Needless to say, things could get very interesting for the Dallas Cowboys in the upcoming 2021 NFL Draft. They've been tied to a list of big-name prospects, from tight end Kyle Pitts to cornerbacks Patrick Surtain II and Jaycee Horn, just to name a few -- with several others having their attention as potential grabs with the 10th pick. With the first two blockbuster draft day trades now in the books, by way of dealings between the San Francisco 49ers, Miami Dolphins and Philadelphia Eagles, the chess board is shaping up quite favorably for the Cowboys; as they stand to land an impact starter no matter what happens with the first nine picks.
In the most comprehensive seven-round draft mock for the Cowboys by CBS Sports, Dallas came away with one of the best hauls in franchise history, even compared to the 2020 draft that included the selection of CeeDee Lamb and cornerback Trevon Diggs with the first and second picks. Time will tell if the Cowboys can pull off anything close to it, but with 10 picks in this year's draft and one of them being in the top 10, they're not lacking for gunpowder.
So how should the Cowboys approach this year's draft? Who might be a wild card for them?
And what should their perfect plan look like overall??
Well, since you asked...
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1. Do not trade up!
So, you've heard Jerry Jones is reportedly infatuated with Pitts.
The spoiler here is -- news flash -- everyone is. That not only includes those who sit at No. 4 through No. 10 in the draft, presuming the top three select quarterbacks as expected, but also the teams directly behind the Cowboys who have a shot at trading up to take him. And while that would make sense for a team like the New York Giants, Washington Football Team or Philadelphia Eagles (who I've noted could still move back into the top 10 after trading with the Dolphins to slide down), the Cowboys must refrain from getting caught in that tornado, Dorothy, because the yellow brick road will inevitably lead them to a handful of primo options if they simply stay put. Additionally, after seeing Lamb go to Dallas in 2020, is it difficult to consider the other three NFC East teams would be juiced to keep Pitts out of North Texas? Only six spots separate the Cowboys from the top three seats, but there are more than six elite players who'll still be on the board. Follow the arithmetic and you'll see the science here, as the variables line up perfectly for Dallas to be anything but antsy when things get underway on April 29.
2. Do trade down, if warranted
Speaking of said arithmetic, it works in favor of moving down the board.
Again, with more elite talent present than can be selected in the top 10, the Cowboys are in prime position to slide down the first round a bit and still land a player sitting atop their board. No, we're not talking moving from 10th to the bottom of the round, but maybe a team like the New England Patriots would like to get their hands on a falling quarterback, especially if Trey Lance is still there for the taking. Moving down five spots would also give the Cowboys more firepower to add to their current wealth of draft capital -- the team having 10 picks this year -- allowing them to either stock up on several potential starters and depth pieces and/or to flip some of their capital once or twice on Day Two and Day Three. So instead of giving up assets to move north, which is what they'd have to do to guarantee they get Pitts (being the only reason they'd do such a thing), think big picture instead and wheel and deal your way south (and then north again) into something magical. If Pitts is there at No. 10, for whatever unfathomable reason, you can somewhat justify the pick and then throw everything you have at appeasing Dan Quinn, but don't go chasing Pitts when you literally have the worst defense in franchise history.
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3. Consult the defense attorney
First impressions go both ways, and the Cowboys understand this quite well.
Quinn is now in the building and has already convinced the team to value the safety position, leading to the signing of Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee, along with adding bodies to the needy interior of the defensive line. But while the signings are convincing Quinn the Cowboys see his vision for a potential Legion of Boom 2.0, it's what they do in the draft that will either hammer home their promise to him of supplying the tools he needs to accomplish what he did in Seattle -- or if they were just blowing smoke. The needs on the defensive side of the ball are as clear as a polished chandelier, with a dynamic complement for Diggs being atop the list. From there, a long-term plan at safety beside Donovan Wilson must be located pronto and then there's the linebacker corps, which may or may not lose Sean Lee to retirement and, even if it doesn't, still needs more firepower. And for the free agency work the Cowboys have done on the defensive line this offseason, they can't put their feet up and feel done there, because they aren't. All told, and assuming the high-powered offense remains healthy in 2021, Jones has a chance to do for Dak Prescott what he admittedly failed to do for Tony Romo: tie a dominant offense to a defense that can finally match serve.
4. Don't ignore offense entirely
No, throwing the sink and the attached plumbing at the defense doesn't mean the offense can take the weekend off.
For example, Pitts isn't the only wild card here and there are others who make more sense, all things considered. I've often pointed at left tackle Penei Sewell as one who could also pause the Cowboys' plan to go defense with their first pick, and the same holds true for a player like Rashawn Slater. For while La'El Collins and Tyron Smith are ahead of schedule in their return from season-ending injuries, the fact is they both missed a ton of time in 2020 and the latter has long battled durability concerns that peaked last season. It's unknown if the perennial Pro Bowler can stay on the field for the entire ride going forward, and the fact he'll be 31 before the season ends only strengthens the case for Sewell and Slater -- either of whom being capable of taking on Smith's mantle in the future. I love the signing of Ty Nsekhe, but that's a one-year deal and the progress of Brandon Knight is promising, but short of him being viewed as a dominant starter. That all said, you have to at least entertain ensuring the most important part of your team outside of Prescott, be it with a wild card on Day One or a middle-rounder -- e.g., Walker Little. Notice how the tone of this bullet point is aimed mostly at protecting Prescott, who is healing up from a fractured ankle and would prefer to not have to run for his life going forward.
The worst thing the Cowboys can do is let their emotions steer the draft.
Never forget Johnny Manziel would've been a Cowboy instead of Zack Martin if Jones gave in to his most primal desires, as one example, and that's sort of a big deal. They also can't be so rigid that they wave off a talent like T.J. Watt for someone like Taco Charlton simply because of measurables and supposed scheme fit, making it all about balance in Dallas -- something they've mostly deployed well in drafts but not without some misses (something not exclusive to the Cowboys). They've thus far made moves in free agency that will allow them to take a more measured approach in reading what happens in real time and reacting accordingly, and that's admirable. But this is also akin to prepping for the bar exam to the point you feel you're ready as you'll ever be, only to have an anxiety attack the moment you sit down and start the test. As is perennially the case, after having spent months building your draft board, the name of the game is to balance sticking to it with an ability to adapt as needed. The latter doesn't mean you mortgage to trade up from No. 10 when you know you'll win by being patient, in one way or another, any more than it means dismiss the best player available when you know you have capital to negotiate a U-turn. Be cool, be calm, be patient, let the draft come to you, and remember no one ever won a game of chess by trying to triple jump their opponent.