Cowboys' draft focus is looking like defense only

"Our focus is on defense," Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said on Sunday. Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

FRISCO, Texas – With the 28th pick in the first round of the NFL draft, the Dallas Cowboys select …

Well, there’s no way to know exactly who right now, but it's safe to say it will be a defensive player. Not only should you expect the Cowboys to do so there, you should expect it with their 60th, 92nd, 133rd, 211th, 228th and 246th overall pick.

“We think some of the best depth in the draft is the defensive line and the secondary, in our view,” executive vice president Stephen Jones told reporters from the owners meetings in Arizona on Sunday. “Now let me be real clear, if a great offensive player shows up that's of great value to us, that doesn't mean we aren't going to pick an offensive player, but our focus is on defense.”

In other words, all ties will go to the defense.

As it should.

The Cowboys have lost four key performers in their secondary in Barry Church to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Brandon Carr to the Baltimore Ravens, J.J. Wilcox to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Morris Claiborne to the New York Jets. They combined for 2,679 snaps played last year. The Cowboys also lost Terrell McClain to the Washington Redskins and Jack Crawford to the Atlanta Falcons. That’s another 999 snaps to replace.

At the start of the offseason Jones expressed a desire to keep all of their players. While that was never realistic, the tune has now changed with the departures.

"Players we want to keep, we keep them,'' Jones declared. “Most of these players, I'm not going to single out guys, but most of them we were ready to let move on. Now, there were a few if they would have been for the right price, we would have done it. But we certainly didn't want to get into overpaying for anybody.”

The Cowboys wanted to keep at least some of those players but only at their prices. They could have re-signed Church or Carr or Claiborne. Church’s four-year deal is worth $21 million but maxes out at $26 million. Carr’s four-year deal is worth $23 million but is in effect a one-year, $6 million deal. Claiborne’s one-year deal maxes out at $5 million.

"At the end of the day, we value our players,” Jones said. "At certain numbers, it's efficient for us to sign them. At other numbers, it's not.”

Individually the losses aren’t major, although Church is probably the biggest. Collectively, however, they weaken a defense that finished ranked 14th in yards per game (343.9) and fifth in points per game (19.1) in 2016.

The Cowboys are hoping cornerback Nolan Carroll (three years, $10 million) and Stephen Paea (one year, $2 million) are more efficient signings (i.e., cheaper) with the same or close to the same production as those who have left.

They are also banking on improvement from within. Cedric Thornton is penciled in to replace McClain. Jeff Heath is penciled in to replace Church. David Irving is projected to replace Crawford’s snaps if not become a starter.

They are also banking on an ultra-successful draft. At least Thornton, Heath and Irving have brief resumes where a projection can be made. In the draft, there is more guesswork.

Finding a rookie pass-rusher to make a contribution over the last few years has been difficult. Maliek Collins, a third-round pick last year, had five sacks as a rookie in 2016, but Tyrone Crawford (2012, third round), DeMarcus Lawrence (second round 2014) and Randy Gregory (second round, 2015) did not record a sack as rookies.

Finding a rookie to make a big contribution in the secondary is difficult, although they have had success in Byron Jones (first round, 2015) and Anthony Brown (sixth round, 2016). Claiborne, whom the Cowboys moved up to the sixth pick in the draft in 2012 to take, never fulfilled expectations.

The Cowboys believe they will have the answers by the time opposing teams will be asking questions in September.

“Right now, going into the draft, we feel really good about our numbers," Jones said. “But at the same time we feel this is going to be a great opportunity for us to improve on the defensive side of the ball. It just so happens we feel the draft is inordinately strong on the defensive side of the ball.”