The Dallas Cowboys could find quality rookie contributors in the 1st round at safety and cornerback based on recent drafts.
Defense, defense, defense. The Dallas Cowboys could not have made it more clear which side of the ball they’re prioritizing based on who they selected for their pre-draft visits.
Of their 30 scheduled visiting draft prospects, reportedly only two of them will be offensive players. And Dallas normally uses their first round pick on players who have visited them based on recent draft history.
Their focus makes sense because they have significant holes in the secondary to address after losing four players in free agency at cornerback and safety. The team’s management has also expressed an interest in improving their ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks.
This means the position the team drafts in the first round will likely be at safety, cornerback or defensive end. That aligns with the team having already invited nine cornerbacks, six defensive ends and four safeties from their 21 reported pre-draft visits.
The Dallas Cowboys are considered one of the top teams in the NFL heading into the 2017 season. Starting quarterback Dak Prescott and running back sensation Ezekiel Elliott should only get better in their sophomore seasons. The highly ranked offense from 2016 is nearly identical to the 2017 version.
The team’s primary weakness is a lack of talent on defense. That means the Cowboys will likely need significant contributions from its rookies to make a Super Bowl run.
To gain a sense of the best case scenarios the team can expect from a defensive first round selection, I have pulled the highest graded rookie performances from players selected in the first round after pick 20 from Pro Football Focus. The focus was also narrowed to the 2013 to 2016 drafts. I am looking at players selected after the 20th pick to provide a more realistic idea of what level of talent may be available when it’s Dallas’ turn with the 28th pick in the upcoming draft.
Trufant actually had the highest rookie cornerback grade from the past four drafts despite being selected late in the first round. His rookie season graded ahead of other notable cornerbacks’ including Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey (82.3) and Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters (74.8).
Teams historically have not needed a high first round pick to find great value at this position, which is fantastic news for the Cowboys. That means it may be possible to find an immediate replacement for former starting cornerbacks Brandon Carr (75.3 in 2016) and Morris Claiborne (84.7 in 2016).
First round safeties do not grade as highly as cornerbacks in their rookie seasons. They still have proven capable of making immediate contributions. Clinton-Dix was second on the team in tackles in his rookie year and made two huge interceptions in the 2014 NFC Championship Game.
It is not encouraging to look at the rookie grades of late 1st round pass rushers, including names such as Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Bud Dupree (38.4), Green Bay Packers’ defense end Datone Jones (42.4) and Denver Broncos’ defensive end Shane Ray (45.7). It typically takes a high first round pick to get an immediate contributing pass rusher such as San Diego Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa (89.7) or Oakland Raiders outside linebacker Khalil Mack (94.6).
In Ford’s defense, he was playing behind two Pro-Bowlers until his third season, which limited his snaps. He then had a breakout year in 2016 with 10 sacks.
Unless the Cowboys make a major trade up in the draft, it might be unrealistic to expect a rookie to become the team’s pass-rushing war-daddy. Defensive linemen David Irving (78.4 in 2016) or DeMarcus Lawrence (69.8 in 2016) would still be expected to be the primary contributors on the defensive line.
The 2017 draft is considered to be deep at the cornerback, safety and defensive-end positions, meaning this year’s prospects could potentially blow the last four year’s first round picks out of the water. It’s still encouraging to know that it would be reasonable for the Cowboys to immediately solidify their defense by improving the secondary based on recent history.