Where the 2016 Dallas Cowboys overachieved in putting together a 13-3 regular season and securing the #1 seed in the NFC before falling to the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs, the 2017 Dallas Cowboys did the exact opposite. With high expectations of a potential Super Bowl run coming into the year, the team limped to a 9-7 record, closing the season in an anti-climactic fashion with a meaningless game against the eventual NFC Champions, the Philadelphia Eagles, after having had their playoff hopes dashed the previous week in an uninspired performance against the equally disappointing Seattle Seahawks.
Now, a month into the offseason, there are seemingly valid questions in the air that represent a stark contrast to the universal optimism surrounding the team this time last year. Is Dak Prescott really a franchise quarterback? Can the Cowboys count on Ezekiel Elliott? Has Dez Bryant played his last game in Dallas? Is the offensive line, still routinely celebrated as the best in the NFL, actually worthy of the hype? Can the defense function without Sean Lee? Is the coaching staff what’s really holding this team back?
In light of those questions, there is one certainty: the Dallas Cowboys need to get better. And if recent history is any indication for this franchise, it begins and ends with the NFL Draft.
In my 1.0 installment of Drafting Dallas 2018, I’m assuming front office duties to mock draft the full seven rounds for the Cowboys using the current edition of my DRAFTPLEX Board. For context, this isn’t a prediction or 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 making my selections as realistically as I can based on my evaluations to this point, with the knowledge that offseason variables (releases, trades, free agency signings, draft stocks, etc.) will most assuredly impact future installments.
While the complete NFL Draft order is not yet confirmed, by virtue of their regular season record and tiebreakers, the Cowboys are currently scheduled to open the 2018 NFL Draft selecting at #19 in Round 1, #50 in Round #2, and #81 in Round 3. The exact number and order of their selections in Rounds 4, 5, 6, and 7 are to be determined pending the disclosure of compensatory picks, up to four of which could be awarded to the Cowboys. Dallas does not currently possess a standard selection in Round 5 after trading it to the New York Jets in the 2017 NFL Draft.
That all being said, for the purposes of this exercise, I will be drafting under the prevailing assumption that Dallas will be awarded two compensatory selections in Round 4 and two compensatory selections in Round 5, giving the team a total of 10 selections.
Now, let’s go on the clock with Drafting Dallas 2018 1.0.
Round 1 | Pick 19
Maurice Hurst, DL, Michigan
A disruptive interior defender, Hurst has been a popular projection to Dallas in mock drafts to this point—and for good reason. With David Irving potentially moving on, even as a restricted free agent, the Michigan product would fill an immediate need lining up as the under tackle in Rod Marinelli’s defensive scheme. Hurst is perhaps a tick undersized (unofficially 6’2”, 280 lbs), but he demonstrates the speed, power, and athleticism necessary to excel as a 3-technique. But, he’s more than just traits. Averaging a dozen tackles for loss and a handful of sacks across his junior and senior seasons for one of the highest-profile programs in the nation, Hurst offers a high level of production and consistency—exactly what the Cowboys need if they expect their defense to continue trending upward.
Round 2 | Pick 50
James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State
It’s fair to say the Cowboys did not get the desired output from their receiving corps in 2017. But despite the rumor and speculation, it’s unlikely that the team will come into the draft in search of a new WR1. That said, with a deep and talented receiver class, the team should consider addressing the position starting on Day 2. The ultra-productive Washington has raw ability that will need to be refined and will need to develop as a route runner, but he has the tools to be an immediate contributor as a downfield threat and the potential to eventually step into the leading role in the Dallas passing attack. By the end of the process, Washington could definitely push to be drafted in the mid-to-late first round, so there’s a real possibility he doesn’t last this long, but if he’s there, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him to trade one Cowboy uniform for another.
Round 3 | Pick 81
Colby Gossett, OG, Appalachian State
Inconsistent offensive line play, set into motion by lack of a clear plan in the offseason, was one of the key factors contributing to a disappointing campaign for Dallas. Working with multiple moving parts, the Cowboys’ front five often barely resembled the dominant unit from just a season ago. While a finding capable swing tackle should be a priority, an upgrade at left guard would also be a wise investment. Standing a shade under 6’5” and tipping the scales at just over 300 lbs, Gossett has ideal size, and even better, jumps off the tape with power and punch at the point of attack, movement skills to pull and work up to the second level, and a finisher’s mentality as a blocker. And with a streak of 46 consecutive starts coming into the draft, the former Mountaineer offers a wealth of experience and the kind of durability Dallas should covet for a position group where continuity has proven to be critical.
Quin Blanding, S, Virginia
Round 4 (projected compensatory selection)
Devron Davis, CB, UTSA
Dallas has all but remade their secondary within the past couple of seasons, parting ways with four previous starters and drafting heavily at both cornerback and safety. With another pair of incumbent veterans in Orlando Scandrick and Byron Jones also potentially moving on sooner rather than later, the Cowboys could continue the trend with Blanding and Davis. Virginia’s all-time leading tackler, Blanding is a versatile, intelligent defender the Cowboys could use in multiple ways, similar to former Cowboy Barry Church. He projects more as a strong safety playing in the box and in zone coverage, but could also find a role as a nickel or dime linebacker. Physical, athletic, and aggressive, Davis is an under-the-radar prospect out of UTSA who fits right in with the new breed of Cowboys cornerbacks. He’s not the tallest player at just around 5’10”, but he’s an alpha personality with a pro-ready build and skillset who would be a quality get for new defensive backs coach and passing game coordinator Kris Richard.
Round 4 (projected compensatory selection)
Darrel Williams, RB, LSU
Williams is really starting to rise among a talented crop of running backs. Playing behind an eventual top-5 pick in Leonard Fournette and a potential first-rounder in Derrius Guice, he comes into the draft with a smaller overall sample size than typical of mid-round runners, but made the most of his limited opportunities. He runs with power, vision, and burst. He finishes. He’ll catch the ball out of the backfield. He’s a capable pass protector. He possesses an intriguing all-around game that should interest the Cowboys, who have seemingly grown to prefer having a more complete back on standby behind Ezekiel Elliott rather than a change-of-pace back in a niche role.
Round 5 (projected compensatory selection)
Tre’ Williams, LB, Auburn
Round 5 (projected compensatory selection)
Chris Worley, LB, Ohio State
Even if Dallas is able to re-sign free agent Anthony Hitchens, which they seem increasingly intent on doing, the depth at linebacker remains a cause for concern. Adding Williams and Worley would help address that. Both are experienced, accustomed to playing against NFL-caliber talent, and capable of playing inside and outside—all extremely important for a team that has been forced to rely on its reserve linebackers quite heavily in recent years.
Bentley Spain, OT, North Carolina
Dallas believed they had the proper insurance at offensive tackle coming into the season, but swing tackle was exposed as a significant liability when perennial All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith started missing time. Neither former third-round pick Chaz Green nor veteran Byron Bell were able to hold up in relief, meaning the Cowboys should, and are likely to, explore other options. A three-year starter for North Carolina at left tackle, Spain has the size, length, and physical tools to come in and compete for the role of primary reserve and, perhaps, eventually develop into a starter.
D.J. Calhoun, LB, Arizona State
With a surplus of picks in this scenario, Dallas shouldn’t hesitate to land another second-level defender and role player to upgrade the overall talent level. Calhoun might not have the length to be an every-down linebacker in the NFL, but he is a heat-seeking missile with a nose for the football who could find a place on the roster as a sub-package blitzer and special teams ace.