Cowboys 2018 NFL Draft big board: Athletic LB, Dez replacements, defensive tackle are top options

Ever since the two big moves they made during the 2012 offseason blew up in their faces, the Dallas Cowboys have operated a little bit differently. They have largely eschewed splashy free-agent signings, preferring not to get burned by another Brandon Carr. They have also been reluctant to sacrifice extra picks to move up on Day 1 of the NFL Draft, not wanting to wind up with another Morris Claiborne. Instead, they have filled roster holes with low and mid-priced veterans, and either stayed put or traded down to select whoever they consider the "best player available" on draft day. 

Dallas has mismanaged its cap situation in other ways, handing out big deals to players that proved to not be worth the money and cutting ties with veterans and leaving a load of dead-money on the books, but the Cowboys' early-round draft strategy has largely worked very well. Their past five first-round picks are Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Byron Jones, Ezekiel Elliott and Taco Charlton. Three of those players are among the handful of best players at their position in the entire league. Jones is a solid starter in the defensive backfield and Charlton came on strong down the stretch of last season after a slow start. 

The Cowboys stayed the course this offseason, making a few low-level signings (Allen Hurns, Deonte Thompson, Cameron Fleming, Marcus Martin, Kony Ealy, etc.) while other teams with quarterbacks on rookie deals (hi, Eagles and Rams) went all out to add talent in order to compete with the top teams in the league. And that was before the Cowboys suddenly parted ways with their best wide receiver, Dez Bryant, last week. 

After free agency, the Cowboys don't necessarily have any major roster holes, but they do have an obvious need for high-level talent at several positions. 

The wide receiver corps of Hurns, Thompson, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, Ryan Switzer and Noah Brown isn't scaring anybody, for example. Dallas has Maliek Collins as a solid option at defensive tackle and David Irving is a versatile weapon all over the line, but they can really use somebody else that can generate a push up the middle -- especially against the run. With Byron Jones moving to corner, they could stand to add a safety that can push Xavier Woods, Kavon Frazier and Jeff Heath for playing time. With Sean Lee getting up there in age and seemingly always injured, Anthony Hitchens having departed for Kansas City, and Jaylon Smith still largely a question mark heading into Year 3, linebacker is a position of need as well. And of course, given the relative struggles of the offensive line last season, a solid left guard or right tackle (pushing La'el Collins back to the position he played during his first two years in the league) wouldn't hurt, either. 

In the space below, we'll walk through the top nine options for the Cowboys in the first round, as well as two possible trade-up scenarios that could make sense if players fall farther than expected. Let's start with the trades, followed by the big board (with the order dictated by how we believe the Cowboys themselves would value the players, not where they would lie on a standard league-wide big board). 

Trade-up targets

Derwin James, S, Florida State; Minkah Fitzpatrick, CB/S, Alabama

It's difficult to think of a player that would help the Cowboys' defense more than James. He is a perfect fit to help cover all their weaknesses on the back end, and his flexibility in being able to cover up high, in the box, in the slot, and even against tight ends would provide Rod Marinelli with a salve for many of the issues that have plagued his pass defense over the last couple seasons. With new defensive backs coach and passing game coordinator Kris Richard having extensive experience working with Earl Thomas, James would be put in excellent position for long-term success in the passing game. It helps that he's a terrific athlete with exceptional jumping and change-of-direction marks, given how much value the Cowboys place on those athletic traits for defensive backs. 

Fitzpatrick is not quite as perfect a fit as James, but his versatility would be extremely valuable for a Dallas team that has a couple hybrid defensive backs already in Jones, Woods, and Chidobe Awuzie. Pairing those four players with slot corner Jourdan Lewis would give the Cowboys an extremely versatile defensive backfield filled with long, strong athletes that can make plays all over the field. 

Big board

1. Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State

Vander Esch has been rising up draft boards of late, with the combination of his excellent season at Boise State and even better athletic testing numbers at the combine giving him the look of a potentially elite linebacker prospect. As noted by the Cowboys blog, Blogging the Boys, Vander Esch is what the Cowboys would consider an "A Quadrant" player, meaning he has both above-average athletic testing numbers and an above-average production ratio. He is one of four such off-ball linebackers in the draft. 

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Blogging the Boys

With Hitchens now playing for the Chiefs, Lee approaching the end of his Cowboys tenure, and Smith possibly more well-suited to playing the SAM linebacker spot than the MIKE, Vander Esch would be a valuable long-term cog for a Dallas defense that badly needs a few more impact players. 

2. Will Hernandez, G, UTEP

The Cowboys are never afraid to stack on top of a strength in order to make their team better. They did it when they took Travis Frederick and Zack Martin in the first round, and when they made signing Collins as an undrafted free agent a priority. They even thought they were doing it by taking Ezekiel Elliott with the No. 4 overall pick two years ago, figuring he would help re-establish the league's most dominant running game behind the best offensive line in football. That worked extremely well for Dallas in 2016, but the line took a step backward last season after Doug Free retired, Ronald Leary left in free agency, Collins slid to tackle and the Chaz Green/Jonathan Cooper duo occupied the left guard spot. Slotting Hernandez between Frederick and Tyron Smith on the left side of the line would do a lot of good for the Cowboys, allowing them to again truck teams by running to the left side of the formation. 

3. D.J. Moore, WR, Maryland

The last wide receiver the Cowboys selected before the third round was Bryant back in 2010. Before that, it was Antonio Bryant back in 2002. To put that in perspective, let's note that Dallas took at least one wide receiver in the first two rounds of the draft during four of Jerry Jones' first five drafts as owner, and that was after taking Michael Irvin in the first round the year before Jones took over. With Dez gone and Williams and Beasley likely in their last year with the team, the Cowboys will almost surely go for another receiver in the first couple rounds. The bet here is that they like Moore best, largely because of how well his skill set would mesh with Dak Prescott's

Moore excels at creating quick and early separation, the single most important thing Prescott needs to recapture his 2016 success. The fact that Moore is a wizard with the ball in his hands would also help the Cowboys create the kind of splashy plays their passing game was missing for much of last season. Between his frame (6-foot, 210 pounds), athleticism (second among draft-eligible WRs in SPARQ), and scheme fit, he makes the most sense among several high-quality receiver options the Cowboys could take early on. 

4. Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU

Sutton is a much different player than Moore, but he would bring a lot of the same advantages to the Dallas offense. He'd use a combination of size (6-3, 218) and athleticism (sixth in SPARQ) as opposed to Moore's shiftiness and run-after-catch ability, but Sutton is nearly as good at creating "layup" type throws for his quarterback. There is not much separation in value between these two receivers, and the choice would likely come down to whether the Cowboys would prefer a bigger receiver that fits the typical conception of Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan's offense or a shiftier one that is a slightly better fit for the ways the offense should evolve with Prescott under center. 

5. Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama

Jason Garrett attending an out-of-state Pro Day at Alabama is a pretty big clue that the Boys have heavy interest in a member of the Crimson Tide. Fitzpatrick makes the most sense among Nick Saban's likely four first rounders, but Evans is probably next. He's a flexible linebacker that excelled at making plays all over, and worked extremely well when the Tide brought him off the edge as well. He was a wonderful playmaker during his two years as a full-time starter, totaling 10 sacks, 17.5 tackles for loss, five passes defenses, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries. He took his game to new heights in 2017, and at 6-2, 232 and with incredibly long arms, he looks the part of a Cowboys linebacker. 

6. Maurice Hurst, DT, Michigan

7. Vita Vea, DT, Washington

8. Da'Ron Payne, DT, Alabama

Unfortunately, we don't have full athletic testing data for Vea or Hurst, due to Vea's combine hamstring issue and Hurst's heart issue that cropped up at the combine. 

Hurst has since been cleared and the two players will get their athletic testing in at some point, but this trio is ordered this way largely because Hurst is a much cleaner fit for what the Cowboys look for in interior defensive linemen than either Payne or Vea. Hurst made far more plays in the backfield than either of the two more highly-regarded defensive tackles, totaling 10.5 sacks and 24.5 tackles for loss over the last two seasons compared to 8.5/12.0 for Vea and 2.5/4.5 for Payne. Vea and Payne would make for nice salves for Dallas' run game issues, but the Cowboys have pretty much come right out and said they don't necessarily view 1-tech defensive tackles as first round-worthy players. Payne is likely a bit more athletic than Vea, but he just didn't have anywhere near as productive a college career. 

9. Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama

You won't find Ridley behind Moore and Sutton on too many draft boards, but there's a reason he sits here on the Cowboys big board: he doesn't have the kind of quick-twitch athleticism the Cowboys need in their next No. 1 receiver. Dallas really values the ability to create very quick separation for any receiver that is going to play outside, and while Ridley is an excellent technician who will run the kind of precise routes that are necessary to make things work well in the Dallas offense, he falls well short of Moore and Sutton in athletic traits that would indicate an ability to create separation on release rather than on the break. That makes the former two players better fits to play with Prescott. It doesn't mean Ridley wouldn't still be an excellent option, just that he might not be valued quite as highly by Dallas as it might seem he should at first glance. 

CBS Sports Writer

Jared Dubin is a New York lawyer and writer. He joined CBSSports.com in 2014 and has since spent far too much of his time watching film and working in spreadsheets. Full Bio

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