This is an interesting time on the NFL schedule. We're in that sort of post-free agency purgatory where teams have re-tooled and shuffled players around, but are still looking at the opportunity for major upgrades in the NFL draft. There's a good 6-7 weeks between the start of the new league year and free agency, and the NFL draft. Regarding the Cowboys' strategy on free agency versus the draft, it seems to be fairly consistent over the past five seasons.
Ever since we signed Brandon Carr, we've taken much more of a need-filling approach in free agency to glue up any glaring holes (as well as sign back our own players), in order to put the front office in position to pick best player available at the end of April.
To allow ourselves to do that, however, the Cowboys have to familiarize themselves as much as possible with the prospects of the current year's draft. This comes through various formats: watching tape, attending the NFL Scouting Combine, interviewing players and their former coaches/teammates; the list goes on and on.
Analyzing Dallas' Weight of Pre-Draft Visitors
Another method of familiarization that people seem to get pretty hung up on is the 30 allotted team visits that each franchise is given to bring in prospects, give them a tour of the facilities, introduce them to coaches, administer additional interviews, and so on.
Let's take a look at last year's pre-draft visitors, and follow that list throughout the draft.
2016 Draft Visits:
The first thing you should notice from this chart is that our front office seems to use about half of their visits on prospects in the top 50-60 players of the draft. Last year they used 17 of their 30 visits on players they had rated in the top two rounds. This makes sense given the investment that teams make in the first two rounds.
The next thing you should notice is that only two of our draft picks (three players, including free agent, Rodney Coe) came from the pre-draft visits. This is hugely important, but you have to analyze why to make a proper assumption.
So that's exactly what I did.
Round 1 - This is fairly straight forward. The Cowboys had the top two prospects on the board, both of whom visited Valley Ranch prior to the draft last year. Ultimately, the front office chose to go with the top guy, and we all know how that worked out.
From here, all other pre-draft visit players were selected prior to their next pick in the second round.
Round 2 - This is where things got interesting. Of Dallas' second round rated pre-draft visitors, only two were still on the board when it was their time to pick: Derrick Henry and Connor Cook. Referring back to the Cowboys' draft board, they only had one player remaining (a top-five guy on their board) when it came time to make their selection: linebacker, Jaylon Smith. Thus, the conversation likely came down to these three players.
Given the selection of Ezekiel Elliott in the first round, the idea of selecting Henry was likely quickly scrapped, thus giving way to the choice of picking Smith or Cook. Given that they had a later round grade on Cook, and a top-five grade on Smith, the conversation likely didn't take too long, ending in the obvious selection of Jaylon Smith.
Derrick Henry would be selected by the Tennessee Titans in the middle of the second round.
I mention that this is where our draft got interesting for a couple of reasons. With Jaylon Smith's injury status indicating he would more than likely need to red shirt his rookie NFL season, I have to think that the Cowboys almost knew they would select him in the second round.
Why do I say this? There was a slim-to-none chance that Smith would be selected in the first round and top of the second. Thus, by rating him so highly, it was almost a given that he'd be the highest rated player when they were on the clock in the second (trade scenarios aside).
The only thing that would've made this more interesting is if one of their first-round graded players was available at their second round pick. But, since they weren't, we'll never know. I have to assume that the conversation was fairly quick when they chose to select Smith.
Round 3 - As we came into the third round, the Cowboys were sitting on the clock with three eligible pre-draft visitors on the board: running back Paul Perkins, and quarterbacks Connor Cook and Jacoby Brissett. Again, we can likely eliminate the running back because of the first round selection. This leaves us with the two quarterbacks. So this means Dallas selects their quarterback of the future at the beginning of the third round, right?
Well, not so fast. Given that Brissett had a late third round grade, they were likely targeting him in the fourth round, and thus didn't want to take him this early. So Cook's our man? Not quite. Instead, the Cowboys chose to take a guy they had rated five players later on their board in defensive tackle, Maliek Collins.
I have no explanation for this move, other than either someone pounding the table for the player, or the team being turned off to Cook from the actual visit. They didn't bring Collins in pre-draft, nor did they have him rated higher than Cook.
With Romo's career winding down, Cook seemed like the selection here. We had who we thought would be a staple at 3-technique in Tyrone Crawford, and had just signed Cedric Thornton at 1-tech. The Collins selection seems to simply be a draft day decision based on war room discussion, and one where they didn't pick the pre-draft visitor.
Round 4 [First Pick] - This was another interesting selection the Cowboys made last season. When the fourth round began, Connor Cook was still available, and we all remember what happened: Dallas tried for a second time to trade up to get a quarterback they saw fall a little bit (the first being Paxton Lynch at the end of the first round), only to be out-bid by the Oakland Raiders. Thus, when their pick came a couple of selections later, Cook was off their board.
So, who were they looking at?
Running back Paul Perkins was still available, as well as offensive guard Connor McGovern and quarterback Dak Prescott. In retrospect, we're all sitting at our computer screaming, "PICK DAK!!!!!!!!!!!" However, hindsight is very much 20/20.
So given the Cowboys had three players still on their board, two of which were not considered reaches (given their board), you'd think the pick would come from these guys, right? Think again.
Perkins was likely eliminated -- again -- because of the earlier selection of Elliott. We all know the team liked Dak; after all, they had a million pre-draft workouts with him. But, they also had him rated about half a round later than where they were currently picking at round four, pick three. So, they probably felt he was a little bit of a reach at this point.
Going back to Dallas' overall draft board, removing running backs for the aforementioned reason of picking Zeke, Dallas had DE Ronald Blair, OG Connor McGovern, WR Pharoh Cooper, CB Anthony Brown, and DE Charles Tapper as their top guys, in that order. If we stuck with the pre-draft visits theory, McGovern was the guy. But is he currently a Dallas Cowboy? Nope.
This time, the team goes in another direction again with the selection of Charles Tapper, DE, Oklahoma.
There are a couple interesting take-aways from this selection. The first is that it would appear when the Cowboys are comparing players at the same position within a couple of spots of each other on the draft board, they will likely sway towards the bigger school guy. But this should not be news to any Cowboys fan. They also went more with need at this pick by selecting a rush end.
Again, the Cowboys do not pick the player that they brought in for the draft workout. Why? Likely another war room discussion, leading to best player available at a position of need.
Round 4 [Second Pick] - At this selection, Dak Prescott, McGovern, and Brown were the top three players on the board for the Cowboys. You have to think that Dallas had lost out on their potential quarterback of the future twice, and wanted a guy who could come in and learn under Tony for a couple of years (*evil smirk*), so they finally get their quarterback.
Turning the page to this season
Current List of Pre-Draft Visitors:
- Derek Barnett
- Takk McKinley
- Taco Charlton
- TJ Watt
- Charles Harris
- Tarell Bashum
- Tanoh Passagnon
- Tre White
- Adoree Jackson
- Derek Rivers
- Chidobe Awuzie
- Gareon Conley
- Marcus Williams
- Kevin King
- Cordrea Tankersley
- Fabian Moreau
- Teez Tabor
- Quincy Wilson
- Justin Evans
- Treston Decoud
- Obi Melifonwu
- Tedric Thompson
- Xavier Woods
- Shaquill Griffin
- Juju Smith-Schuster
- Curtis Samuel
I want to highlight a couple of items that I find a little eye-opening, that should hopefully give us some insight into this front office's intentions a few weeks prior to draft day:
1. The Cowboys first round selection will very likely come from their pre-draft visits.
This should come as no surprise to most fans. If the player you want the Cowboys to select is not on the list of pre-draft visitors, you may want to give up on that dream now. In the past six drafts, only Morris Claiborne was not a pre-draft visitor, as he was likely a player they didn't see falling out of the top five.
This theory eliminates all offensive players from first round consideration, and defensive names such as Budda Baker, Tim Williams, Marlon Humphrey, Reuben Foster, Zach Cunningham, Malik McDowell, Carl Lawson, and Sidney Jones.
2. The Cowboys invite widely regarded first round picks as pre-draft visitors, but may not have them graded in the first.
Players such as Laquon Treadwell, Kenny Clark, Karl Joseph and Will Fuller were all considered first round guys who the Cowboys had rated later than most.
I think this second takeaway is very important to understand. It acts as almost a "smokescreen" effect. The Cowboys are certainly okay selecting any of the players they bring in to The Star, but it's not always as early as you think.
This is where my speculation comes in, but I feel like this eliminates the following players from 28th pick consideration: Taco Charlton, Chidobe Awuzie, Teez Tabor, Adoree Jackson, Cordrea Tankersley, Marcus Williams, Derek Rivers and Obi Melifonwu.
I won't go into a scouting report for each of these guys, but for one reason or another, based on tape, scheme fit, school/division size or character concerns, I don't see the Cowboys having these players as first rounders.
Hot Take: I also think there's a decent possibility that Derek Barnett comes in as a second round grade for this team. I don't believe he fits the mold of what they're looking for as a first round right edge rusher. He's not extremely athletic, and seems to most often win with motor, or incompetence by the offensive lineman.
Yes, I understand that the 28th pick is almost the second round, but I believe that they will like others there more.
The Final Bunch
Taking all of this into consideration, I think there's a strong chance that the Cowboys' first round pick will be one of the following players:
- Takk McKinley, DE
- TJ Watt, DE
- Charles Harris, DE
- Tre White, CB
- Gareon Conley, CB
- Kevin King, CB
- Fabian Moreau, CB
- Quincy Wilson, CB
Now, there are still four player visits to go, so this list can obviously grow. But for now, this is what we're working with. All of these players either showed natural scheme fit or uncanny scheme flexibility on their college tape.
These defensive ends can all be solid 1-gap edge rushers and can immediately contribute in Rod Marinelli's rotation.
All cornerbacks listed above show natural skills and don't struggle in coverage. Marinelli employs a press cover-3 scheme in his secondary, which is a very simple coverage system to grasp. This allows the team to look more for athletic and cerebral cornerbacks.
All five guys hit the measurable threshold this front office looks for, and they all played in big college programs.
No one can say who Dallas will select on the first night of the draft, or even if they'll select a player then at all. All of that depends on their board and what happens on draft night. However, based on past trends, I have a good feeling that one of the above players will be a Dallas Cowboy come mini-camp.
Dallas Cowboys 2019 Offseason Preview: Linebacker
One of the brightest spots on the Dallas Cowboys' projected 2019 roster is linebacker. The young pair of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch have already emerged as one of the league's best duos. But that doesn't mean that the Cowboys have no work to do at the position this offseason.
Having Jaylon and Leighton does take a lot of pressure off. Most teams utilize their nickel scheme more than any other these days, which generally utilizes just two linebackers, in the increasingly pass-focused NFL. And thankfully, both Smith and Vander Esch have shown great skills in pass defense.
But there's still a semi-starting role to get figured out in the base 4-3 scheme. Damien Wilson has held the strong-side or "SAM" position for the last few years and has an expiring contract.
What's more, Dallas has a big decision to make regarding the contract of Sean Lee, which is ripe for terminating with $7 million in salary cap savings possible.
It's highly unlikely that the Cowboys would keep both Lee and Wilson. If they decide to re-sign Damien, Lee will be cut to help fund that move and others. If Sean is kept on, Wilson will almost surely be looking for a starting role somewhere else in free agency.
Even if the Cowboys do make Lee a cap casualty between now and March 13th, they may still allow Wilson to test free agency and then try to re-sign him later at a discount. He's unlikely to attract the same attention that Anthony Hitchens got last year.
Another factor in all of this is Joe Thomas, a free agent addition last year who provided good depth and could potentially start in 2019. He is scheduled to count $2.2 million against the cap, which is fine for a primary reserve but a bargain for an occasional starter.
A core of Smith, Thomas, and Vander Esch gives the Cowboys a good foundation to build from. Smith can play the SAM in the base scheme and Thomas can be the primary backup to Jaylon and Leighton in the nickel.
However, going that route would deplete the depth chart. Chris Covington, a sixth-round pick last year, would be the only noteworthy player under contract. Dallas would need to find at least two more guys to fill out the group for 2019.
They could look at re-signing backup Justin March-Lillard, who would at least bring some familiarity and veteran experience. But that might still leave them looking for more of a primary reserve, which would be especially vital if Thomas is promoted to a starting role.
The projected LB free agent pool for 2019 should make it a buyer's market. Dallas may be able to re-sign Damien Wilson or even add an upgrade, like perhaps the Vikings' Anthony Barr, at a relative bargain. There should be ample options for depth as well.
Barring an extremely favorable value opportunity, don't expect the Cowboys to spend a significant draft pick at linebacker. The fourth-round is the earliest I could see one going based on other needs, and even then it would need to be someone they really like.
Good drafting is why Dallas has flexibility and leverage this offseason. The picks they invested in Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch appear to have made LB a strength of the team for the next several years.
There is still business to attend to, but the Cowboys won't have to be too concerned with linebacker in 2019 thanks to their young stars.
Xavier Woods Versatility Key in Dallas Cowboys FA Safety Pursuit
There has been a debate going on among Cowboys Nation for more than a year now about the prospects of bringing in Seattle Seahawks Safety Earl Thomas. Now with free agency approaching, there are several other names that the Dallas Cowboys could consider when looking to upgrade the safety position. Landon Collins, Tyrann Mathieu, and Tre Boston are several of the many quality and really good safeties that are hitting the free agent market in a few weeks. It's a group with varied skill sets and abilities, which makes the debate even more interesting. The Dallas Cowboys, however, will be able to take a look at all of them when free agency opens March 13th because of one player; Xavier Woods.
Xavier Woods, the Cowboys fifth round draft pick from the 2017 NFL Draft just finished his first full season as a starter for the Cowboys and played really well. In two years he's shown the ability to cover from the slot, play deep, play in the box, be a force over the middle, and make plays on the football. He's one of the more versatile players on the defense with his ability to play all over the field. That versatility allows the Dallas Cowboys' front office an advantage when approaching the names mentioned above.
The Dallas Cowboys don't have to be locked in to one particular type of safety. When people talk about Landon Collins, they label him a "box safety." Earl Thomas is a traditional free safety. Tre Boston is a similar player to Earl Thomas and Tyrann Mathieu is like Collins. The Cowboys can go into free agency with the freedom to explore their options and do their due diligence when it comes to these players.
That's a distinct difference from this offseason to last.
Last offseason, the feeling was that the Dallas Cowboys had to go get Earl Thomas. The safety position was so weak that the Cowboys were going to be playing at a disadvantage in the high-flying, pass-heavy NFL. Xavier Woods proved in his first full season that he can be a productive, play making starter in the NFL and should only continue to improve.
According to Pro Football Focus, Xavier Woods was sixth in the NFL in passer rating against among safeties with at least 352 coverage snaps. His 62.8 passer rating allowed in his coverage was tied with Eric Weddle, better than Derwin James, Reshad Jones, Adrian Amos, and Maliek Hooker. Of the safeties drafted in the 2017 draft class, only Eddie Jackson from the Chicago Bears had a better passer rating against than Xavier Woods.
The Dallas Cowboys got a really good player in Xavier Woods and as they get ready to potentially make a run at a big name safety, they can feel confident that whoever they end up signing will be a good fit with Woods. He can play in the box or cover receivers and tight ends. You can run more two deep safety looks, because he has the range to play it.
This year, as opposed to last, they have more certainty at the safety position because of Xavier Woods and the strides he took in 2018. There's no reason to believe that he can't continue to take a step forward for the Dallas Cowboys. His ability to play all over the field allows the Cowboys to be smart and patient in their pursuit of a safety upgrade this offseason.
3 Free Agent Targets From Cowboys NFC East Rivals
The free agency period in the NFL will be here in a little more than three weeks and the Dallas Cowboys will begin the annual tradition of trying to put together the best 53-man roster that they can come up with. Free agency is just one part of the equation that includes the draft, the signing of undrafted free agents, adding and subtracting from the roster during training camp, and picking up players after the final cut down day.
You can rest assured that Will McClay and the entire pro scouting department is doing their due diligence in anticipation of the March 13th start to the 2019 free agency period. They'll look high and low for players that can come in and be contributors for the Cowboys. Even within their own division.
Between the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, and Washington Redskins, there are some interesting names to consider as the Cowboys peruse the free agent aisles of the NFL superstore. Some of those players like Landon Collins, Ronald Darby, Nick Foles, and Brandon Graham will be new releases that will cost you a pretty penny at the check out stand. Others like Haloti Ngata will be in the used and refurbished section. And then there are those who could be had at a reasonable or discounted rate.
Here are three from within the NFC East that the Cowboys could have their eye on.
Mario Edwards, Defensive Line, New York Giants
The former Oakland Raiders second round pick out of Florida State University has already played for two teams in his young four-year career. That isn't a good sign for Mario Edwards as he approaches free agency for the first time. You don't generally see many top 100 picks get released from the team that originally drafted as they usually wait as long as they can to see if the player is going to hit.
For Mario Edwards, he found himself caught in a numbers game and outplayed by two rookies in Oakland's training camp in 2018, leading to his release. It also sounds like the Raiders couldn't quite figure out where to put him on their defensive line.
We know that the Dallas Cowboys love looking around the league for those reclamation projects. Edwards could be the next David Irving or Antwaun Woods. A player that isn't highly thought of, but in the right situation and with the right coaching could flourish.
Edwards has played 14 or more games in three of his first four seasons, missing his second season with a hip injury. He totaled more than two sacks a season in those three seasons. He isn't by any stretch of the imagination someone who is going to come in and replace DeMarcus Lawrence or Randy Gregory, but he could be a nice depth piece with potential to see significant snaps both at defensive end and 3-technique defensive tackle.
Edwards could be the next Rod Marinelli special.
Jordan Matthews, Wide Receiver, Philadelphia Eagles
The Dallas Cowboys could be in the market for a slot wide receiver this offseason if Cole Beasley is allowed to walk in free agency, which seems like a near certainty. There are several intriguing options on the roster in Allen Hurns and Cedric Wilson that could play in the slot some, or play on the outside allowing Amari Cooper to play in the slot. They could also look to the draft for Beasley's replacement as well. In the free agent pool, there are several interesting names, one of which is Jordan Matthews.
Jordan Matthews just finished his second stint in Philadelphia and while he didn't have huge production in Philly in 2018 -- 20 receptions on 28 targets for 300 yards and two touchdowns, he's a player with a track record in the NFL and could be a "big slot" option.
In Matthews first three seasons in the NFL, he averaged 75 receptions on 115 targets for 891 yards and 6.3 touchdowns in his first stint with the Philadelphia Eagles. In 2014, Matthews caught 64 of his 67 receptions from the slot, which was second in the NFL that season. In 2015, he led the NFL in receptions from the slot with 81, while also scoring eight touchdowns. In 2016, his final year with the Eagles, he was ninth in the NFL with 53 receptions. So, in those first three seasons in the league, he averaged 67 receptions, 796.3 yards, and six touchdowns. He caught eight touchdowns in each of his first two seasons for the Eagles in the slot.
He's not the same player that Cole Beasley is, but he's a player that knows how to win in the slot and because of the past couple of years could be a cheaper option to try and replace Cole's production.
Jamison Crowder, Wide Receiver, Washington Redskins
If Jordan Matthews is the inexpensive option for the Dallas Cowboys in the slot, Jamison Crowder would require paying a pretty penny. Spotrac.com estimates that Crowder could be worth $8 million per year over four years on the open market.
Interestingly enough, he's never been as productive as Cole Beasley or Jordan Matthews, but because of his age and his work the last couple of seasons, injuries not withstanding, he's seen in a more positive light than Matthews.
Crowder is cut from a similar cloth as Beasley. Smaller in stature and uses quickness and speed to win games. As Cowboys fans, we know all to well the effect that he has in game. Crowder, however, has never had more than 66 receptions in a season and has only scored more than three touchdowns once in his four seasons in the NFL; back in 2016 when he scored seven.
Crowder is coming off of an injury this season that limited him to just nine games, 29 receptions for 388 yards and two touchdowns. In his three full seasons prior to 2018, Crowder averaged 64 receptions on 93 targets for 746 yards and four touchdowns.
If for some reason, his market comes in less than the $8 million per year that Spotrac.com is projecting, I'd be very interested in bringing Crowder to Dallas.
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Each of these guys offers something intriguing that the Dallas Cowboys could use. Whether it's a defensive lineman or a slot wide receiver, they all bring something to the table. The Dallas Cowboys need to approach this offseason with a "go for it" mentality, but if they continue to follow their free agency philosophy, Mario Edwards and Jordan Matthews could be nice pieces to add to the team that offer a lot of upside.
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