NFL draft 2020: After free agency losses, Dallas Cowboys could look to reload at key positions
It didn't take long for the gravity of NFL free agency to hit the Dallas Cowboys.
While the team kept quarterback Dak Prescott off the market by applying the franchise tag and re-signed wide receiver Amari Cooper, several starters departed in the first few days of deals. Among those who left: wide receiver Randall Cobb (Houston Texans), defensive end Robert Quinn (Chicago Bears), defensive tackle Maliek Collins (Las Vegas Raiders), cornerback Byron Jones (Miami Dolphins) and safety Jeff Heath (Raiders).
The Cowboys did make their moves after the losses began to mount, as they signed defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
But the sequence still left Mike McCarthy with several holes to fill as he prepares for his first season as a team, and owner Jerry Jones has made it clear the organization expects to make a significant postseason push right away.
Here's a closer look at a few of the Cowboys' remaining positions of need and how the team could best fill them in the NFL draft, whether with their first-round pick (No. 17) or later selections:
The top two spots are in good hands with Cooper and Michael Gallup. Cobb's departure, however, leaves a vacancy in the slot. In his four seasons as a starter, Prescott frequently looked to Cobb or Cole Beasley as a safety valve. While the position might not be one of the top priorities, there's certainly an opening for an investment at some point in the draft.
Top NFL draft options
1. K.J. Hamler, Penn State: The greatest chance Dallas will have to ramp up its offensive explosiveness in the draft might rest with Hamler. The 5-9, 178-pound big-play threat can get open with ease, and his acceleration will flounder any slot cornerback overly reliant on short-area quickness. He might be a little more volatile than other options, though, as he has had trouble with drops and can be redirected by physical defensive backs. Day 2 seems like a good window for the Cowboys to capitalize on a deep class of pass catchers, and Hamler stands out as a particularly appropriate target in the second round.
2. Tyler Johnson, Minnesota: Despite stringing together a prolific two-year in which he recorded nearly 2,500 receiving yards and 25 touchdowns, Johnson could prove to be a polarizing prospect given his questionable speed and history of dropped passes. With the Cowboys though, he could carve out a place of his own by boxing out defensive backs and winning in traffic.
3. K.J. Hill, Ohio State: Should the Cowboys' focus be on infusing a dose of reliability into the receiving game, Hill would be an appropriate addition. The Buckeyes' all-time leader in receptions (201) is adept at creating his own separation on short-area targets, positioning him for significant work in the slot. And as a likely middle-round pick, his opportunity cost would be lower than that of several alternatives.
4. Bryan Edwards, South Carolina: The rise of the big slot receiver could give Dallas reason to reconsider exactly what it wants from Cobb's replacement. Though Edwards isn't the contested catch standout one might expect from a 6-3, 212-pound target, he can still be a reliable piece capable of creating some separation. Once the draft reaches Day 3, he might be worth the flier
5. James Proche, SMU: The local connection isn't the only reason for a look at Proche. The trusted target could be an asset to Prescott as someone who can consistently move the chains, though he might not do much more than that.
6. Devin Duvernay, Texas: The in-state pull might be strong, but Duvernay likely will need to have most of his touches manufactured in the early going given his relative lack of polish as a true slot receiver. With Tony Pollard in line for a hefty role in the screen game and beyond, Dallas might not want the duplication.
At this point, it's hard to say exactly how pressing of a need this is for the Cowboys. Should Randy Gregory and/or Aldon Smith be reinstated, Dallas will have some kind of in-house option to replace Quinn opposite DeMarcus Lawrence. With the two players' outlooks still unclear, though, the Cowboys might be wise to consider what possibilities are available in the draft. McCarthy has pledged to be open-minded about incorporating talent into his unit regardless of specific scheme fit, so there could be several avenues to lift up this group.
Top NFL draft options
1. Julian Okwara, Notre Dame: A broken leg suffered late in his senior season likely ended Okwara's chances of being the second edge rusher taken after Chase Young, and now the brother of Lions defensive end Romeo Okwara might be in line to give some team a significant return as a Day 2 pick. The younger Okwara blends a quick first step and explosive burst with solid power, though he doesn't offer much in stopping the run at this point. If the Cowboys can follow up taking the cornerback of their liking by landing Okwara, the defensive reloading will be in good shape.
2. K'Lavon Chaisson, LSU: If Dallas is drawn to addressing its pass rush in the first round, Chaisson might end up being the team's match. An emerging talent, he has enticing physical tools and proved to be disruptive in spurts during his lone full year as a starter. The problem: He needs a runway to beat offensive linemen, who can comfortably neutralize his threat with a powerful strike. It would be easy to envision this Cowboys regime taking a bet on his athleticism with the idea of bringing him along over the next few years.
3. Zack Baun, Wisconsin: At only 6-2 and 238 pounds, Baun likely will need a coach who can see past his measurables to his considerable tools as a pass-rushing linebacker. Despite his size, he seldom gives offensive linemen the opportunity to push him around, as he possesses advanced hand usage and is slippery off the edge. Peg him a dark horse for the Cowboys at No. 17.
4. Terrell Lewis, Alabama: Jerry Jones likes his pass rushers to be rangy and athletic, which describes the 6-5, 262-pound Lewis to a T. Injuries forced him to miss nearly two full years, but he has rare fluidity off the edge for a player of his size. If Dallas wants to swing big on Day 2, Lewis could be of interest.
5. A.J. Epenesa, Iowa: In stark contrast to Lewis, Epenesa occupies an odd space as a prospect with a proven track record of success and a set of questions about how he can replicate that at the next level. At 6-5 and 275 pounds with an approach centered on overpowering his opponents, he's hardly the kind of elastic player the Cowboys recently have favored on the outside. Would the team break from its pattern to add even more force up front?
6. Yetur Gross-Matos, Penn State: The consistency isn't there to justify a first-round pick, but maybe the potential is. Despite recording 17 sacks over the last two years, Gross-Matos was too often stonewalled and never became a game-altering force. Edge rushers with his size and athleticism typically don't have to endure long waits in the draft, however, and the Cowboys could be drawn to him in the first round.
7. Curtis Weaver, Boise State: With a frame (6-2, 265 pounds), physique and burst that fall well short of the desired targets for a pass-rushing prospect, Weaver is a particularly difficult projection. Nevertheless, he proved to be a magnet to the backfield in the last three years, racking up 34 sacks and 47 1/2 tackles for loss. There's an outside shot he could join Lawrence as the second half of a Boise State defensive end tandem for Dallas.
8. Bradlee Anae, Utah: Another player whose game is founded upon know-how, Anae offers a low ceiling but a high floor. His assortment of moves and hand usage are both distinctly impressive, but they will only take him so far given his limitations in turning the corner and bull-rushing. If the Cowboys are content to wait for a defensive end, he might catch their eye in the middle rounds.
Jones' departure left this position group in a difficult spot. Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown all return, but the secondary now lacks a clear No. 1 cornerback. In a deep class at the position, several prospects are in line to be selected somewhere in the first two days, with Ohio State's Jeff Okudah likely being the only cornerback completely out of the Cowboys' range. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan hasn't revealed much about what the team is seeking from its cornerbacks, but he did say the team wanted to run a mix of zone and man coverages. Nolan also said Dallas will emphasize generating takeaways after tying for last in the NFL in 2019 with just seven interceptions.
Top NFL draft options
1. C.J. Henderson, Florida: When it comes to athleticism, Henderson might not be far off from Okudah. Able to engulf receivers with his 6-1, 204-pound frame, he also routinely stays glued to receivers on long-developing routes downfield and shifty moves underneath. With rapid recovery speed and an innate sense for making plays on the ball, he is very nearly the total package as a future standout in man coverage. Unlike Okudah, however, he has to answer for play that ran hot and cold last year, with his effort as a tackler particularly lacking. Still, Henderson could very easily be the front-runner to be the Cowboys' top pick if he's still on the board at that point.
2. Trevon Diggs, Alabama: The younger brother of Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs spent time on offense early in his career before focusing on defense full-time starting in his sophomore campaign. That relative lack of polish is evident in his game at times, but it might also indicate significant room for growth. Already a bully at the line of scrimmage, the 6-1, 205-pound Diggs will be an attractive candidate for any team employing a press-heavy scheme, though his subpar change-of-direction skills could be problematic in other defenses. Expect him to be in the conversation for Dallas in the first round.
3. Jaylon Johnson, Utah: From his in-your-face approach at the snap to his rapid closing speed, Johnson rarely affords receivers much breathing room. The challenge might be to hone his aggressiveness, as he can get out of control at times. If the Cowboys are looking for a physical presence to combat bigger receivers, Johnson might be one of their best options in the second round, though it seems like a stretch that he would fall all the way to No. 51.
4. Kristian Fulton, LSU: College corners don't come much more battle-tested than Fulton, who regularly took on elite receivers in press coverage over the last two years. Cool and collected, he typically stays balanced and rarely gives opponents anything easy, particularly on underneath throws. But given his vulnerability against pass catchers who are more physical or boast excellent deep speed, he could be in for some rough patches in the NFL. Fulton seems poised to land in the mid-to-late first round, and there's a chance he's in the mix for the Cowboys at No. 17.
5. A.J. Terrell, Clemson: Another lengthy corner who can disrupt receivers at the line of scrimmage, Terrell differs from many of his peers in this class thanks to his versatility and fluidity. He'll have to get stronger, however, and curb a tendency to get a little grabby. As a potential late first-rounder, he's maybe more of a fit for Dallas in a trade-back scenario.
6. Jeff Gladney, TCU: Though only 5-10 and 191 pounds, Gladney doesn't let his slight build deter him from flustering receivers with his pesky style. His advanced ball skills and route recognition allow him to make big plays regularly, though he's liable to be boxed out much more easily at the next level. Gladney definitely is not a natural successor to Jones, but he still could be worth a look if Dallas waits until the second round to secure a cornerback.
7. Cameron Dantzler, Mississippi State: He could be an interesting study in what teams value at the position, as a 4.64-second 40-yard dash at the combine might be alarming for some evaluators. There's plenty to appreciate when he takes the field, though, most notably his length and quickness. If Dantzler tumbles into the third round or beyond, his value could be worth the risk.
8. Noah Igbinoghene, Auburn: The son of two Olympians and a track standout himself, Igbinoghene has the physical makeup teams covet from cornerbacks. With only two years' experience at the position after switching from receiver, though, he's hardly a sure thing to make the leap to a reliable pro, as he too often looks helpless when trying to locate the ball. Probably not the best project for the Cowboys given the team's win-now mindset.
Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.