrick and Carroll are on the downward side of their careers. Anthony Brown looked great for a sixth-round rookie but may never be more than a solid starter and slot corner.
Bill Parcells once said that you can never have too many good cornerbacks. Four capable players is a minimum for the modern passing era and Dallas may only have three. There’s no telling if Leon McFadden or any of other guys can really contribute. I would expect at least one of our top three picks to be a cornerback.
The Cowboys saw both Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox depart in free agency. That leaves just Byron Jones, Jeff Heath, and Kavon Frazier under contract, unless you also want to count the recently converted Jameil Showers.
Many, including me, think Heath can be a solid starter and provide little drop-off from what Church or Wilcox have done in that role. The Cowboys seem to think so, too, since they did not address their safety departures at all in free agency.
If you’re okay with Heath as a starter, the depth chart may be a little more concerning. Kavon Frazier, a sixth-round pick last year, played minimally in 2016 and would now be the only player even guaranteed to make the roster. Dallas need at least one more guy just to fill out the position, in case Jameil Showers can’t make the change from quarterback to safety.
If there’s a great safety prospect there for you in the first round, Dallas could still go ahead and take him. That player could compete with Heath for the starting job and then the loser would provide quality depth. If both guys can play, you might even consider moving Byron Jones back to cornerback.
While he has flashed his natural return ability at times, Lucky Whitehead has never been able to consistently make plays and help the Cowboys’ field position. He also hasn’t made enough impact on offense to keep his roster spot secure.
Dallas needs more speed on offense. Brice Butler was thought to be a potential field stretcher but didn’t make an impact last year. If they could find both a speed receiver and return man in the same draft pick, that would be a very strong acquisition.
Both Butler and Whitehead are easily expendable. Butler only has $300k of dead money if released and Whitehead has almost none. If the draft yields a talent who can replace one of them and handle return duties, or simply be a more talented player with greater upside, then you don’t have to worry about finding room.
The Cowboys are hoping that Jaylon Smith, last year’s second-round pick, will come in and realize his elite potential. Many felt Smith would have been a top-five pick in the 2016 draft if not for his major knee injury that occurred in Notre Dame’s final game. At this time, reports are that his rehab has progressed well enough to expect him to play.
Until we see Smith playing, and really until he proves that he can stay on the field without re-injury, there is still a major question mark at linebacker. Sean Lee is still a top talent but will turn 31 this July. Guys like Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson are solid but nothing special. The depth is limited after the departures of Justin Durant and Andrew Gachkar in free agency (assuming neither returns).
The Cowboys can certainly use another talented linebacker. With Hitchens, Wilson, and Kyle WIlber all able to handle the strong side, it would be ideal to bring in someone with the coverage skills to back up Lee and Smith. In a few years, perhaps that player would replace Lee in the starting lineup.