FRISCO, Texas — The Dallas Cowboys have a glaring need for defensive playmakers, and they have a prime opportunity to add one to their roster on Thursday night.
They need to capitalize on that opportunity.
There's a very real possibility that five quarterbacks will be selected before the Cowboys make their pick at No. 10. Dallas doesn't need a quarterback, quite obviously. There may be two or three wide receivers chosen before the Cowboys make their pick at No. 10. Dallas doesn't need a wide receiver, quite obviously.
So this is a dream scenario for Dallas, as a tremendous amount of high-end talent, at positions of need for Dallas, will be available come the 10th pick.
"I really think we've got a good chance to have a top defensive player -- the top, [or] one of the top [defensive players] -- be there," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said in the team's pre-draft press conference on Tuesday.
It's possible. You could see nine offensive players go off the board before Dallas makes their pick at No. 10.
Now, is it possible that generational talent Kyle Pitts is there at No. 10? Maybe. But probably not. If he is? Great, jump on a tight end that can change the math for defenses the way that Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce, and George Kittle have. As good as the Cowboys' offense should be, that kind of piece would make them utterly unstoppable. As Jones said on Tuesday, "don't be stupid over your needs." You don't pass up a guy like Pitts if he somehow falls to you.
But that's a pie-in-the-sky fantasy, that isn't likely to present itself. In fact, he's probably gone at No. 4 to the Falcons.
So let's focus on the real possibilities for Dallas. First of all, the defense has to be the main objective for Dallas, both in the first round and with subsequent picks. And whoever it is, when you're picking at #10, you should get a stud.
"Mid-1st round, late-1st round, top of the second -- [those players] don't necessarily check all the boxes," Stephen Jones said Tuesday. "So that gets difficult. But we're certainly looking to get that type of football player, with the 10th pick, that can check all the boxes."
Patrick Surtain II
This is the likeliest choice for Dallas at No. 10. Surtain II is an NFL-ready corner who is the son of a former Pro Bowler. An Alabama product, he would pair nicely with fellow Crimson Tide corner Trevon Diggs, who Dallas took in the second round last year.
Surtain II was a five-star prospect coming out of high school in Florida, and remained an elite talent throughout his time with Alabama, as he was a Freshman All-American in 2018, a unanimous first-team All-American in 2020, and was the SEC's Defensive Player of the Year as well.
Surtain II is the ideal pick for the Cowboys at No. 10, and would instantly upgrade their secondary. He's tall (6'2), long, and athletic, and is prepared to guard NFL wide receivers today. In his 41 games at Alabama, he allowed just 46.1% completion. He's got bonafide star potential if the Cowboys take him with the tenth pick.
If you ask Jaycee Horn, he is the best cornerback in this draft, not Patrick Surtain II. The draft prognosticators will tell you otherwise, but it's not like there's a tremendous gulf between Surtain and Horn. And it's entirely possible that the Cowboys' brain trust agrees with Horn.
Jaycee is another son of a former NFL star, as his father Joe Horn was a four-time Pro Bowler with the Saints. If you remember Joe Horn's career, it will come as little surprise that Jaycee is confident enough to label himself the best corner in the draft.
Horn was a very strong player at South Carolina, especially in his junior season in 2020, where he was the clear No. 1 corner for the Gamecocks and would follow the opponent's best receiver around the field. He's not as tall as Surtain (6'0), but he's a bit twitchier of an athlete, and that may bode well for him in the NFL. If Dallas takes Horn at 10, they likely won't be disappointed.
Our first linebacker to break down. Now, the retirement of Sean Lee on Monday doesn't really factor into the Cowboys equation here. That was a fairly expected move, and his impact on the defense had shrunk in the last few years.
If Dallas was planning to take a linebacker at No. 10, it was because they're unconvinced that Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are the solutions at that position. Perhaps a season under new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn will improve their standing, and convince the front office that they're in good shape at the linebacker position. But until we see it on the field, there's no telling.
Micah Parsons may well go earlier than the Cowboys pick at No. 10, as some mock drafts have him going earlier. But others peg him to Dallas or later, so he's a bit of a wildcard in this first round. But he is the best linebacker available in this draft, and if the Cowboys don't believe in Smith and Vander Esch as the future in the middle, perhaps another Penn State linebacker can slide in just days after Lee departed.
Those three are your likeliest choices at No. 10, but there are a few wildcard possibilities that may fall Dallas' way. The Cowboys' offensive line is getting a bit long in the tooth.
As great as they've been for years, they are no longer the best offensive line in football, and in fact, that title hasn't resided here in Dallas for a minute. Travis Frederick is already gone, Zack Martin missed extended time in 2020, Tyron Smith hasn't played a full season since 2015, and played just two games in 2020. And La'el Collins, the relative youngster of the bunch at just 27 years old, did not see the field at all last season.
So if the top offensive tackle in this draft, Penei Sewell out of Oregon, falls to the Cowboys at No. 10, don't be surprised if they go that direction. The realities of the NFL salary cap right now, after COVID impacted the league's bottom line in drastic ways, means that high-dollar players like Tyron Smith may need to be expendable in the relatively near future.
A stud tackle on a rookie contract, who doesn't have the injury history Tyron does, might look pretty attractive to the Cowboys brass. Try this stat on for size -- in his 1,376 career snaps at Oregon, Sewell gave up one sack. (Tip of the hat to Dane Brugler from the Athletic, for that little nugget.)
The other offensive tackle to consider this high up in the draft would be Rashawn Slater out of Northwestern. But he's a bit smaller, compared to what you normally expect for an NFL offensive tackle.
One other factor the Cowboys front office may consider -- and we're not sure if it'll be favorably or unfavorably -- is that both Sewell and Slater opted out of the 2020 season.
Trade down possibilities?
The Cowboys' best options if they make the pick at No. 10 have already been laid out. But because of the unique nature of this draft, with five quarterbacks expected to hear their names called in the first 90 minutes or so on Thursday night, there may be suitors for that 10th pick.
If the Cowboys feel that the depth at their primary positions of need -- in particular cornerback -- is substantial enough, it may benefit them to slide back a few spots, increase their draft capital, and still get a guy that can help them.
Given that they have needs at all three levels of their defense, and they'll need to spend a heavy portion of their 10 picks this year on that side of the ball, increasing their total to 11 or 12 picks might be a smart play.
Depending on where they may slide down to, there are a handful of quality options at cornerback or linebacker that might fit the bill for Dallas. Greg Newsome II out of Northwestern is the next-best cornerback on the board and could be a good fit if Dallas trades back into the middle of the first round. If they trade farther back, Caleb Farley from Virginia Tech is a possibility.
They could also go corner in the second round if they find a better option at No. 10. Asante Samuel, Jr. out of Florida State is another son of a former NFL star and figures to be an early second-rounder. Tyson Campbell is another likely second-rounder who is reportedly jumping up some teams' boards. Frankly, there are a bevy of corners who could go in the second round, so the Cowboys will have options if they don't like how the board looks at that position when it's their turn in the first round.
Other quality linebackers that could be options for Dallas include Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. He's the next-best linebacker on the board after Parsons, and could be there for Dallas if they decide to trade back into the middle of the first round. Another potential option for Dallas at linebacker, especially if they're looking in that direction with their second-round selection, is local product Nick Bolton, who went to high school at Frisco Lone Star.
Listen, the Cowboys need defensive players like there is no tomorrow. They are loaded on offense and should be quite lethal on that side of the ball, with Dak Prescott pulling the trigger and a veritable smorgasbord of weapons at his disposal. Hanging 30 on teams should be a regular occurrence for Dallas, and that's without Kyle Pitts. But if Dallas doesn't shore up their defense, the trend of losing games 36-35 will continue. Dallas was 4-5 in 2020 when allowing more than 30 points. The most concerning part of that stat is that they gave up 30+ on nine different occasions.
The Cowboys need to hit on their first-round pick in a big defensive way. And then they need to round out the draft with impact defensive players with a healthy portion of their other nine picks. Defense, defense, the defense needs to be the mantra for Dallas VP Stephen Jones, especially when Jerry starts getting those visions of sugar plums.