Cowboys Need a ‘Heavy D’ NFL Draft

In our weekly First and 10 it’s time to acknowledge that the Dallas Cowboys need a ‘Heavy D’ draft if they’re to contend in 2021
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The Dallas Cowboys will draft No. 10 overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. The Cowboys have plenty of needs they have to address, but this draft is going to have to be ‘Heavy on the D’ if the Cowboys want to contend in 2021. Yes, free agency will certainly influence these needs. But, for now, as the Cowboys head into the draft season, here are my thoughts on the Cowboys’ Top 5 NFL Draft needs. ... Part of First and 10 ...

1. Draft Priorities

*Cornerback

Trevon Diggs showed us, just in that final game with the New York Giants, that there are good things to come from the rookie next season. With three years left on his contract, he’s probably the only corner guaranteed heavy playing time in 2021, with the solid Anthony Brown also under contract.

The Cowboys have a batch of corners set to hit free agency, and none of them are players the Cowboys have to chase after (Chidobe Awuzie is probably the best of the lot, and I’m not even sure he needs to come back in 2021). The Cowboys grossly miscalculated in letting Byron Jones walk (yes, his play didn’t create a lot of turnovers in Dallas, but he was, at the least, consistent and position-flexible). 

The Cowboys are now in a position where they have to take a pair of corners in the 2021 Draft, even if they find a corner or two in free agency. The Cowboys have not been big spenders at that position in free agency lately, and I don’t expect them to be in 2021. A corner on Day 1 and/or Day 2, the latter of which being where they grabbed Diggs, is a priority.

*Defensive end/tackle

Another position where the Cowboys need to invest in the 2021 Draft, probably with at least two selections. We should acknowledge that after a rough start Demarcus Lawrence was the Cowboys’ top defensive end in 2020. You may argue he didn’t have enough sacks (6.5), but he had a quality all-around season. 

After that? The Aldon Smith experiment went dry at midseason (though I wouldn’t be opposed to bringing him back on a budget deal after a five-sack season) No other Cowboy had more than 3.5 sacks, but one of them was Randy Gregory and you could make a great argument he should have played more the final month of the season. The Cowboys have fewer free agents at this position group. But it’s about investment and finding another dynamic pass rusher that can contribute immediately, and that will likely cost a first-round pick. Then, it’s about depth on Days 2 and 3, depth that can push players like Dorance Armstrong. 

As for the tackle position, I think Neville Gallimore has potential to be a starter full-time next season. But the Cowboys probably need some help inside, too. So taking a defensive tackle late on Day 2 or early in Day 3 could benefit the run defense as a whole. The Cowboys are at a point where their short-term investments haven’t paid off and they need more ammunition up front. Oh, and knowing what the true defensive scheme will be for 2021 will help, too. There’s one player we wrote about recently that could be a fit in different schemes, and he’s from right here in the Lone Star State.

*Safety

Xavier Woods played nearly every snap for the Cowboys in 2020, but he will be a free agent in 2021. I don’t think he’ll be in great demand, but the Cowboys have to be prepared to lose him. 

Regardless of his status, the Cowboys have to energize this position in 2021. They could do it in free agency, but if they don’t do it there it’s not the time to cheap out. The Cowboys need to spend a Day 1 or Day 2 pick on the position and this is a draft with some depth at the position. The ideal scenario here would be to pick a player that can start immediately and slide one of this year’s starters to a backup role.

*Left tackle

The Cowboys took a lot of hits on the offensive line this season, but toward the end of the season the younger players appeared to stabilize. The hope for 2021 is that Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and La’el Collins are all back and healthy, which would get the Cowboys’ offensive line back to full strength. 

That’s the good news. 

The bad news is that we have to project down the road with Smith, who in human years is only 30 but in football years is considerably older, now that he’s missed 17 of the last 32 games. He’s also missed at least three games in each of the last five seasons. He’s a warrior and there is no question about that. But all warriors have a shelf life. 

Contract-wise, the Cowboys are hoping that Smith can play out most of his current deal, which ends after the 2024 season. It’s cost-prohibitive for the Cowboys to cut Smith now. But, they can look at options to replace him when the time comes. It won’t be Martin or Collins, who aren’t that much younger than Smith. It won’t be Connor Williams, either, who seems better suited to be a guard even though the Cowboys drafted him as a tackle-capable lineman. It’s going to have to be someone the Cowboys draft, and grabbing a tackle they can develop should be a priority. 

On offense, the left tackle position is almost as important as the quarterback due to the blind-side protection. It’s worth the investment.

*Linebacker

The Cowboys shouldn’t be shy about adding depth at linebacker for a few reasons. First, I believe Sean Lee will retire after 2020. That’s not a lead-pipe lock. That’s just my gut talking. Second, Leighton Vander Esch is an injury risk (stop me if you’ve heard that before). Third, Jaylon Smith is coming off an awful year that he turned into a sub-par year, but he can’t be cut due to his contract. So the best thing the Cowboys can do, long-term, is start to build depth at the position as they work through their scheme issues. 

I considered quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end and even special teams here at No. 5. But this position group feels the least ‘set’ of those options, and therefore it occupies the final spot in my draft needs list.

2. Catch up on the Dan Quinn hiring

Our CowboysSI staff was all over the Dan Quinn hiring this week. As you may have heard, the Cowboys hired the former Atlanta Falcons coach to replace Mike Nolan, who was fired after one season.

If you want to get up to date on the hiring, check out the links below.

➡️ 'Brotherhood': What Quinn's 'Last Words' Mean As Cowboys Hire Him As Coordinator

➡️ Should Quinn Recruit Earl Thomas To Cowboys?

➡️ Aikman & Irvin Reveal Thoughts On Cowboys Coach Quinn

➡️ Coach Tracker

Check back at CowboysSI.com for more updates.

3. Cowboys Mock Draft Tracker

It’s 2021 NFL Draft season. And CowboysSI.com has its Cowboys Mock Draft Tracker up and running. Throughout the ramp-up to the 2021 NFL Draft, we’ll be updating the tracker with mock drafts from around the Internet — ESPN, CBS, NFL.com, Fox Sports and all the others. You can find it all in one convenient place right here.

So click it, bookmark it and keep up with it.

As for my CowboyMaven mock draft? Well, I’ll be publishing mine at regular intervals starting the weekend of the Senior Bowl, right here in First and 10.

4. Cowboys 7 Steps To NFL Playoffs

Just Seven? That’s all? Our Mike Fisher dug into those seven steps this week, including this piece:

(Cowboys head coach Mike) McCarthy talks about doing things "the right way.'' But I still don't know what that means. Do the Cowboys outwork the other teams? Out-think the other teams? Or do they just out-talk the other teams?

As long as this is a "marketing team'' first - and it is, God bless "The Brand'' - the players are likely to, subconsciously at least, think of their own brands, too. I didn't create the idea of "#53brands'' to be a wise-ass; I did it because it reflects what I believe is an accidental-but-true byproduct of the way business is done at The Star.

Check out the other six steps in Fish’s story.

5. Dak Is No. 1: Cowboys' Top 5 Free Agents

I mean, yes, it’s pretty obvious that Dak Prescott is the Cowboys’ No. 1 free-agent priority this offseason. But after that? Throughout the season I updated my Cowboys Top 5 Free Agents story, and now the list is final. My Top 5 is here, plus updates on all of the Cowboys’ other impending free agents.

Who is coming back? Who is not? We’ll see in a few months. But for now, I think these are the priorities.

6. Did the Cowboys Make The Right Call Last April?

The Dallas Cowboys took wide receiver CeeDee Lamb with its first-round pick last April. It went a bit against the grain. Most expected the Cowboys to take a defensive player. But Lamb was the best player on their board at the time, so

… does that mean the Cowboys made the right call? Our Tomer Barazani broke it down earlier this week.

7. Could Alabama CB Go No. 10?

The Alabama Crimson Tide won another national championship on Monday. One of the Tide players, cornerback Patrick Surtain II, was on the field and that means Cowboys fans and Cowboys brass got a chance to look at him all night. And Surtain has been a popular pick to the Cowboys in recent mock drafts.

I took a deep dive into why Surtain II could be the pick at No. 10, along with some great bio information from his time with the Crimson Tide.

8. The Cowboys’ Future … In One Word

How would you describe the Dallas Cowboys' future in one word and why?

That’s the question our Bri Amaranthus posed to the CowboyMaven staff on Friday. Just one word, with a little context.

Give our roundtable a read. And then find us on Twitter and give us your ‘one word.’

9. Whitt’s End: Without This, Cowboys Have Never - Will Never - Win Super Bowl

From our Richie Whitt:

We’re also cool with Dan Quinn, right?

Quinn, of course, is infamous for being the Falcons’ head coach that blew a 28-3 lead in losing Super Bowl LI to the Patriots. But his resume and reputation as a defensive coach brings hope that gone are the laughingstock days of Dallas surrendering 57 touchdowns. (The 1992 team allowed only 29.)

Quinn was the defensive coordinator during part of the prime of Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” that led the NFL in fewest points and yards in 2013-14, leading to consecutive Super Bowl appearances. He’ll almost assuredly switch the Cowboys back to a more traditional, attacking 4-3 scheme, one in which they’ve played in all eight of their Super Bowls.

You can have quarterbacks with gaudy statistics (Tony Romo) and flashy high draft picks delivering highlights (Ezekiel Elliott, CeeDee Lamb), but every year the Cowboys have been to a Super Bowl they’ve done so with a Top 10 defense in points and yards allowed. No surprise that in their 25-year drought they’ve had a Top 10 defense only five times.

Read more by clicking here.

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