FRISCO, Texas -- When it comes to preparing for the NFL draft, the Dallas Cowboys did it again.
Although the free agency period isn’t over, the Cowboys used the signing period -- plus two key trades -- to shore up their roster so they can go into the draft without any "must-have" roster issues.
By re-signing Tony Pollard, Donovan Wilson, Leighton Vander Esch, Cooper Rush and Dante Fowler Jr., the Cowboys are covered at running back, safety, linebacker, backup quarterback and defensive end, respectively. By trading for Stephon Gilmore and Brandin Cooks, they are covered at cornerback and wide receiver as well.
“You try and fill the holes,” vice president of player personnel Will McClay said from the scouting combine before free agency began. “That’s the idea of it, to try to be pure when you go into the draft.”
Without some of the aforementioned moves for high-quality players, the Cowboys might have been forced to go in a certain direction during the draft, which can lead to inflating certain players at those positions on their draft boards.
“Whatever it is, you don’t want to be reaching too far for something because then that’s what makes you miss a good player,” McClay said. “Recently in draft history, we might’ve needed ‘this,’ but there’s a player that’s maybe not a 'must' but is a far better player than the next player at a position of need.”
A recent example: CeeDee Lamb.
The Cowboys did not need a receiver in 2020, but Lamb was inside the top 10 on their draft board and was still available at No. 17 overall.
“If you’ve done the right things [before the draft], then you’re able to do that and not hamstring yourself by saying, ‘I’ve got to go get a receiver. I’ve got to go do this,’” McClay said.
There is a difference between "musts" and "needs". Despite the re-signings and acquisitions, the Cowboys have needs.
The Cowboys have the No. 26 pick of the draft, so let’s look at those needs and who they may consider:
Dalton Schultz signed a one-year deal with the Houston Texans after the Cowboys made no attempt to keep quarterback Dak Prescott’s security blanket of the past three years. The Cowboys believe in Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot and also like the versatility Sean McKeon brings to the roster.
It just so happens that this year’s draft features what many call one of the strongest tight end classes in years. The Cowboys have not drafted a tight end in the first round since David LaFleur in 1997. It’s possible they could be looking at two of the best in the class in Utah’s Dalton Kincaid and Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer at No. 26. Even if they don’t grab a tight end early, they can find a contributor into Day 3 of the draft.
Ezekiel Elliott is gone. Pollard is on the one-year franchise tag tender at the moment. Ronald Jones has been signed as a free agent. Malik Davis and Rico Dowdle are back as well. Picking a running back in the first round is viewed as risky, but executive vice president Stephen Jones said it is more palatable later in that round.
So, Bijan Robinson anyone? The Texas running back is considered the best in the class, but this is also a deep draft where a regular contributor can show up later as well, like Jahmyr Gibbs, Tank Bigsby, Zach Charbonnet, Roschon Johnson.
The Cowboys should have their best duo here in a decade with Gilmore and Trevon Diggs. DaRon Bland led the Cowboys in interceptions last season (five) as a rookie. Jourdan Lewis is coming back from a serious foot injury. Kelvin Joseph, a second-round pick in 2021, remains an enigma, as does the third-round pick from that year, Nahshon Wright.
Diggs is entering the last year of his rookie contract. Gilmore is set to be a free agent after this season. So is Lewis. The draft is not just about the current year. The future must be considered. The Cowboys have selected 10 cornerbacks in Rounds 1-3 since 2000. Remember, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn loves length at cornerback, so short corners in the first round might not be the best fit. Christian Gonzalez, Deonte Banks, Emmanuel Forbes and Eli Ricks are all over 6 feet.
The Cowboys have Vander Esch, Damone Clark, Jabril Cox and Devin Harper, especially if Parsons is viewed mostly as an edge player now. They need more numbers, although the base defense these days is mostly with three safeties rather than three linebackers.
Last year was supposed to be a redshirt season for Clark, who was coming off neck surgery. Cox, who will be in his second year removed from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, contributed mostly on special teams last season. So did Harper, before an Achilles strain effectively ended his rookie season.
The Cowboys could still re-sign Johnathan Hankins, who was acquired from the Las Vegas Raiders before last season's trade deadline and played well enough. At 320 pounds, Hankins has the size the Cowboys want on the interior. So does Quinton Bohanna (330 pounds), but he has not played to that size yet.
Young defensive tackles take time to develop (see Bohanna) and this is a defense that needs grown-man strength in the middle (see Hankins). Taking a defensive tackle early might be too rich for the Cowboys’ tastes, especially with more value at other positions because of how much they use their sub packages defensively.
You can never have enough offensive linemen. Tyron Smith is entering the final year of his contract. Zack Martin remains one of the top 2-3 guards in football but turns 33 in November. Center Tyler Biadasz is entering the final year of his deal. So is right tackle Terence Steele, who is coming back from a torn ACL.
The Cowboys would like to get Steele and Biadasz under multiyear agreements if possible, but they need to replenish the depth while also seeking potential starters. Thereare high hopes for tackle Matt Waletzko, whose rookie season was ended early because of shoulder surgery. Matt Farniok can play all three interior spots, but is he a long-term answer?
In all but five seasons since 2000, the Cowboys have drafted at least one offensive lineman.
Draft a kicker? Why not? The last time the Cowboys did it was in 2009 with David Buehler in the fifth round. They have Tristan Vizcaino on the roster but have not added another veteran in free agency. If not for his extra point miscues in the final regular-season game and two playoff contests, Brett Maher would be back after a successful 2022 season. How about Michigan’s Jake Moody?