To say the 2016 Dallas Cowboys overachieved would be a substantial understatement. Coming off a 4-12 season in 2015 in which the team lost starting quarterback Tony Romo to injury twice for a total of 12 full and two partial games, the team entered training camp with the expectation of being competitive, but a likely long shot for Super Bowl contention. The offense would be back at full strength with the return of Romo and the addition of Ezekiel Elliott, the fourth overall selection in the 2016 NFL Draft, but the defense would remain suspect, with the Cowboys only making modest improvements in free agency and the draft, and key players being sidelined due to injury and suspension.
When Romo went down yet again with a significant back injury in the third preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks, all signs pointed to the team struggling through another disappointing season—this time with an untested, fourth-round rookie quarterback under center.
Little did Dallas, the NFL, and Cowboys fans around the world know, Dak Prescott was about to stake his claim to being starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys for the forseeable future, breaking numerous individual team and league records for rookie quarterbacks, while leading the franchise back to prominence with 13 regular season victories, the NFC East crown and the #1 seed in the conference.
The team would ultimately fall just short in their NFC Divisional Playoff game against the streaking Green Bay Packers, but the message was clear: The Dallas Cowboys were back and built to compete for many years to come. With the meteoric rise of Prescott and Elliott behind a dominant offensive line widely regarded as the best in the NFL, and alongside veteran playmakers in Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and Cole Beasley, a championship window that seemed to be closing quickly now appears to be wide open once again.
But, as with every season, there are roster holes to fill and improvements that can be made. While the defense showed flashes of dominance, the overall talent level stands to be upgraded, particularly on the defensive line and in the secondary. And while the overwhelming strength of the team is the offense, there are currently question marks with respect to the wide receiver position and the offensive line, with a couple of starting roles potentially in play.
In my 1.0 installment of Drafting Dallas 2017, I’m assuming front office duties to mock draft the full seven rounds for the Cowboys. While the complete NFL Draft order is not yet set in stone, by virtue of their regular season record and playoff elimination, the Cowboys will be selecting in the back end of each round, with the exception of the fifth, where they are without a selection, and the seventh where they have an additional selection in the middle of the round.
As for the context, this isn’t a prediction or a projection of what the actual front office will do, nor is it a fantasy draft where the best players just happen to conveniently fall to the Cowboys. I will be using the big board I have personally compiled of this year’s incoming draft class, which is subject to change as we progress through the draft process, to make my selections as realistically as I can in lieu the sheer amount of offseason variables (trades, cuts, free agency, draft stock, etc.) that can fluctuate in the weeks ahead, and will most assuredly impact future installments.
That all being said, let’s go on the clock with Drafting Dallas 2017 1.0.
Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee
Opinions vary on the upside of the ultra-productive defensive end, who surpassed the school record for career sacks once held by the legendary Reggie White. While his measurables and statistics would seemingly slot him in the range of the first 10 picks, his tape tends to suggest traits more commonly associated with a strongside edge defender. With the value of left end prospects not nearly at the premium of twitched-up, right end pass rushers, it’s certainly feasible that Barnett could still be on the board when the Cowboys pick at 28. And while Dallas is clearly in the market for a true right end with DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory unable to stay on the field, and the jury still out on Benson Mayowa, Barnett’s steady, disruptive presence would be a welcome addition to their defensive line rotation, despite his perceived shortcomings.
Desmond King, DB, Iowa
Another player currently receiving mixed reviews in the scouting community, King would probably have to slide to reach the Cowboys at the end of the second round. But even beyond his prospective limitations—speed and length—a deep secondary class and a host of draft risers already elevating their stock could serve to push the Iowa product down the board. If so, I wouldn’t hesitate to bring King into the fold as a potential successor to either cornerback Brandon Carr or safety Barry Church. Even if both veteran free agents return in 2017, King can still see the field immediately, bringing his rare blend of ball-hawking cover corner skills and safety size and physicality to nickel and dime sub-packages, while potentially competing for a starting role as a rookie.
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Amara Darboh, WR, Michigan
The number-two receiver in the Cowboys current offensive scheme really serves as a fourth or fifth option in the passing game, but is critical to the running game as a downfield blocker. Terrance Williams has excelled at this for the past four seasons, but with his rookie contract up and his market value potentially rising beyond what the Cowboys can afford to pay for the role, drafting a replacement will likely be in order. Darboh is a big, physical target and polished route runner who has the same kind of downfield ability as both a receiver and a blocker as Williams, enabling him to step seamlessly into the role and be a comparable contributor to the offense.
Carroll Phillips, OLB, Illinois
When the defensive line struggles to generate pass rush, the Cowboys have shown that they are not shy about calling upon their linebackers to blitz in order to create pressure. Phillips is an aggressive, explosive edge defender who played as a smaller defensive end for Illinois, but projects to transition to a rush linebacker in the NFL. With veterans Justin Durant and Andrew Gachkar now free agents, Anthony Hitchens entering the final year of his rookie contract, and the 2017 expectations for redshirt rookie Jaylon Smith and developmental reserve Mark Nzeocha teeming with uncertainty, Phillips provides immediate insurance at the second level and intriguing potential as a nickel pass rusher.
Brian Hill, RB, Wyoming
The Cowboys stable of backs could look entirely different in 2017, with only Ezekiel Elliott a lock to return. Veteran backup Darren McFadden is a free agent, as is third-down back Lance Dunbar, while Alfred Morris was a regular inactive towards the end of the season and could be a candidate for release. A true workhorse in his junior season for Wyoming, Hill gives the Cowboys a physical downhill runner and capable pass blocker to spell Elliott and keep the pressure on opposing defenses.
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Brad Watson, DB, Wake Forest
With four free agents in the secondary, including cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr, finding another player to fill out the depth chart the defensive backfield is definitely in consideration in the later rounds. A competitive pass defender, productive run defender, and capable corner blitzer, Watson is a sleeper in a deep secondary class who offers an intriguing blend of size, position flex, and experience. He’ll immediately compete for a roster spot as a quality reserve and core special teamer, and has the potential to outplay his draft position.
Keith Towbridge, TE, Louisville
The everlasting search for a successor to Jason Witten has many draft experts projecting tight end as a strong early-round consideration for the Cowboys. But, with Witten still playing at a high level, the emergence of Geoff Swaim and the raw potential of Rico Gathers, I don’t have it as high on the list of priorities. That said, with Dallas very likely moving on from Gavin Escobar and potentially having to do the same with James Hanna, a late-round flyer on a tight end prospect with a specific skill set could be an option. Although limited in his college production, Towbridge offers the frame and physicality to shine as a point-of-attack blocker, and the soft hands to serve as an occasional safety valve.
Thanks for reading! Let me know what you think in the comments and check back soon for new installments of Drafting Dallas 2017 and my series of 2017 NFL Mock Drafts!