Dallas Cowboys: 5 Surprise First-Round Targets in the 2017 NFL Draft

The normal suspects for the Dallas Cowboys in the 2017 NFL Draft have been well documented, but here are five surprise players who could be considered

With the 2017 NFL Draft approaching in less than a month, it has been well documented that the Dallas Cowboys need to add some defensive playmakers. The usual suspects have been similar amongst all the experts so far. The favorite picks include defensive ends like UCLA’s Takkarist McKinley, Auburn’s Carl Lawson, Missouri’s Charles Harris and Michigan’s Taco Charlton.

There has also been mention of some secondary players like safeties Obi Melifonwu and Jabrill Peppers, and before his injury the cornerback from Washington Sidney Jones. Of course, there’s never any guarantees in the draft, so it may be that none of these players wind up being targeted by America’s Team.

The one thing that’s not debatable is the Cowboy’s have a lot of needs on defense. The biggest void is in the secondary after watching two safeties—Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox—and two corners — Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr exit in free agency. Then again there’s a lack of pass rushers as well as no one recorded more than six sacks in 2016 for Dallas.

Those reasons are why the aforementioned selections make sense. They may not be the only names to watch though. Here are five less talked about targets the Cowboys may consider with their first round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Sep 17, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets running back Dedrick Mills (26) scores a rushing touchdown against Vanderbilt Commodores linebacker Zach Cunningham (41) and cornerback Tre Herndon (31) in the third quarter of their game at Bobby Dodd Stadium. The Yellow Jackets won 38-7. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

5. Zach Cunningham, LB — Vanderbilt

With Sean Lee making the Pro Bowl in back-to-back seasons and the team singing the praises of redshirt rookie Jaylon Smith, linebacker seems like it shouldn’t be a need. But it is. Lee has been relatively healthy the past two seasons, but there isn’t a fan or team member that doesn’t hold their breath every time he delivers a hard hit.

Lee missed ten games in 2012, five in 2013 and all of 2014 due to various injuries. He was a highly respected linebacker coming out of Penn State, but fell to round two because of injuries in college as well. Hopefully these past two seasons are more indicative of how his career will finish, but counting solely on him wouldn’t be smart.

Also unwise would be depending on Smith to make a full recovery. A top-five talent last season, Smith dropped to Round 2 after a knee injury resulted in nerve damage. The Notre Dame product is still struggling with “drop-foot,” but plans to play with a brace to help him deal with the problem. There’s not much that suggests he will be the same player with this brace, so again the Boys should be smart.

Perhaps that means looking at Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham. The three-year player recorded 256 tackles including an impressive 125 as a junior. His addition would give Dallas one more player versatile enough to play all three linebacker spots at a high level. Cunningham also wouldn’t come with the dreaded “injured” label.

Sep 24, 2016; Tucson, AZ, USA; Washington Huskies defensive back Budda Baker (32) warms up before the game against the Arizona Wildcats at Arizona Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

4. Budda Baker, S — Washington

The favorite safety for the Dallas Cowboys in mocks has been Obi Melifonwu from Connecticut. He is more than likely going to be available when the Cowboys are on the clock with the 28th pick and was a teammate of current free safety, Byron Jones, in college. He also was a workout warrior at the combine who drew a ton of attention just like Jones.

Another player linked to them is Jabrill Peppers from Michigan. He is a hybrid type of safety who spent a lot of time playing linebacker for the Wolverines. His size projects him to safety at the next level but he is simply a playmaker who can change games. He may not be available when Dallas picks, but also may not be a fit as they don’t seem to favor traditional strong safeties.

Speaking of not favoring traditional starting safeties, could Dallas instead of an in-the-box styled safety look to add someone like Budda Baker? It would make sense as they prefer to use their safeties in coverage. The reason they seemed to be willing to let J.J. Wilcox walk in free agency despite his highlight reel shots is that he’s a liability in coverage.

Adding someone like Baker also gives them options should they fail to find another corner in the draft. Current free safety Byron Jones has experience at the position as well. Dallas would prefer to leave him in his deep centerfield role, but there’s a lot of value in knowing two players could perform well with such duties.

Dec 28, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Miami Hurricanes tight end David Njoku (86) dives for the end zone to score a touchdown against the West Virginia Mountaineers during the second half at Camping World Stadium. The Miami Hurricanes defeat the West Virginia Mountaineers 31-14. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

3. David Njoku, TE — Miami

This one made a lot more sense before Dallas signed starting tight end Jason Witten to a four-year extension. The ageless one will now likely finish his career with the Cowboys and is still a valued starter and team leader. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t consider someone like Miami tight end David Njoku though should he still be on the clock late in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft.

What makes Njoku interesting is that Dallas head coach Jason Garrett likes to employ a two-tight end offense. They keep trying in vain to find that second guy at the spot to help open up the offense, and fans understandably get frustrated with the plethora of draft picks spent on the spot.

However, Njoku isn’t like other players selected here. Most recently, the Boys tried Gavin Escobar in the spot, and he struggled to stay on the field. While he was a good receiver, he simply couldn’t block well enough in the run game. Njoku is a much better blocker than Escobar, meaning he would stay on the field.

He also could stretch the defense way more than Witten. As great as Witten has been in his career, he averages just 10.9 yards per reception and has been in single digits the last two years. Njoku averages close to 17 yards per catch and could easily get lost in this explosive offense.

Nov 19, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; Washington Huskies defensive back Kevin King (20) intercepts a pass intended for Arizona State Sun Devils wide receiver N’Keal Harry (1) during the second quarter at Husky Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

2. Kevin King, CB — Washington

This next prospect is a steady climber. Again we look at the Washington secondary as cornerback Kevin King has started to bring himself into first round contention. King has amazing height at 6-3 and is 200 pounds, which keeps him from getting the “lengthy” label.

Despite his size though, he isn’t the most gifted tackler. He also seems like a bad fit against smaller receivers due to that size, but would be excellent outside for Dallas against some of the big receivers in the division like Brandon Marshall of the New York Giants and Alshon Jeffery of the Philadelphia Eagles. The Dallas Cowboys must agree with that much as they are reportedly visiting with King during the pre-draft process according to The Cowboys Wire.

What helps King is he is a versatile player. While he is projected as a corner he does have some experience playing safety for the Huskies as well. He recorded six interceptions in his career, but still seems like a stretch for a first round pick. For Dallas, he makes a lot more sense as a second round choice, and given the talent at the position in this draft, it feels like that’s where he should go.

The key word there is of course “should.” The draft is an unpredictable beast and if corners start flying off the board the Boys may feel like a first round pick for King is necessary if he is the guy they have their hearts set on.

Jan 2, 2017; Arlington, TX, USA; Western Michigan Broncos offensive lineman Taylor Moton (72) and Wisconsin Badgers linebacker T.J. Watt (42) in action in the 2017 Cotton Bowl game at AT&T Stadium. The Badgers defeat the Broncos 24-16. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

1. T.J. Watt, DE/OLB — Wisconsin

Lastly we look at Wisconsin outside linebacker T.J. Watt. The name is incredibly familiar because his older brother is defensive end J.J. Watt who has won three NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards for the Houston Texans. While the younger Watt is not as highly regarded as his famous brother, he is still a very good player.

He also is still a player with room to grow. Watt played in just two seasons for the Badgers, while starting in just 2016. He wound up with 63 tackles, 11.5 sacks and one interception in that season and now looks to make his mark in the NFL. Like King, Dallas is reportedly bringing Watt in as an official visitor according to K.D. Drummond of The Cowboys Wire:

The Cowboys are not playing around when it comes to finding solutions at defensive end and defensive back. On Thursday it was revealed one of the most exciting prospects on the edge, Wisconsin LB T.J. Watt, has worked out for the Cowboys and will be one of their 30 official visitors to The Star headquarters.

The question about Watt is where does he play. He was an outside linebacker in college, but played as an edge rusher. In Dallas, that’s what they need is an edge rusher, but one who can also line up with his hand on the ground.

Weighing in at over 250 pounds at the combine helps a team like Dallas feel much better about putting Watt on the line. He would be the type of player to cause fits for offensive tackles thanks to his speed and burst. This pick makes the most sense out of these five and Watt would be an immediate impact player.

This article originally appeared on