Cowboys stick with defense as draft closes
IRVING, Texas (AP) — Dallas owner and general manager Jerry Jones wasn’t bluffing when he said getting a running back wouldn’t be a top priority in the draft, even though the Cowboys lost NFL rushing champion DeMarco Murray in free agency.
The Cowboys kept the focus on defense on the final day of the draft Saturday, taking linebackers Damien Wilson of Minnesota and Mark Nzeocha of Wyoming in the fourth and seventh rounds. Defensive end Ryan Russell of Purdue was picked in the fifth.
Five of Dallas’ top six choices were on defense, starting with Connecticut cornerback Byron Jones in the first round at No. 27 overall. Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory was chosen late in the second round after the projected first-rounder dropped because of a failed drug test, missing a team meeting and canceling two others.
Dallas added a second offensive lineman in Virginia Tech tackle Laurence Gibson in the seventh round and traded for another late choice, getting Texas tight end Geoff Swaim.
After losing Murray to NFC East rival Philadelphia, the Cowboys signed Darren McFadden, a former top 10 pick by Oakland who had just one 1,000-yard season in seven years with the Raiders. Returning is third-year back Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar, an undrafted free agent going into his fourth season.
The defending division champions, coming off a 13-5 season, also have Ryan Williams, a second-round pick by Arizona in 2011. He was on Dallas’ practice squad last season and has battled injuries throughout his career.
"We weren’t trying to make a point that we didn’t need Murray," Jones said. "And we’re not trying to make the point that we’ve got a crystal ball enough to know that we’ve maximized with the running backs we have."
The Cowboys have one of the league’s best blocking fronts after taking linemen in the first round three of the previous four years. Right guard Zack Martin, last year’s pick, was the team’s first rookie All-Pro since Calvin Hill in 1969.
"We’re going to run the football," coach Jason Garrett said. "The running back matters. We feel confident in the running backs we have on our roster right now. And we feel like us being able to run the football behind that line with the guys that we have is a good way for us to play."
Dallas went into the draft in decent shape at linebacker by re-signing Rolando McClain after he revived his career with a solid 2014 season. Sean Lee returns after missing last year with a torn left knee ligament. But the Cowboys lost starters Bruce Carter and Justin Durant in free agency.
Wilson, who started 24 of 26 games in two seasons with the Gophers after transferring from Jones County Community College in Mississippi, was the 127th overall pick Saturday. The 6-foot-2, 240-pounder was named first-team all-Big Ten in 2014 after leading Minnesota with 119 tackles, including 10 1/2 tackles for loss.
It’s the second straight year Dallas took a Big Ten linebacker in the fourth round. Last year, it was Iowa’s Anthony Hitchens, who ended up starting 11 games and played all the linebacker spots as the Cowboys battled injuries.
"We didn’t really talk about how they would use me too much," Wilson said. "They just said it was good to develop how to play all three positions just in case we need to switch it up."
The 6-foot-7, 270-pound Russell, who went to high school in the Dallas area, started 35 of 38 games for the Boilermakers.
The Cowboys have taken four defensive ends in the two drafts since releasing franchise sacks leader DeMarcus Ware last season. They traded up to get DeMarcus Lawrence early in the second round last year, and took Stanford’s Ben Gardner in the seventh round. Lawrence missed the first half of the season with a broken foot and Gardner didn’t play because of a shoulder injury.
Dallas lost ends George Selvie and Anthony Spencer in free agency, though Jeremy Mincey returns for a second season. Mincey has the ability to play on the interior of the defensive line.
The approach with defensive end is similar to what the Cowboys have done in rebuilding an aging offensive line over several years.
"There’s some teams in this league for years, that the essence of their team, everything they were all about, had everything to do with their defensive line," Garrett said. "We feel like you have to obviously allocate some resources to that. We’ve done it again this year and we’ll continue to do that."
Nzeocha is a 25-year-old native of Germany. He played club football and was a member of the national team in his home country.