The Dallas Cowboys have needs at several spots as they look towards the 2017 NFL Draft, but here are their top-five needs, ranked.
Just because a team wins 13 games doesn’t mean their depth chart is without holes. With a roster of 53-people and a limited amount of cash to spend that’s just the norm in the NFL. For the Dallas Cowboys who are fresh off earning the number one seed in the NFC this is very true. The good news is that they are set at some of the most important positions in the game with some young talent.
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Coming into 2016, that didn’t look to be the case. Dallas was praised for having one of the best offensive lines in the game with first round picks at left tackle, right guard and center in Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Travis Frederick respectively. They were questionable elsewhere on offense as quarterback Tony Romo was getting up in age and has struggled to stay healthy. They also didn’t properly replace 2014 NFL rushing champion DeMarco Murray.
Focused on fixing the run game, they drafted Ezekiel Elliott out of Ohio State and he instantly became a star behind the Cowboys line. Zeke led the league in rushing despite being a healthy scratch the final game as they prepared for the playoffs. As good as he was, Elliot wasn’t even the best rookie in Dallas.
Fourth-round pick Dak Prescott took over at quarterback and won the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Their emergence gives Dallas hope that they can build around this young talent and that’s without even adding linebacker Jaylon Smith to the mix yet.
Still there are holes on this roster and in advance of free agency and the draft here are the top five of those needs ranked.
Dec 26, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten (82) catches a touchdown pass during the second half against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
5. Tight End
Some mock drafts had the Dallas Cowboys selecting Alabama tight end O.J. Howard with the 28th pick in the first round. While Howard would be a welcome addition, that selection isn’t happening. First of all, Howard isn’t going to last until pick 28 because he is too good. Secondly, while a young tight end is a need for the Boys, it isn’t their most pressing.
Currently the position is manned by veteran Jason Witten. He has been one of the best at the position for more than ten years, but at 34 years old, he isn’t as much of a playmaker as he used to be. While Witten was never going wow anyone with his athleticism, he did have seven seasons with 900 yards or more receiving. In 2016 he had just 673 yards, averaged only 9.8 yards per catch and only got in the end zone three times.
While he has proven to still be an incredibly consistent and reliable offense, Witten is closer to the end than the beginning. For that reason tight end cracks the top five. Some players in the draft who would be a fit in Dallas include Miami’s David Njoku, Clemson’s Jordan Leggett and Michigan’s Jake Butt. It would open up the offense to give Prescott one of these young playmakers, but they still have to weigh other needs when choosing that player.
Sep 18, 2016; Landover, MD, USA; Dallas Cowboys safety Barry Church (42) intercepts a pass from Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins (not pictured) in the end zone in the fourth quarter at FedEx Field. The Cowboys won 27-23. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
This one is a little more up in the air. The Dallas Cowboys currently have one of their starting safeties under contract in Byron Jones. The free safety is coming off his second season after being selected near the end of the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft. His strong safety running mate Barry Church, however, is not under contract.
Dallas was without Church for a few games last season, and his backup was J.J. Wilcox, who played rather well in Church’s absence. Unfortunately, Wilcox is also a free agent this offseason. That means that strong safety is an incredible need at the moment for Dallas, but that desperation could be mitigated should they be able to retain either Church or Wilcox.
The front office probably prefers Church. The former undrafted free agent from Toledo has turned into one of the leading tacklers year after year for Dallas and is considered a team leader on defense. The question will be cost as Church deserves to be paid and Dallas is strapped for cash. Wilcox may be a viable starter, but would only make sense if he came in considerably cheaper than Church.
Another option is allowing both to walk and save that cap space. Should they look to the draft one favorite name is Byron Jones’ former teammate at Connecticut, Obi Melifonwu. The 6-4 safety would improve Dallas’ cover skills but may take up a premium pick to do so. With other needs ranked higher, Dallas may believe re-signing one of the vets to a team-friendly deal and going later in the draft is the better idea.
The Cowboys have a good receiving group with star wide out Dez Bryant leading the way. The big receiver has battled health issues the past two seasons and hasn’t topped 1,000 yards since 2014. He did show in the team’s playoff loss to Green Bay that he was fully healthy and ready to be himself again.
Bryant and Dak Prescott finally were on the same page for an entire game and he hauled in nine receptions for 132 yards and two scores. He took over the game late and helped Dallas mount a huge comeback that came up just short in the end.
His big postseason game gives fans hope for the future with he and Dak working together. Also giving hope about their prospects is the rapport Prescott had with 2016 leading receiver Cole Beasley. The 5-8 Beasley had a career high 75 receptions and 833 yards and was the guy who stepped up most when Dez went down with a fracture in his knee.
Of course, Dallas had hoped the guy to step up would have been Terrance Williams, but that wasn’t necessarily the case. Now T-Will enters free agency and the Boys are most likely letting him walk. That gets wideout placed on this list as the team currently has no proven options behind Bryant and Beasley. Again the draft could be key with players like East Carolina’s Zay Jones, Penn State’s Chris Godwin and Prescott’s former teammate at Mississippi State Fred Ross looking like just some of the possible fits.
Sep 18, 2016; Landover, MD, USA; Dallas Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr (39) celebrates after the Cowboys’ game against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field. The Cowboys won 27-23. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Again, free agency will play a huge part here, but the second biggest need for the Cowboys is the cornerback spot. Both their starting corners are hitting free agency as Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne are done with their Dallas contracts. Carr was brought in in 2012 as a big free agent pickup from the Kansas City Chiefs and they traded up to the sixth overall spot in the draft that same season to get Claiborne. Their defensive backfield was supposed to become a strength after that, but that hasn’t been the case.
Claiborne spent his whole career trying to stay healthy and those battles have limited his effectiveness. In 2016 he was playing great as a cover corner, but again was sidelined and played just seven games all season. To date, Claiborne has not played a full season in the NFL and may not be targeted by Dallas due to his unreliability in the health department.
Carr on the other hand is an iron man. While he is often criticized for his lack of big plays (just one interception the last three seasons), the veteran is a constant presence that doesn’t miss games, starting 144 of 144 possible games in his career, which started back in 2008. That kind of durability is huge and Dallas would love to have Carr back at the right price. Of course, the problem is Carr could probably earn a bigger contract elsewhere and Dallas would have to turn to 2016 sixth-round pick Anthony Brown and veteran Orlando Scandrick as the starters.
While they can do worse than those two, they would still need to add depth. Going corner early is an option as it’s such a huge need and players like Jalen “Teez” Tabor of Florida and Sidney Jones of Washington have been considered options by some NFL draft gurus.
There’s no secret here. The biggest need for the Dallas Cowboys heading into the 2017 NFL Draft and free agency is at defensive end. In 2016 their defense was a pleasant surprise, but a lot of that had to do with the offense controlling the clock as well as defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli getting the most out of the group he had. Unfortunately, in the playoffs that only goes so far as Dallas was beaten by Green Bay mostly due to an inability to get pressure on quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Of course, Dallas had hoped they fixed that issue. In 2014 they traded up to the beginning of the second round to select Boise State defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence. He broke out in 2015 with eight sacks, but started 2016 suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. He missed four games and wasn’t much of a factor once returning. Lawrence recorded just one sack last season.
They also drafted Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory the following year in Round 2. Gregory was talented, but also failed a drug test at the scouting combine. He has still struggled with that issue and has one career sack and three suspensions. He is currently suspended by the league for at least one year.
Dallas absolutely has to fix this issue if they want to make a run in the postseason. Defensive end is their primary need and, thankfully for them, this coming draft has an abundance of pass rushers available. Auburn’s Carl Lawson, Missouri’s Charles Harris and Michigan’s Taco Charlton could all be targets should they be available in Round 1. It also wouldn’t hurt to go back to the well later in the draft and try to find a later-round prospect to groom.