The Dallas Cowboys are the ultimate Rorschach test for football fans: On one hand, they’re America’s Team – the most valuable, most glamorous sports franchise in North America. On the other, they’re a floundering, borderline-dysfunctional 4-12 organization that’s had one winning season in the last six years.
If you see the glass as half-full, the Dallas Cowboys are just one year removed from a remarkable 12-4 campaign, when quarterback Tony Romo – one of the gutsiest, most valiant gunslingers in football – played at an All Pro-level, the Dallas offensive line pulverized defensive fronts, and only a controversial replay-reversal in the playoffs kept them from reaching the NFC Championship game… and perhaps their sixth Lombardi trophy. But if you see the glass as half-empty, this is a team with an aging, brittle, oft-injured quarterback who turns 36 next month, a gaping hole at backup QB, a few retreads at RB, a go-to WR who was hobbled and underwhelming after a contentious contract squabble, and has an overmatched and undertalented defense that can’t pressure quarterbacks or force turnovers.
Realistically, if Tony Romo stays healthy for 13+ games, and if Dez Bryant returns to form as a top-five WR, and if cornerback Orlando Scandrick fully recovers from his knee injury, and if Tyrone Crawford can become the dominant 3-tech DT the Cowboys envisioned when they gave him a big salary-extension, and if defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, plus whomever the Cowboys scrap together on the other side, can get to the QB, then this will be a very good team. Perhaps even a Super Bowl team.
If not… it won’t.
So with that in mind, here is the Dallas Cowboys Draft Day Guide for the first round:
The Case for Drafting Carson Wentz/Jared Goff:
When healthy, Tony Romo is a top-five quarterback, but he hasn’t started all 16 games since the 2012 season. He has a chronically bad back, a ton of wear-and-tear, and multiple shoulder injuries. He’ll be 36 when the season starts, and his quarterbacking style – extending plays by dancing around the pocket and improvising – leads to him getting hit an awful lot. And right now, the Cowboys’ backup QB is Kellen Moore – an undersized, undrafted, noodle-armed kid who was jettisoned by the Detroit Lions after riding the bench for several years. The Cowboys don’t often draft in the top-five, so they must take advantage of the opportunity to land their next franchise QB. Drafting Wentz or Goff would be the best of both worlds: The rookie could learn from one of the best in the NFL, fill-in for a few games, and be battle-ready when Tony Romo hangs-up his cleats in 2017, 2018 or 2019. Carson Wentz might have a higher overall ceiling, and Jared Goff might be a bit more NFL-ready because he competed against a higher-caliber of talent in college, but both players are legitimate first-round talents.
The Case Against:
When you draft in the top five, you must select an impact player. It doesn’t make sense to draft a backup whom you hope will never step onto the field. Tony Romo is still an upper-echelon QB (15-4 as a starter the last two seasons) who had a few freak injuries, but before last year, he was remarkably durable, starting every game but two the previous four years. Half of all first-round QBs are busts, so there’s only a 50% chance Wentz or Goff will be the answer anyway – and there’s an unknown probability of Romo continuing to play at a high level for the next several years. That means the Cowboys would be using the fourth overall pick – and an opportunity to draft a difference-making player – on a kid who’s a 50%/50% shot at being any good… and on the off-chance he is good, might not ever play.
The Case for Drafting Ezekiel Elliott:
The Cowboys won’t go anywhere if Tony Romo can’t stay healthy. Period. No other draft pick would help Dallas win now than RB Ezekiel Elliott. The Cowboys invested a great deal of capital in rebuilding its offensive line, and whereas other teams are pass-first, Dallas is designed to pound the football on the ground. Ezekiel Elliott is a legitimate three-down RB who blocks like a seasoned vet – a vital skill when you have an injury-prone QB. He has the ability to extend drives, protect Romo from getting beaten-up, and keep the Cowboys defense off the field, so they’re fresh and rested in the fourth quarter. He’s an excellent, uber-talented player, and 20-years ago, a kid like Elliott would’ve been viewed as a potential first-overall draft pick. Since the Cowboys still want to run the football like it’s 20 years ago, why not draft the one player who can maximize the utility-value of the team’s best resource – the run-blocking ability of the OL – and give Dallas its best opportunity to contend for a Super Bowl before the Tony Romo / Jason Witten era comes to a close? Elliott is the perfect fit for a run-first team that’s one year removed from going 12-4 in a run-first offense.
The Case Against:
In today’s NFL, no RB is worth a top-five pick. The game has evolved, and countless teams – including the Cowboys with Demarco Murray (third round) – have proven that you can find a stud workhorse later in the draft. RBs have a notoriously short lifespan, and a top-ten pick is your opportunity to select a 10-year building block in a critical position, like a Tyron Smith at LT. One-year and two-year solutions at RB are always available via free agency, but for many other positions – QB, DE, CB – it’s exceedingly rare (or prohibitively expensive) to find a young stud in free agency. You have to find them in the draft. The Cowboys have so many holes in so many areas, they’d be wise to use their first-round draft pick on a more vital position and draft a RB in the later rounds. And it’s worth noting that as good as Elliott might be, he’s not as good a RB prospect as Trent Richardson (third overall), who was one of the biggest busts in recent memory. Draft a QB, DE or CB in round one, and find your RB of the future in rounds two, three, or four.
The Case for Drafting Joey Bosa:
Arguably, the biggest hole on the Cowboys roster is at DE. Demarcus Lawrence is a solid young starter, but he’ll be recovering from back surgery, and the Cowboys are ridiculously thin at DE, even if Lawrence fully returns (especially with Randy “Puff Puff” Gregory suspended for four games and Greg Hardy unlikely to return). Enter Joey Bosa, heralded for much of the college season as the no-brainer top-overall draft pick… until the pre-draft “experts” downgraded him a bit for lacking quick-trigger muscles. Baloney! Even on an Ohio State squad filled with NFL-quality studs, Bosa was the one player that offenses specifically schemed to avoid. He’s a powerful, relentless, high-motor DE who can pressure the QB, wreak havoc on passing downs, and blow-up the run, and with his size and strength. You could even kick him inside so he attacks the interior. Worst case scenario: Bosa is an 8 or 9 sack player who’s solid against the run – which would make him a B+ player in a critically important position – and let’s face it, adding a B+ DE to the Dallas DL wouldn’t be bad at all. Best case scenario: Bosa is JJ Watt Part II, a perennial Pro Bowler, and transforms the Dallas defense into a QB-killing juggernaut. Bosa is only 20-years-old, and nobody knows how good this kid will ultimately be.
The Case Against:
It’s fine and dandy that Bosa is strong and sturdy against the run, but you draft a DE to pressure the QB! That’s first and foremost… and Bosa simply lacks the athletic skills of an elite pass-rusher. Do you really want to use the #4 overall pick on a DE who had five sacks last season, despite playing in 12 games? If he could only get 5 sacks against college competition, what do you think he’ll do against the supersized NFL OTs? Bosa’s biggest assets are his intensity, strength, and ability to maul college linemen, but there’s no way he’ll consistently out-muscle these mammoth-sized NFL OTs that outweigh him by 40+ pounds. He lacks the pure speed to maneuver around them, and won’t be able to overpower them either. Add to the mix a few character concerns, and Bosa suddenly seems a lot less appealing.
The Case for Drafting Myles Jack:
The NFL draft is always a gamble, but the best way to screw-up your selection is to draft for need instead of taking the best player available. The best player available is Myles Jack. The dude is an athletic freak – the closest facsimile to Brian Urlacher in a very long time. He’s a rare LB that can erase a TE on passing plays – which means your safeties can double-up on WRs, giving your pass-defense a tremendous schematic advantage. He also excels as a blitzer, instantly improving Dallas’ anemic pass-rush. The Cowboys are perilously thin at LB, with the woefully-unreliable Rolando McClain and the perennially-injured (and now 30-year-old) Sean Lee as the only frontline starters. If you add Jack to the mix – and if McClain and Lee stay healthy – the Cowboys could have the three most dynamic starting linebackers of any 4-3 team… and if Lee and McClain don’t, Dallas will at least have a frontline starter taking the field for all three downs.
The Case Against:
In the NFL, not every position is equal. That’s why quarterbacks, cornerbacks, wide receivers, left tackles, and defensive ends make more money than fullbacks, punters, guards… and OLBs in the 4-3 scheme. As good as Jack might be, you could make a good argument that a team would be better-off with a B+ defensive end, or B+ cornerback, or a B+ backup QB than an A+ outside linebacker, since Jack likely lacks the size to play in the middle. Additionally, the draft has a notoriously big bust-factor, and Jack would have to be a generational talent at OLB to warrant going fourth overall – an extremely high threshold for any player to reach. If you draft a corner or defensive end that ends up being above-average instead of great, you can live with that, but Jack would need to be a perennial All Pro and future Hall of Famer, or he’s a wasted pick. Plus, he’s still recovering from a serious knee injury, and can’t even run the 40 before the draft.
The Case for Drafting Jalen Ramsey:
This is a pass-happy league, and the Cowboys’ secondary is in desperate need of an upgrade. Enter Jalen Ramsey, one of the most jaw-dropping DB prospects in recent memory. He hails from the same school as Deion Sanders, and just like Prime Time, he’s an elite athlete and an amazing DB who can upgrade your team in multiple ways. He lacks the topline speed of Sanders (as does pretty much every other human on the planet) but he’s a much better tackler and well-rounded football player. He’s more in the mold of the two Woodsons – Charles Woodson and Rod Woodson. Ramsey has the unique ability to be a potential Pro Bowl corner and a Pro Bowl safety. That offers tremendous versatility to your defense. A player who can neutralize the other team’s best WR and also be a thumper against the run is a rare commodity, and when you have a chance to draft a player like that, you have to take him – especially when you’re in a division with opponents like Odell Beckham, Jr.
The Case Against:
Ramsey is a very good athlete, but he doesn’t have blazing speed and he’s not a playmaker. He had zero interceptions and zero forced-fumbles last year, and had only three interceptions in his entire college career. If he can’t make game-changing plays against college competition, how can you select him in the top-four? Plus, he’s a corner/safety “tweener” – which is typically scout-speak for a kid who lacks the elite ball-skills of a corner, and lacks the size and strength of a pro-level safety. The Cowboys need a pure cover-corner who can force turnovers, not a safety/corner hybrid that cannot make big plays.
The Case for Drafting Laremy Tunsil:
The Cowboys are excellent at drafting and developing OL prospects, and Tunsil might be the most athletically-gifted, physically-promising lineman the NFL has seen since Orlando Pace. If you add Tunsil to the Dallas offensive line, you’re transforming one of the top-two or top-three OLs in football into fodder for legend. He’s that good. The Cowboys won’t be going anywhere if Tony Romo gets hurt, so it makes sense to protect him with a can’t-miss prospect who has a chance to develop into the greatest OT in the entire league. He’s too good not to draft.
The Case Against:
The NFL has a salary cap, which means you can’t have filet mignon in every position. If you overinvest in one spot, you’re forced to under-invest in another. The Cowboys have already invested three first-rounders on the OL, and two of those players are due for hefty raises. If you spend another first-rounder on the OL, you’re in danger of neglecting other critical positions – like QB, CB, or the DL. Dallas already has a top-three NFL left tackle in Tyron Smith; using the #4 overall draft pick on a right tackle is a poor allocation of draft-resources.
The Case for Drafting DeForest Buckner:
In 2005, everyone knew the Cowboys were going to draft pass-rushers, because their defense couldn’t pressure QBs. Many mock drafts linked them to Maryland’s Shawne Merriman – a well-known college player – but Dallas opted to draft the lesser-known DeMarcus Ware instead, because Ware was more athletically talented and had more upside. (Merriman ended up going one spot behind Ware.) The same thing will happen in 2016, when Dallas passes over Joey Bosa and drafts DeForest Buckner. With apologies to Bosa, Buckner is a different breed of athlete. He’s bigger and more explosive, and had 10+ sacks and 17 tackles-for-losses last season. The scary thing is, Buckner still hasn’t even scratched his potential. He’s a potential Hall of Famer who can dominate at DE or DT, and if the Cowboys are fortunate enough to select him, their defensive line will be among the best in the NFL for the next decade.
The Case Against:
Buckner is a very nice prospect, but he plays in a 3-4 defense. He has “3-4” written all over him. The Cowboys, however, play a 4-3. Furthermore, scouts are unsure if DeForest Buckner is going to be a DT or a DE, and Dallas needs a DE. The Cowboys would have to revamp their entire defense to maximize Buckner’s talents, and as long as Marinelli is the defensive coordinator, that’s not going to happen. If you draft in the middle or towards the end of the first round, you might take a flyer on a talented kid who slips a bit and try to develop him, but Dallas is drafting #4 overall. This isn’t the time to get cute.