As they prepare for the 2020 NFL Draft, the Dallas Cowboys and all other teams have a lot of factors to consider. Filling the gaps on the current roster is generally the top priority, but sometimes drafting for the following season's needs is not far behind. How could the Cowboys' anticipated free agents in 2021 impact their draft decisions this year?
Before we dive into this topic, here's a quick glance at the significant players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in 2021:
- QB Dak Prescott
- QB Cooper Rush
- C Joe Looney
- DE Tyrone Crawford
- DE Randy Gregory
- DE Aldon Smith
- DT Antwaun Woods
- LB Sean Lee
- LB Joe Thomas
- CB Chidobe Awuzie
- CB Jourdan Lewis
- S Xavier Woods
- S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
Yesterday I ranked the Cowboys' needs from the 2020 Draft. You'll find in my analysis that what the team may need in 2021 is very relevant now, especially with some positions where rookies struggle to make an immediate impact.
Cornerback is the best example of this. While immediately replacing Byron Jones is a key goal in the current draft process, Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis are coming right up behind him as free agents. Even newly-added Maurice Canady is only on a one-year deal.
That leaves only Anthony Brown as an experienced CB under contract for 2021. The combined power of present and future need made corner an easy pick for the top spot on my list of needs.
The same goes for safety. While anything below a 1st-round pick may not result in a new starter this year, what about next season? If neither Woods or Clinton-Dix return then that leaves Darian Thompson and Donovan Wilson as your starters. That's far from ideal.
At linebacker, getting Sean Lee and Joe Thomas back for 2020 were great moves which help bolster the depth and insure against injuries for Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith. But again, these veterans are only signed to one-year contracts. Who will take their spots in 2021?
We only have to look back to last year's draft to see an example of how drafting for the future can be valuable.
There was a lot of head scratching last year when Dallas used a 3rd-round pick on Penn State's Connor McGovern. After all, they already had their five starters on the offensive line and bigger perceived needs elsewhere on the roster.
One thing we don't know for sure is if the Cowboys already anticipated that 2019 would be Travis Frederick's last season. But even if they didn't, they knew that Joe Looney would be a free agent in 2020 and they needed a new backup center ready to go.
With Frederick retiring last month Dallas went ahead and re-signed Looney. But now they're in a good position to weather the loss of Travis through a competition between Looney and McGovern. Whoever wins should at least be an adequate starter and the loser a strong backup.
Imagine if McGovern wasn't around right now. Dallas would now be stuck trying to find a backup center in free agency (and that isn't easy) or spending at least a mid-round pick on one. They might also feel pressure to draft one in the earlier rounds for a more long-term solution.
Sure, the Cowboys might still draft a center if they really like somebody. But the point is that they don't have to. An investment from last year's rookie class is hopefully going to pay dividends now.
That same logic should drive some of Dallas' decision in this draft.
At first glance, we might scoff at the idea of the Cowboys drafting a quarterback in 2020. But if they never reach a long-term deal with Dak Prescott, and with Cooper Rush also set to become a free agent next year, would you regret having someone else in the mix?
Of course, the immediate needs at CB and WR should take precedence over next year's worries. But depending on the talent available in certain rounds, don't be shocked if Dallas repeats the McGovern move and drafts someone with 2021 in view.