Addressing the Cowboys’ defensive needs with a defense-heavy mock draft
Written by: Greg Lehr
Since the start of the 2020 offseason, all eyes have been on improving the Dallas defense that took a step back in 2019, leading to the entire defensive staff being replaced under new coach Mike McCarthy. Now after losing key sack and coverage leaders Robert Quinn and Byron Jones, respectively, the spotlight on the defense looms even larger as we head into the NFL Draft. I dive into the status of each defensive position group before pointing out names to keep an eye out for in the upcoming draft. These names include “top realistic targets” (players that will ideally still be on the board when the Cowboys are on the clock at pick 17), “don’t be surprised” (Cowboys select player earlier than expected), and a “best value” pick (an impact player that can likely be found in the second or third round should Dallas look elsewhere in round one). Position groups are listed in terms of team need. A full, defensive-focused seven-round team mock draft wraps up this Cowboys defensive draft preview.
It was not a surprise to see Byron Jones leave and sign a record-setting contract with Miami in free agency, but it has certainly left a gaping hole in the Cowboys’ secondary. As it stands now, Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis are in line to take over Jones’ responsibility of covering the offense’s top option. Chido had his share of struggles as last season went on, even to the point of getting benched near the end of the year. Lewis, on the other hand, was the primary beneficiary of Awuzie’s loss of playing time, yet also experienced some inconsistencies of his own. With a new defensive staff, both Awuzie and Lewis will have a fresh start as they prepare for their added responsibility. Anthony Brown, CJ Goodwin, and newly-signed Maurice Canady are also expected to be in the mix. However, after next season, Anthony Brown will be the only corner left under contract. Translation; draft a cornerback (or two).
Prospects to Watch:
Top (realistic) Target: CJ Henderson, Florida - clearly the second-best corner in the draft, but starting to feel more and more unlikely that he will still be there at 17. If he is, this should be a no-brainer.
Don’t Be Surprised: AJ Terrell - the title game against LSU has been a dark cloud during the pre-draft process, but he still boasts the traits and press coverage abilities to compete right away. A lot of whispers connecting him to Dallas.
Best Value: Bryce Hall, Virginia - Solid size and excellent production, would likely be higher on boards had he not lost half his senior season to an ankle injury.
No other position has left fans begging for an upgrade for as many years in a row as the safety position. Similar to the interior defensive line, the hope is that the new coaching staff will invest resources into this position group that the previous staff simply would not do. Dallas has lacked an above-average starter on the back end since Barry Church left for the Jaguars in 2017. Sure, Jeff Heath was not as bad as most fans made him out to be, but he definitely had his limits as a full-time safety. When he followed Rod Marinelli to Las Vegas, the hope for new blood at the position grew even stronger. So far, however, a one-year deal for veteran Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has been the only move at the position. He brings experience, leadership, and should at least be a solid bridge on his one year prove-it deal in Dallas. Xavier Woods continues to hold down the free safety spot, where he has improved in each of his three seasons. However, Woods is entering a contract season himself, which currently leaves 2019 4th-round pick Donovan Wilson as the only safety on the roster signed beyond 2020. This is exactly why many of the top safety prospects in the draft have been linked to Dallas. I know what Cowboys fans are thinking though - we’ve been down this road before (several years actually) but it never happens with a top 100 pick. Once again, a new staff brings new hope that this can change, but like most fans, I’ll believe it when I see it.
Prospects to Watch:
Top (realistic) Target: Xavier McKinny, Alabama - Smart, tough, and versatile, with experience playing in the box, single high, and in the slot. He checks a lot of boxes for an immediate impact.
Don’t Be Surprised: Jeremy Chinn, Southern Illinois - Excellent size and aggressiveness, offers versatility and ball skills with plus pursuit speed.
Best Value: Antoine Winfield Jr. - Highly instinctive, physical, plays downhill, and his football IQ makes up for lack of elite athleticism.
Perhaps no other position on the roster has been re-shaped more by the new coaching staff. Not necessarily in numbers, but certainly in terms of philosophy. For years, Cowboys fans have begged for more beef up the middle, only to watch Dallas pass by countless opportunities in free agency and the draft to address it throughout recent years. It was a common drawback of the previous coaching staff’s beliefs that they had to find guys that fit their system, which has cost them more than once as of late. Everyone brings up Taco over TJ Watt in 2017, but last year’s second-round selection of Trysten Hill over safeties Juan Thornhill and Taylor Rapp could very well prove to be just as bad. Sure, Gerald McCoy would have been a seamless fit into Marinelli’s defense as the ideal 3-tech, and he undoubtedly brings a respected name and pedigree with him to Dallas as they transition to Mike Nolan’s multiple-fronts scheme. However, the real sign of change was bringing in McCoy’s teammate in Carolina last year, 6-3, 346 lb NT Dontari Poe. Mike McCarthy and Mike Nolan have both been known to opt for bigger defensive tackles based on their history in the league, a change that should only stand to benefit the Cowboys’ young linebacker duo of Smith and Vander Esch.
On the outside, Dallas will welcome back Tyrone Crawford into the mix, a veteran who consistently takes care of the dirty work while maintaining the ability to play on the edge or bump down inside. While there’s certainly a level of excitement at the potential of Randy Gregory and recently-signed Aldon Smith to join the pass rush rotation, nothing can be for sure until they are fully reinstated by the league. Even once they are, despite some high expectations, they are both coming off extended time away from the game (one and four years, respectively). This is the concern going forward for Dallas, as none of the three players expected to share time opposite Demarcus Lawrence played a single snap last season. Health, eligibility, and production remain legitimate question marks going into next season. Keep your eyes on an edge defender in the first or second round of the draft.
Prospects to Watch:
Top (realistic) Target: K’Lavon Chaisson, LSU - the closest replacement to Robert Quinn’s traits that they’ll find in the draft, but can he turn those traits into more production?
Don’t Be Surprised: Zack Baun, Wisconsin - maybe they’re legitimately interested, or maybe they’re still haunted by the last Wisconsin pass rusher they passed on in 2017? Baun could easily fit into the LB category depending on how he would be utilized. Boasts the athleticism and production to make an immediate impact.
Best Value: Bradlee Anae, Utah - really good burst and explosiveness off the edge that could make him a fit for their new "designated pass rusher" role
The Cowboys have to be considerably more uncomfortable with the linebacker corps today compared to this time a year ago. Jaylon Smith, despite his first career Pro Bowl selection in his second full year as a starter, seemed to take a step back compared to 2018. Smith was continually attacked through the air and in open space last season, leaving more ups and downs than the previous season. The same could be said for his sidekick, as Leighton Vander Esch also did not play up to his outstanding 2018 performance. Vander Esch’s season-ending neck injury limited the second-year Pro Bowler to just nine games. Despite reports indicating he should be full speed ahead when training camp comes around, it feels like there are some lingering concerns about his health moving forward.
Pre-draft whispers about a potential first-round linebacker have gotten much, much louder as we move within a week of the draft. This could be related to Vander Esch’s health, Smith’s step back last year combined with his large extension, or simply a total smokescreen. Whatever the truth may be, the Cowboys have certainly done their homework on high-end linebacker prospects. Maybe it’s Mike Nolan having an idea of how to best utilize this position group after coaching the linebackers in New Orleans over the last three seasons. In fact, Stephen Jones has already come out and said this defense plans to be more multiple up front, including a designated pass rusher in the form of a SAM linebacker. Could this be a possible role for Smith, to both utilize his pass-rushing ability and also avoid leaving him in the middle of the field in passing situations?
Prospects to Watch:
Top (realistic) Target: Patrick Queen, LSU - the definition of fast and physical, he has elite potential but limited experience (one-year starter).
Don’t Be Surprised: Kenneth Murray, Oklahoma - sideline to sideline playmaker who Dallas has shown plenty of interest in. Excellent leader and character.
Best Value: Logan Wilson, Wyoming - productive, instinctive, and just enough athleticism to contribute out of the gate
A Defensive-Minded Dallas Mock Draft:
Round 1, Pick 17: K’lavon Chaisson, Edge, LSU - will be difficult to pass on a potential Quinn replacement, especially with unknowns surrounding the reinstatements of Gregory and Smith
Round 2, Pick 51: Antoine Winfield Jr., S, Minnesota - after passing on Juan Thornhill and Taylor Rapp a year ago in the second round, they cannot make the same mistake twice. If still available, Winfield Jr. would be a steal here
Round 3, Pick 82: Bryce Hall, CB, Virginia - Great value after slipping a bit due to a shortened senior year. Has the size and potential to start in a year when CB depth will be even thinner in Dallas
Round 4, Pick 123: Van Jefferson, WR, Florida - Savvy route runner who understands how to get open from the slot. Ability to step in and contribute right away
Round 5, Pick 167: Javaris Davis, CB, Auburn - Slighter in frame but ultra-competitive, provides more depth and competition at a position of need
Round 5, Pick 179: Thaddeus Moss, TE, LSU - With Blake Jarwin taking over TE1 duties, Moss can add in-line blocking abilities held by Witten last year
Round 7, Pick 231: Benito Jones, DT, Ole Miss - Stout frame, plays with good power. Developmental backup for a rebuilt interior defensive line