Vita Vea's visit to Cowboys might signify change in draft strategy

Drafting Vita Vea with a top pick could signify that the Cowboys are willing to spend draft capital on a two-down player. AP Photo/Michael Conroy

FRISCO, Texas -- This week the Dallas Cowboys will host their national draft prospects and hold their Dallas Day for the locals.

Teams are allowed 30 national visitors and those names have been a good barometer on who the Cowboys will actually take. Last year, Taco Charlton, Chidobe Awuzie and Xavier Woods made their way to The Star for pre-draft visits before the Cowboys took them in the first, second and sixth rounds. In 2016, the Cowboys met with Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott. In 2015, Byron Jones, Randy Gregory Chaz Green, Damien Wilson and Mark Nzeocha visited before being selected by the Cowboys.

Since taking DeMarcus Ware with their first pick in 2005, every Cowboys’ top pick -- first round or otherwise -- made a pre-draft visit to Dallas except for cornerback Morris Claiborne in 2012.

The Cowboys do not camouflage their feelings for a certain player. They use the visits to get to know them more. The national visitors do not work out, but they do go through an interview process with the coaches and meet with owner and general manager Jerry Jones.

The known names on the list this year touch on the Cowboys’ areas of needs at wide receiver, defensive end, defensive tackle, linebacker and safety.

Two of the more surprising national visitors are Washington’s Vita Vea and Alabama’s Da'Ron Payne. It’s not surprising because of their talent. They are viewed as first-round picks and Vea could be gone by the time the Cowboys pick at No. 19. It’s surprising because of how the Cowboys have approached the draft at defensive tackle.

In 2013, the Cowboys had the fifth player on their board, Shariff Floyd available to take with the 18th pick but traded down. Later we found out, defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli viewed Floyd as a nose tackle only without the first step to be a quality interior pass-rusher. He does not believe two-down players are worth a first-round pick. The Cowboys have rolled with that philosophy since.

The Cowboys have gotten by with the likes of Nick Hayden and Stephen Paea at nose tackle. After Paea got hurt last year, they moved Maliek Collins to nose tackle.

Vea is a traditional run-stopping nose tackle at 6-foot-4, 347 pounds. But he can also move well for his size. In 2017, he had 43 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks. Payne is among the strongest players in the draft. He had 53 tackles and just one sack, but dominated Georgia in the College Football Playoff championship game.

Either Marinelli has come around or the Cowboys are altering their philosophy.

At receiver, the Cowboys have added free agents Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson, but have said they would potentially take a receiver with an early pick. Alabama’s Calvin Ridley, Maryland’s D.J. Moore and Oklahoma State’s James Washington are among the top-30 visitors.

At linebacker, where the Cowboys lost Anthony Hitchens in free agency, Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch and Alabama’s Rashaan Evans are on the list to come in for a visit.

On Friday, the Cowboys will have their Dallas Day workouts with Texas offensive lineman Connor Williams (Coppell) and safety DeShon Elliott (Rockwell-Heath) among those expected on hand. So is SMU’s Trey Quinn, who played with the more well-known Courtland Sutton. Quinn had his on-campus pro day last week with Jason Garrett as the only NFL head coach on hand. He caught 114 passes for 1,236 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2017.

In the past, the Cowboys have had success in landing local players either as early picks (Terrance Williams), late-round picks (Patrick Crayton, Jacques Reeves) or free agents (Lance Dunbar, Phillip Tanner).