In six days and approximately 12 hours, the Dallas Cowboys will go on the clock with the 10th overall pick and an opportunity to add one of the best players in the NFL Draft on either side of the football. There are several directions the front office could go with the pick, but the most important thing is they can't miss on this pick.
The first round has been mostly great for Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones, and Will McClay over the last decade, save for a few decisions. Oddly, each on the defensive side of the football. When the Cowboys draft defense, it's an adventure.
Their decision to trade up for Morris Claiborne in the 2012 Draft might have worked out differently if not for the injury history and that's neither the team's or the player's fault, but they didn't get the return on their investment with that selection.
In 2015, they selected Byron Jones. It took several years to figure out how best to utilize Jones and then the Cowboys opted not to retain him after his rookie contract expired and Jones became the highest paid cornerback in the NFL in the 2020 offseason. Jones was good for the Cowboys and one of the best corners in the league his final two years. But I can't help but wonder what could have been if they stuck him at corner to begin with and let him grow.
In 2017, the Cowboys needed to add some help at defensive end and they did so in the form of Michigan EDGE rusher Taco Charlton. Charlton never seemed to mesh well with Rod Marinelli and couldn't figure it out enough to get on the field with much consistency or have much of a consistent impact. He was released before the end of his rookie contract and landed with the Kansas City Chiefs. Without even considering who was selected after Charlton in that draft, this is easily one of the worst draft decisions the front office has made.
In 2018, the Cowboys needed to continue adding depth to their defense and zeroed in on Boise State Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch. Vander Esch who was rumored to have neck problems during his time in college, had a fantastic rookie season for the Cowboys, helping that defense have some stand out performances throughout the 2018 season. Unfortunately for Vander Esch, injuries to his neck took hold in 2019 and he hasn't been the same player since, missing significant time each of the last two seasons.
Even if you expand the discussion to the second round of the draft, outside of DeMarcus Lawrence, the Cowboys haven't had any obvious hits on the defensive side of the ball from the second round. Sean Lee was an injury risk coming into the NFL and has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career. Though it finally seems like he has a handle on his off the field issues, it's taken five years for Randy Gregory to play a season and then get a full offseason to build on his craft. Jaylon Smith's recovery and return was nothing short of a miracle, but has struggled to maintain his level of impact from the 2018 season. Chidobe Awuzie was solid, but never was able to make a consistent impact. Trysten Hill was a project coming out of college and is still a project two years in after suffering a season ending injury last year. Trevon Diggs had some growing pains in his rookie year and looks to have the makings of an impact cornerback after he led the team in interceptions, but the Cowboys need to see him take another step forward in 2021.
For some reason, when the Dallas Cowboys pick defense in the first round, it always ends up having ups and downs during the player's tenure with the team. On the offensive side of the football, the Cowboys have had one of the best track records in the first round in the NFL. Since 2010, the Cowboys selected Dez Bryant (24th overall), Tyron Smith (ninth overall), Travis Frederick (31st overall after they traded back), Zack Martin (16th overall), Ezekiel Elliott (fourth overall), and Cee Dee Lamb (17th overall).
Every single selection there has been a fantastic pick for the Dallas Cowboys. In Tyron Smith and Zack Martin, you have two players who were the best at their position for several years. Smith and Martin are on Hall of Fame trajectories. Dez Bryant had arguably the hottest run of any wide receiver from 2012 to 2014 before injuries took some of his athleticism from him in 2015. Ezekiel Elliott is a two-time rushing champion and his pass blocking and receiving have been impactful for the offense. Travis Frederick's career was cut short by Guillen-Barre syndrome, which forced him out of the 2018 season, then Frederick retired in 2019. Had Frederick not suffered the setback of 2018, he was on a similar Hall of Fame path as his former teammates Smith and Martin. Though it's been just one year, the Cowboys received a huge return from their selection of Cee Dee Lamb in 2020.
This is why I've been saying we should keep an open mind to who the Dallas Cowboys select in the first round. Because they have a much better track record with selecting offensive players at the top of the draft than they do defensive players. Jones is easily the best defensive player they selected in the last decade, but again, it took three years in the league before the Cowboys finally settled on him as a cornerback, and he took off in the cover-3 defense Kris Richard liked to run.
If the Cowboys hold at pick 10, it will be the fourth time in the last decade that they would have made a selection in the top 10. The Cowboys hit on Smith and Elliott in the top 10, but Claiborne's injuries robbed him of his opportunity for growth in the league.
Though many have an idea of what the Dallas Cowboys will do at 10, the three teams picking directly in front of them are wild cards that could go in any direction. The Detroit Lions, Carolina Panthers, and Denver Broncos have needs all over their depth chart and will have the opportunity to address those on either side of the ball. Each of them could use Patrick Surtain or Jaycee Horn. They could each use offensive line help or help at linebacker.
So, it leaves the Cowboys in an interesting position. They'll get an opportunity to take a really good player and if all things are equal, it will probably be a defensive player. But if they do select a player to help their defense, they can't afford to miss or get mixed results from that player. Drafting at 10, the player they select needs to be a star in the making. Whether it's Patrick Surtain, Jaycee Horn, or Micah Parsons, the Cowboys can't afford another mixed bag from a first round defensive player. That's the biggest reason the Cowboys have struggled to put together a consistent defense over the last decade.
The Cowboys front office has to get this right. As good as they've been in the draft over the last decade, getting mixed or up and down performances from their first-round defensive selections have been the stain on an otherwise stellar track record. When the Cowboys go on the clock with their first pick in the draft next Thursday, they need to know that whatever direction they go, they have to get a player that's going to help solidify that position group whether it's cornerback, linebacker, offensive line, tight end, wide receiver.