I promise you that the Dallas Cowboys are already looking forward to the 2022 NFL Draft. And that’s not because they think they got some things wrong last weekend. No, they’re looking ahead because all of the other NFL teams are looking ahead, too.
It’s that kind of business.
So, what might the Cowboys need in the 2022 NFL Draft? To figure that out, I looked at the Cowboys have now, what they may lose in free agency in 2022 and what might be part of the draft pool next season.
Right now, these are their Top 5 needs. With 12 months between now and the next draft, much of this could change.
If you’re trying to peg a No. 1 need next year, it’s likely to be the position the Cowboys just can’t solve. The Cowboys have five safeties listed on the roster right now — Damontae Kazee, Steven Parker, Darian Thompson and Donovan Wilson. ... and then two wild-card guys, as Jayron Kearse is listed as a safety but might be a hybrid guy, and rookie Israel Mukuamu is listed as a corner but, we're told, will likely shift to safety.
The only one of the above who is a for-sure safety who is also under contract for 2022 is Wilson. And you’ll notice that Keanu Neal isn’t listed in this group, a the Cowboys insist he’s going to play linebacker at 211 pounds. But he’s a free agent, too, after this year.
Assuming the Cowboys continue to ‘cheap out’ in free agency when it comes to this position, they’ll need to select a starter in 2022. That could be in the form of Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton. He was the only safety taken in the first round of a recent mock draft by NBCSports.com.
The good news is that both Tyron Smith and La’el Collins should be healthy and ready for the 2021 season. The bad news is that, as I’ve pointed out on multiple occasions, Smith has now missed games due to injury in five straight seasons. Chronologically he’s just 30 years old. But the 11-year veteran has some miles on the tires.
I also think the Cowboys’ second-best tackle starts at right guard in the form of Zack Martin. So if Smith breaks down again this season, do you swing Martin out there, as the Cowboys did at times (to right tackle) last year? Do you slide Collins to the other side and trust a player like Terence Steele or Brandon Knight to get it done on the right side? Or do you ride with someone like Steele or Knight as Smith’s primary backup?
Long-term, even if you buy my argument that Martin is the second-best tackle on the team, and if you swing him out there full-time (in a Smith-is-no-longer-in-Dallas scenario), Martin is also 30. Plus, Collins is in his seventh NFL season.
The point is this: Unless you are a believer in late-round draftee Josh Ball (remember that swing tackle Ty Nsheke is signed for just one year and is 35), the Cowboys don’t have a logical succession plan for Smith, and next season will probably be the right time to get one.
There are top-shelf options next year, such as Alabama’s Evan Neal (who has played both guard and tackle, but not left tackle) and Miami (FL) tackle Zion Nelson. You saw what happened the last time the Cowboys let the offensive line get too old, right?
Tons of potential, right? Yeah, I could see why you think that. But, in reality DeMarcus Lawrence is the only consistently productive pass rusher coming off the edge.
Now, could that change in 2021? Sure. Randy Gregory might finally get a full season under his belt (and he had 3.5 sacks in 10 games last year). But guess who’s a free agent next year? Yep, Gregory. So are Dorance Armstrong (who showed some flashes at the end of last season) and Ron’Dell Carter. Now, the Cowboys have more options signed here beyond 2021, including second-year end Bradlee Anae and free-agent signee Tarell Basham - it is notable that Dallas, unlike with the rest of the new free agents, gave Basham a two-year deal.
In the NFL edge rusher is always a need, and the Cowboys grabbed one in this draft, too, in Chauncey Golston. Maybe one of those potential options becomes Lawrence’s running buddy?
Yes, I’m aware the Cowboys just drafted cornerbacks. But, I’m betting only one starts, or comes close to contributing heavily in 2021, and that’s Kelvin Joseph, the second-round pick from Kentucky. Yes, that means it might take time before Nahshon Wright becomes "The Next Richard Sherman.''
You look at who is coming back, and Trevon Diggs is the obvious No. 1 corner. After that, it could be Jordan, Anthony Brown, Jourdan Lewis (another idea at safety), Reggie Robinson (yet another idea at safety?) or any of the other host of characters the Cowboys have assembled. The group the Cowboys have now is the group they’re likely to have next offseason. So how much the Cowboys invest at this position in the next draft will depend entirely upon how this talent develops this year.
But, as cornerback is a highly-valued position, one could see the Cowboys targeting players like LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr., Florida’s Kaiir Elam, and Alabama’s Josh Jobe with a first-round pick (with Elam and Jobe being more likely options, if the Cowboys are as successful as fans hope in 2021).
A perpetual Cowboys need, right? Well, this one is tricky because the Cowboys always seem to be trying to ‘level up’ in the post-Jason Witten era. But, going into 2021 the Cowboys seem to be in good shape with Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz, the latter of whom will be a free agent in 2022. Now, the Cowboys could do the same thing with Schultz that they did with Jarwin a couple of years ago and lock up into a multi-year deal. If so, then problem solved, as Jarwin is signed through 2023. But, after catching 63 passes a year ago, Schultz could prove to be a decent commodity on the 2022 free agency market.
If he is, and if he leaves Dallas, then the Cowboys may be in the market for a tight end to pair with Jarwin, and to take over for Jarwin after 2023, when his cost is likely to go up, too.
Why does this list look so ‘familiar?’
Well, there’s good reason for that.
To me, on the offensive side, the Cowboys are set at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, offensive guard, and center. I think they’re set at tight end too, at least for this year, but they nudged into my Top 5 because of the contract situation with Schultz and Jarwin.
Defensively, I think the Cowboys have a number of workable and productive options at defensive tackle. The combination of Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox at linebacker complement what’s already there and could take over for the incumbents in a year, if that’s what the Cowboys want.
So, you’re probably asking, ‘Well didn’t this draft solve some of those problems?’ Well, we can’t know that for at least a year. If the Cowboys had taken, say, Patrick Surtain II at No. 10 overall, corner might not have been on this list, but linebacker would have slipped on here somewhere. The Cowboys didn’t select a dedicated safety, but there can be a position move there. If the Cowboys had signed a veteran to a multi-year deal, safety might not be my No. 1 need for next season (but they didn’t).
The idea that the Cowboys solved all of their problems, especially on the defensive side, in one draft is a silly notion, especially when they haven’t even hit the field for practice yet. I think they have a lot of raw materials, and the Cowboys had better hope defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is a great chemist. If he is, then these 2022 needs could change significantly when we revisit them in January.
You can follow Matthew Postins on Twitter @PostinsPostcard.