We’re about two weeks away from the start of the 2020 NFL Draft. Barring any surprising free agent moves in the coming days, now’s a fine time to assess the Dallas Cowboys’ roster and determine their biggest needs from the rookie class.
Back in late February I tweeted out my rankings for Dallas’ needs prior to free agency. Note that this was also prior to Dak Prescott being franchised, Amari Cooper being extended, and any other significant roster moves.
As of today… 1. QB 2. WR 3. DE 4. CB 5. TE 6. DT 7. S 8. K 9. LB 10. OL 11. P 12. RB/FB #CowboysNation #DallasCowboys
It’s been six weeks since I made that list. We now know Dak will be a Cowboys in 2020 and hopefully, like Cooper, well beyond. We know Dallas beefed up the defensive line by adding Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe, and Aldon Smith while also hoping for reinstatement for Randy Gregory.
That’s not all. Byron Jones is now a Dolphin, Randall Cobb slid over to Houston, and Robert Quinn cashed in with Chicago. We also had the surprising retirement of Travis Frederick, though that that was partially mitigated by re-signing Joe Looney.
So as of today, taking in all of these comings, goings, and stayings, how do I rank the Cowboys’ roster needs in preparation for the 2020 Draft?
We’ll start from the bottom and work our way up.
Dallas has set up an intriguing competition by re-signing Kai Forbath and also adding big name, big-legged Greg Zuerlein. While Forbath had a great three-game audition for Dallas in 2019, Zuerlein brings a more accomplished career record and history with new Special Teams Coordinator John Fassel.
However this plays out, the Cowboys appear set at the position and won’t be spending any draft picks at kicker. Assuming both veterans are brought to training camp, we may not even see the usual undrafted free agent addition.
11. Running Back/Fullback
Dallas now has one of the best one-two RB punches in the game with Zeke and Pollard. They also exercised a team option of FB Jamize Olawale’s contract. These were the only three backs on the roster for most of 2019, making it unlikely that the Cowboys would invest any significant draft capital in the position this year.
That said, Dallas has spent a late-round draft pick at RB in three of the last four drafts. Neither Mike Weber or Bo Scarbrough have made the final roster in recent years, so will the team adjust this practice going forward?
A key factor in that discussion is Jordan Chunn, who spent last season on the practice squad after working special teams in the season opener. He’s back in 2020 and should allow the Cowboys to not worry about adding depth through the draft.
Chris Jones had a down year in 2019 but was middle-of-the-pack for punters across the league. The Cowboys have kept him on the roster thus far and may be hoping that adding Fassel to coach special teams will help Jones have a bounce-back season.
That doesn’t exclude Dallas going after one of the top punter prospects in the draft. They can cut Jones after the draft just as easily as they could’ve a month ago.
However, in terms of need, they still have an adequate punter if they don’t look for a rookie upgrade.
9. Defensive Tackle
While Maliek Collins left to sign with the Raiders, the Cowboys added two big-name free agents in Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe. They still have Antwaun Woods and Trysten Hill from last year, plus it appears that veteran Tyrone Crawford will play out his contract after all.
Dallas has never been big on drafting DT talent throughout Jerry Jones’ ownership and that seems especially unlikely after the free agent additions. At the most I could see a Day 3 player for depth and development, but anything beyond that would be a shock.
8. Offensive Line
This may seem low given Travis Frederick’s retirement but that’s the beauty of using last year’s third-round pick on Connor McGovern. After spending last year on IR, McGovern joins the roster in 2020 much like a newly drafted player.
The rest of the starters are back and Joe Looney, who was a 16-game starter in 2018, provides excellent insurance at center. Whoever emerges in a battle between Looney and McGovern for the starting job this year may not be as good as Frederick in his prime, but should be an adequate replacement from what Travis did last year.
The loss of Cam Fleming (Giants) at swing tackle is an issue but Dallas may already have the answer in Brandon Knight or Mitch Hyatt. However, a mid-round pick on a perceived upgrade for OT depth is possible.
With Dak Prescott on the franchise tag and Cooper Rush getting just a one-year deal for 2020, the Cowboys can’t be too flippant about QB right now. Even if it’s nothing more than for grooming a new backup QB, a draft pick at the position would make plenty of sense in this draft.
We know Dallas interviewed Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts a few days ago, which may have been a negotiating tactic against Prescott or just due diligence in their draft preparation. But, it could also mean that the Cowboys are seriously considering using a mid-round pick to add to their QB pipeline.
Clayton Thorson, a fifth-round pick last year by the Eagles, is also in the mix. We don’t know what he showed on the practice squad in 2019 but Thorson may be that developmental prospect.
Only the Cowboys know their confidence level in current negotiations and their long-term strategy for the QB position. It makes this one of the biggest wild cards for Dallas in the 2020 draft, and what they do in two weeks will reveal much on how they feel about Prescott and Rush’s futures.
Another big wild card for this draft is the health of Leighton Vander Esch. If Dallas feels good about where their young stud LB is with a chronic neck issue the the need isn’t much. But if they have doubts, this could wind up being a Day 2 draft priority.
All reports right now are that Vander Esch is recovering well. The duo of Leighton and Jaylon Smith gives Dallas a great core, and recent re-signings of Sean Lee, Joe Thomas, and Justin March preserve key depth pieces at the position.
However, 2020 is probably Lee’s final year of football. Thomas is also on just a one-year deal, meaning a primary reserve and potential 2021 starter is still a need to consider from this draft.
While a mid-round pick isn’t likely to challenge Jaylon or Leighton for a starting role, a talented backup is essential given their mutual injury history. And even if neither ever has to miss a game again in their careers, just having a capable player for the rotation is good business.
5. Tight End
The Cowboys are finally giving Blake Jarwin a chance to fill Jason Witten’s shoes. With a new four-year contract, Jarwin is the unquestioned starter for at least 2020 and hopefully years to come.
Dallas added veteran Blake Bell in free agency for some experienced depth. And with Dalton Schultz still under contract, tight end seems well stocked for the coming season.
That said, Bell is only on a one-year deal and Schultz has yet to show much even in limited opportunities. A mid-round selection to potentially upgrade depth now and challenge for a backup role later isn’t a bad idea.
And really, we can’t be sure that Jarwin is the TE of the future. He has shined at times but gone quiet in others, and not always because Witten was cutting into his targets. Adding another talented prospect to the mix is never a bad idea when the future of the starting job is uncertain.
4. Defensive End
DeMarcus Lawrewnce is still here but Robert Quinn’s gone, leaving one side of the defensive line in need. The prospect of Tyrone Crawford starting there again isn’t great for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
The Cowboys have doubled-down on risk by counting on two soon-to-be reinstated (hopefully) players in Randy Gregory and Aldon Smith. If just one of them can get back to his peak form, Dallas should have the pass rusher they need to replace Quinn and sufficiently threaten the quarterback.
However, there’s always the chance that both of these dice rolls come up short. If so, we know Crawford is mediocre as a pass rusher and neither Dorance Armstrong or Joe Jackson have proven much.
There is still a great case for Dallas to spend a premium pick at defensive. While the First Round would be high given other needs, anything beyond that is justifiable if a great talent is available. The need could be immediate depending on how Gregory and Smith work out, and will only increase in the next few years.
Dallas has one year left on Xavier Woods’ contract and just added Ha Ha Clinton-Dix on a one-year deal. So while they have their starters in place for 2020, the Cowboys could be very much in need of a new safety a year from now.
I wrestled a lot between Safety and Wide Receiver for which is the greater need. Ultimately I went with receiver because the #3 role vacated by Randall Cobb is basically a starting position in the modern NFL. For this year at least, Dallas has their starters at safety.
It’s a very narrow margin. If Dallas drafted a safety over a receiver it would be perfectly reasonable depending on who’s on the board.
Another reason I put Safety at #3 is that I prefer the current depth over WR. Darian Thompson and Donovan Wilson would be more intriguing in increased playing time than Devin Smith, Noah Brown, or other options at receiver.
So no, I won’t automatically be frustrated the Cowboys draft a safety over a receiver. But the player they select would need to be a significant boost in talent over their current options.
2. Wide Receiver
As I’ve just started, the WR position has greater present need than safety. Even though Cooper and Gallup are a far superior starting duo than Woods and Clinton-Dix, the hole left by Randall Cobb’s departure is more damaging to the offense than any of the personnel changes at safety.
Even if the starting receiver never missed a game, WR3 still plays around 60-65% of the offensive snaps each year. He is the true 11th man on offense, more so than the backup TE and definitely more than the fullback.
Dallas has some interesting ways to supplement Cobb’s departure. One of the biggest is backup RB Tony Pollard, who has the versatile skills to play beyond his official position. They also could hope for a hero to emerge from young prospects like Cedrick Wilson or Jon’Vea Johnson.
But given its importance to the offense as a whole this third receiver spot can’t be taken lightly. It’s a key position on its own merit, and we haven’t even talked aboit what happens if Cooper or Gallup were to get injured.
Indeed, WR3 is essentially a starting job and is currently vacant; a prime candidate for one of Dallas’ top draft picks in 2020.
With Byron Jones headed to Miami in free agency the Cowboys are left without a clear top dog at cornerback. They have interesting mix of options in Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Anthony Brown, and the newly-added Maurice Canady, but none of these players have clear CB1 potential.
What’s more, Brown is the only one of these four players signed beyond 2020. So not only is Dallas facing a lack of premiere talent right now but could be dealing with a mass exodus in the 2021 offseason.
Sure, there are reasons for hope among some of the current prospects. Jourdan Lewis was held back by the previous coaching staff and has shown a playmaking spark when given opportunities. The fresh face, Maurice Canady, as a highly-graded CB last year despite limited playing time.
But if the #3 spot at receiver is critical in the modern NFL, that tells you just how vital the starting jobs at at the CB position. Byron Jones was an underappreciated player for Dallas last year and his absence will be felt without an adequate replacement.
Rookie corners are better than they used to be, not requiring the same 2-3 years of adjustment as was traditionally believed. An immediate contributor can be found at the 17th pick and the Cowboys should be targeting one to shore up their biggest need.