FRISCO, Texas — Fact: the Dallas Cowboys need defensive help.
The Cowboys allowed the most points in franchise history in 2020, giving up 473. They had the second worst run defense in the NFL, allowing 158.8 yards a game.
Change has been evident so far in 2021.
Dan Quinn is the Cowboys’ new defensive coordinator, replacing Mike Nolan. Joe Whitt Jr. has been added as the secondary coach. Aden Durde is the new defensive line coach. Senior defensive assistant George Edwards is expected to have more influence. Six of the Cowboys’ eight free-agent additions have been on the defensive side of the ball: safeties Keanu Neal, Damontae Kazee and Jayron Kearse, defensive linemen Carlos Watkins and Brent Urban and pass-rusher Tarell Basham. Dallas also re-signed cornerback Jourdan Lewis.
As the 2021 NFL draft approaches, conventional wisdom says the Cowboys will continue with their defensive approach to the offseason. Just about every mock draft has the Cowboys taking a cornerback with the No. 10 overall pick, either Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II, South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn or, before undergoing a back procedure, Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley.
Even coach Mike McCarthy jumped head first into the all-about-defense debate.
“Well, I think it’s clearly, you look at our team from 2020 to 2021, the largest change is clearly on defense,” McCarthy said. “It’s something we felt was needed, I’m not going to say across the board, but it’s clearly not my vision of the football team and how I see a football team competing to be consistent, because consistency puts you in place to win championships. … It’s obvious that my primary focus is the defense.”
So write it down in marker. The Cowboys will take a defensive player in the first round of April’s draft. Maybe even the second round, too. Why not make all 10 of the Cowboys’ selections be on defense?
Heading into the 2020 draft, almost the same things were being said about the Cowboys’ defensive needs. They needed a cornerback. They needed a pass-rusher, a safety, a defensive tackle.
Then something funny happened on the draft’s first night that they never expected to happen.
Oklahoma wide receiver CeeDee Lamb fell to them at No. 17.
The Cowboys didn’t need a wide receiver in the first round. Not with Amari Cooper freshly signed to a $100 million contract. Not with Michael Gallup coming off a 1,000-yard season. The Cowboys could wait until the middle rounds to find a complementary player.
But Lamb was the sixth-rated player on the Cowboys’ draft board. Following the axiom you always take the best player available, the Cowboys gladly drafted him and became better for it.
At the announcement of quarterback Dak Prescott‘s $160 million contract, Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones acknowledged the team will have to tightly manage its salary cap and that improving the defense would be mostly about the draft.
“We got one of the best in the business in Will McClay and his scouting group and they’re going to do a tremendous job I think of helping us find defensive players,” Jones said. “Now you got to be open minded or you don’t get CeeDee Lamb if he happens to be sitting there.”
What if they are all more highly rated than any of the defensive players available at the time the Cowboys pick? Several mock drafts have offensive players going with the first nine picks, but what happens if a defensive player is off the board earlier than expected?
Can the Cowboys really take a tight end in the first round? They signed Blake Jarwin to a $24 million extension last year. They had Dalton Schultz catch 63 passes after Jarwin suffered a torn ACL in the 2020 season opener.
Pitts is viewed by many as “more than a tight end.” He had 12 touchdowns and averaged 17.9 yards per catch last season. He can be a mismatch player anywhere on the field. With an offense that features Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Cooper, Gallup and Lamb, it would take a creative mind to maximize the ability there, but that’s why the Cowboys hired McCarthy and kept coordinator Kellen Moore.
Smith has not played a full season since 2015 and played just two games last season because of neck surgery. He is 30 and tackles often play well into their mid- to late-30s, but he is entering his 10th season and has dealt with a number of injuries in addition to the neck, elbow, knees and ankle.
Collins did not play a snap last season because of hip surgery. He had his best season in 2019, but he has also dealt with a back issue over the years.
Sewell and Slater opted out of college football last year because of COVID-19, yet that does not worry most scouts. Sewell is massively large at 6-foot-4 and 331 pounds and can move (5.09 40-yard dash). Slater might be viewed as a better guard than tackle, but in 2019 he did an outstanding job on Ohio State’s Chase Young, who was the No. 2 overall pick last season by the Washington Football Team.
The past three offensive linemen the Cowboys have selected in the first round — Smith, Travis Frederick (2013) and Zack Martin (2014) — developed into the best at their positions with multiple Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections. From 1981 to 2010, the Cowboys have never selected an offensive lineman in the first round.
Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones likes to say a team needs to keep its strengths strong.
Adding Pitts, Sewell or Slater would keep the Cowboys’ strength strong. It might be the best way to make sure a weakness isn’t as weak.