Bravo, Dallas Cowboys. That's the consensus emotion from football minds around the country who witnessed what the club did in the 2020 NFL Draft, and it's more than justified. All eyes were on the team to see how they'd handle the first draft under newly-hired head coach Mike McCarthy, after seeing his imprint on a mostly impressive run in free agency that broke rank from the usual unsuccessful blueprint of the Jason Garrett era. Even the Cowboys themselves admitted things would be done "a bit different" in the 2020 draft, but that prediction turned out to be quite the understatement. Pick after pick, the Cowboys owned the draft like only seen in a handful of others throughout the course of their storied history -- rivaling the Baltimore Ravens as the team with the best haul this offseason.
It was strong enough to get a nod from owner Jerry Jones as "one of the best" draft classes in Cowboys history -- on paper, of course, considering there's still football to be played -- but his optimism is well-founded. But for as nearly perfect as their performance was, there are still a couple of looming questions that weren't answered in their seven picks. Once they figure them out, if they haven't already, finally turning the corner feels like an inevitability, assuming everything goes as planned.
The safety position remains a question mark
The thought process in free agency was to bolster positions that desperately needed it, so that the pressure would be off (or at least greatly reduced) to do so in the draft. The addition of Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe not only serve to replace a departing Robert Quinn and Maliek Collins, but also provide what can arguably be viewed as an upgrade on the defensive interior, and they're rolling the dice on Aldon Smith and Randy Gregory being reinstated as expected and remaining on the good side of Roger Goodell going forward -- two talents who have the potential to deliver a double-digit sack season when in prime form. Still, they made the wise decision to select Neville Gallimore and Bradlee Anae, two top defensive talents with immediate potential as NFL starters.
So, what of the safety position?
Yes, the team brought in Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in free agency, but the veteran is only on a one-year deal. If Clinton-Dix, who labels the signing the "opportunity of a lifetime," can regain form similar to his best years -- which were under McCarthy in Green Bay -- then the question at safety might finally be answered for both now and later. If not, however, opting to not select one in the draft leaves them trying to figure out contingency plans. They have a few already on the roster, one being a progressing Donovan Wilson in Year 2 and the others being a possible move of Chidobe Awuzie or Reggie Robinson II (the rookie fourth-round pick) to the position for good. McCarthy hinted strongly following the draft that the Cowboys have cornerbacks who can be moved to the defensive backfield, and the addition of Daryl Worley makes a possible shuffling or roles something to keep an eye on going forward.
That is, of course, assuming they aren't able to strike any sort of deal for a certain All-Pro safety who plays for the New York Jets.
Does the LB corps have enough depth?
Yes, Leighton Vander Esch is doing well after having minor neck surgery to repair the issue that landed him on injured reserve in 2019, and the team isn't concerned about his health whatsoever going forward. That's why they didn't use a premium pick at the position, which makes complete sense, especially considering the re-signing of Sean Lee and Joe Thomas, and having had more pressing needs at cornerback and on the defensive line. That said, they used none of their seven picks on a linebacker, and although that does absolutely nothing to their stellar overall grade, the issue of depth at linebacker remains a thing for now. More additions might come by way of free agency, with the team readying to dive heavily back into that mix, but they have some promise on the roster.
Luke Gifford is entering Year 2 after showing flashes in his rookie season, an unexpectedly strong talent whose rookie year was essentially derailed by injury before it could ever truly get going.
A healthy Gifford plays very much like a healthy Lee, which is to say he has a high football IQ and does an excellent job of reading, committing, reacting and attacking a play. The upside on Gifford gives the Cowboys confidence in depth behind LVE, Lee and Jaylon Smith, as does the presence of a proven rotational guy in Thomas. They also like Justin March but waived Chris Covington, a source tells CBS Sports, and it still feels like someone needs to step up and make it known they're the definitive LB3 to succeed Lee in 2021. It's no safe bet he returns for a 12th season and, if he doesn't, the Cowboys will not only need a third starter, but also insurance against injury at the position.
It may lead them to use a pick on a linebacker in 2021 -- depending on how things shake out -- having waved it off in 2020 because of Lee's return and the upside on Gifford.
Nailed It: Everything else
It's nearly impossible to have a flawless draft, but the Cowboys came as close to pulling it off as any team, ever. The daring decision to pass on glaring defensive needs to grab a falling CeeDee Lamb was a master stroke of BPA over need, and Lamb sets the offense up to reach heights they haven't seen in years (decades?). True, they attempted to locate a replacement for Randall Cobb at slot, but they were just as comfortable finding a guy later in such a WR-heavy draft. What's more is the call to select Lamb didn't cost them anything, literally and figuratively speaking, because they didn't have to trade up to get him and they were later rewarded with cornerback Trevon Diggs with the 51st-overall pick -- a player they had a first-round grade on.
Diggs is a ballhawk who'll serve as a nice replacement to Byron Jones, and the Cowboys had to put a pin in drafting Gallimore to get him, but (again) it didn't matter.
Patience was their virtue and paid off yet again, with Gallimore being available for them in the third round, having carried a second-round grade. Things continued to flow in their favor from there, doubling down at corner with Robinson -- who's now in the discussion to help at safety. Anae is simply an animal out of Utah who'll bring serious firepower as a fifth-round pick that should've been taken much higher if not for a run on wide receivers around the league. Even quarterback Ben DiNucci is raising some eyebrows, a seventh-round flyer pick many never heard of until the Cowboys called his name, driving those same individuals to look up his work and film and immediately note how truly in trouble Cooper Rush is behind Dak Prescott.
So even when assessing the two points of interest not addressed by the Cowboys in the draft, you can look at the ones they did, and with whom they did; and keep their grade sitting right where it should: A+.