As the 2016 NFL draft approaches, the Dallas Cowboys find themselves in a quandary with the fourth overall pick. Do they draft a quarterback to succeed an aging Tony Romo or pick an impact defender who can round out an average defense and make them Super Bowl caliber within a year or two? While the entire Cowboys’ organization of scouts, personnel people, and coaches, will be involved in the player evaluation process, the decision will ultimately come down to the franchise’s head brass of owner Jerry Jones and his son Stephen, the team’s Chief Operations Officer, and head coach Jason Garrett.
Tony Romo will turn 36 before the draft and he is nearing the end of his career with three or four years left to play. With this in mind, many NFL analysts believe it is time for Dallas to draft a quarterback such as North Dakota State University’s Carson Wentz or California’s Jared Goff who are widely regarded as the top two quarterbacks in the draft. Furthermore, the window is closing for the Cowboys to win a Super Bowl in the Romo-era. Romo’s three fractures of his left clavicle dating back to 2010 and his two back surgeries in 2013 have made him more susceptible to injury or re-injury. While he has played through some of those injuries and others – such as the broken rib and punctured lung that he played with in leading Dallas to an overtime win at San Francisco in 2011 – Romo is not as mobile anymore and needs to be protected better. Exposing him to big hits that drive him into the ground is too risky based on his prior back and shoulder injuries.
Helping the Cowboys here is the fact that their offensive line is the strength of the team and is one of the best in the league. Left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick, and guard Zack Martin are all first round draft picks between 2011 and 2014 that enabled Dallas to rebuild its’ line. Guard La’el Collins was signed by the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent in 2015 but graded out by many scouts as a first-round talent. Those four along with right tackle Doug Free, a nine-year veteran, have formed a premier unit. Smith is a three-time pro-bowler while Frederick and Martin have appeared twice each.
With quality protection in place, Dallas can turn their attention elsewhere in the draft to help solidify their team. The Cowboys’ core players are Romo, tight end Jason Witten, wide receiver Dez Bryant, Smith, safety Barry Church, linebacker Sean Lee, defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford, defensive back Byron Jones, cornerback Orlando Scandrick, and kicker Dan Bailey.
Adding an impact pass rusher or cover cornerback makes sense and could turn an average defense into a top 10 defense in the league. Dallas ranked last in the league in 2015 in turnover differential at -22. Their 11 takeaways ranked last in the league and their 33 giveaways tied with Tennessee for last in the league. The Cowboys also lacked in getting pressure on the quarterback as their 31 sacks tied for 25th in the league. Furthermore, Dallas ranked 17th in total defense with an average of 348.1 yards allowed per game. Their front seven was leaky at times, allowing 120.9 rushing yards per game which tied with Chicago for 22nd in the league.
All these statistics point to the need for better defense especially in the pass rush and turnover areas. So here are five of the top defensive players along with a sleeper pick that could rise higher in the draft that would fit the Cowboys’ needs.
Joey Bosa – Defensive End, Ohio State
During the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis in February, Bosa said that he thinks he is the best player available in the draft.
Others in the media suggested that he is in the mold of J.J. Watt. If he lives up to those lofty descriptions, he will have a major impact for any NFL team. Bosa has good blood lines in the fact that his father and uncle both played in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins. Bosa was consistently productive at Ohio State where he totaled 26 sacks and 51 tackles for a loss during his three seasons in Columbus.
His best season came in2014 when he had 13.5 sacks and 21 tackles for a loss. Last year he had five sacks and 16 tackles for a loss en route to being named a unanimous first-team All-American as well as an All-Big Ten performer. At 6-5 and 275, Bosa has the strength and agility to get to the quarterback. With defensive end Randy Gregory’s recent violation of the league’s substance abuse policy causing him to face a four-game suspension in 2016, this not only makes sense for Dallas but has become a pressing need. Bosa could provide the Cowboys with the consistent pass rusher they have lacked since they parted ways with DeMarcus Ware – the franchise’s all-time sack leader – following the 2013 season.
Jalen Ramsey – Free Safety, Florida State
Ramsey is a gifted athlete and has the ability to play all over the defensive secondary. His athleticism is a product of his track and field exploits where he ran a leg on the 4×100 relay team that took first place in the ACC Outdoor Championships in 2014 and ’15. A consensus All-American in 2015, Ramsey garnered numerous accolades as he was a Thorpe Award, Bednarik Trophy, and Lott IMPACT Trophy semifinalist.
He was also named a first-team All-American by the American Football Coaches Association, Walter Camp, and ESPN.com outlets. At 6-1 and 202 pounds Ramsey is fluid and his coverage skills are greatly aided by his speed and agility. He runs a 4.49 40 and sports a 40-inch vertical leap. After arriving in Tallahassee in the fall of 2013, Ramsey became the first FSU freshman to start at cornerback since Seminole great Deion Sanders.
Dallas could pair him with Byron Jones – last year’s first-round pick who is a keeper - to improve their secondary and give them some depth. Ramsey also offers flexibility in the fact that he is capable of being a shutdown cornerback which gives the Cowboys versatility in the secondary. Teaming Ramsey with Jones could go a long ways in helping Dallas generate more turnovers and better coverage in the secondary.
Shaq Lawson – Defensive End, Clemson
Players like Lawson have helped to put Clemson football among the contenders for a national championship in recent years. His combination of quickness and power enables him to not only bring pressure of the defensive edge but to be a difference-maker. At 6-3 and 270 Lawson has good size and his 40-time at the combine was 4.67.
Lawson topped all FBS defenders in 2015 with 24.5 tackles for a loss including 12.5 sacks. Various mock drafts have Lawson being selected anywhere in the top-15. His strong showing in the combine could push him into the top 10 and maybe into the top 5. Lawson would be an ideal pick for the Cowboys at the fourth spot and be insurance due to the four-game suspension of Gregory.
Improving their pass rush is a top priority in Big D and Lawson would bring both size and speed as an edge rusher to chase down the quarterback. Sacks project well for him in evaluating his game. He was a consistent presence for the Tigers in college. He and fellow Clemson teammate Kevin Dodd gave the Tigers bookend defensive ends in college that were a thorn in the side of opposing quarterbacks. Lawson looks to be a quality mainstay along some teams defensive line for years to come and Dallas could certainly benefit from him.
DeForest Buckner – Defensive End, Oregon
Buckner improved his stock by staying in school a year ago. At 6-7 and 290, Buckner has size to be a handful. While his tall frame is not ideal for the position it allows him to knock down passes and be a presence throughout the whole play. In 2015, Buckner led the Pac-12 with 10.5 sacks.
He also had 83 total tackles including 17 for a loss. Buckner is a presence that is not easy for opposing offenses to deal with. His combination of length, strength, and speed make him a force and his desire gives him a competitive edge. Looking to improve their pass rush, Buckner is perhaps the top defensive lineman available and could be the impact pass rusher Dallas is looking for.
Buckner has good mobility and although he is tall, he is able to use his long arms and big hands to knock down passes. He knocked down 10 passes in his career at Oregon. He will be a welcome addition to most any defensive line and has the chance to make a big impact if he is selected by the right team. Surrounding him with players who are already established will help him and the team develop chemistry that will bode well for his future. Dallas could use a player of his caliber to plug into a starting role now and also provide depth down the line.
Robert Nkemdiche – Defensive Tackle, Mississippi
At 6-3 and 296, Nkemdiche has all the physical tools to excel for years to come at the next level. The only thing stopping him might be himself as off-the-field issues have led to questions about his character and thus hurt his draft stock. Nkemdiche was linked to marijuana possession after falling out of a hotel balcony in December that caused him to be suspended for Mississippi’s bowl game, the Sugar Bowl.
He has all the talent to succeed but NFL scouts no doubt closely evaluated him through interviews at the combine. Some NFL scouts question whether or not he keeps his motor running all the time. However when he is going full bore, he is an unstoppable force along the line. The Cowboys are still waiting to see if Gregory will shape up his act and become productive. Nkemdiche represents similar risk that Gregory had a year ago.
Dallas decided to roll the dice with Gregory and they will have to work around his latest miscue while hoping he can become productive. Like Gregory, Nkemdiche is a risk-reward prospect. The Cowboys have a history of rolling the dice with these players in the past (Thomas Henderson, Terrell Owens, Adam “Pacman” Jones, Randy Gregory) and will have to decide if they want to do it again with Nkemdiche as he could be boom or bust.
Sleeper pick: Vernon Hargreaves III – Cornerback, Florida
Hargreaves is a skilled athlete with tremendous instincts for the football. He made an immediate impact on the Florida defense as a freshman in 2013 when he had 11 pass breakups and three interceptions en- route to garnering All-Southeastern Conference honors.
He followed that up in 2014 with an SEC-leading 13 pass breakups along with three interceptions. Hargreaves has exceptional footwork that allows him to excel in press and off coverage. His peripheral vision and instincts set him apart from other cornerbacks. A tremendous competitor,
Dallas would welcome his cover skills as he has explosive closing speed on receivers. With the Cowboys facing a rising star in New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. twice a year, Hargreaves would provide a greater draw for those team’s matchups.
Should Dallas go offense and in doing so possibly address their quarterback of the future, here are 5 offensive players that could help them currently or in the near future.
Carson Wentz – QB, North Dakota State
Although he played against lower level competition at FCS member school North Dakota State, Wentz’s stock should not be overlooked. He consistently performed at a high level and has all the tools to develop into a premier NFL quarterback. At 6-5 and 233, Wentz has great size to drop back in the pocket and see over defenses as well as oncoming pass rushers. He also timed out at 4.79 in the 40 at the NFL Scouting Combine giving him the chance to escape the rush. Wentz performed well at the combine and is regarded as the top quarterback available. Despite breaking his right (throwing) wrist in the middle of the 2015 season, he still returned to lead the Bison to their fifth straight NCAA Division I FCS National Championship. Wentz came back to go 16-of-29 passing for 197 yards and one touchdown and also led NDSU’s rushing attack with 79 yards and two TDs in the 37-10 win over Jacksonville State in the championship game. A starter and team captain on the ’14 and ’15 national champion Bison teams, Wentz set single-season school records for passing attempts, completions, yards, and total offense per game as a junior in 2014. Wentz was named the Most Outstanding Player of the 2014 FCS title game after scoring the game-winning touchdown on a five-yard run to lift the Bison to a 29-27 win over Illinois State with 37 seconds left. Wentz completed passes of 32, 13, and 33 yards to highlight the six-play 78-yard drive that was done in just 1:01.
Wentz did nothing to hurt his stock at the combine. His experience in a pro-style offense in college gives him an advantage at adapting to the pro game better and quicker. Wentz also improved his stock with a great showing in the Senior Bowl against other top prospects from top college programs. Wentz will be a first-rounder. However the question remains who will select him? The Cleveland Browns have the second overall pick and with former Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel wearing out his welcome in Cleveland, the Browns are looking for not only a new starting quarterback but a franchise signal caller as well. With the NFL Network reporting recently that Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones has said that his team will not draft a quarterback with the number four pick, it appears that Dallas will be looking elsewhere to improve their team.
Although Wentz could be groomed behind Romo as his eventual successor in a few years, it appears that Wentz’s credibility dictates him playing much sooner. Like all rookie quarterbacks, Wentz would benefit from being a backup for a year with perhaps some spot duty when a victory is secured. Or if a team is starting to build from scratch, he could play right away and learn under fire. Whichever way it goes for Wentz, he appears to be headed for a long and successful NFL career. With pressing needs on defense, the Cowboys could pass on Wentz and still get a quarterback in the second round such as Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott, Michigan State’s Connor Cook, or TCU’s Trevone Boykin.
Jared Goff – QB, California
Goff comes from a great program at California which has produced two-time NFL MVP and Super Bowl Champion MVP Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers. Goff is regarded as the second best quarterback behind Wentz and enjoyed a productive college career. Goff’s quick feet and quick release will be an asset in the pro game.
Goff finished his college career with 12,200 passing yards and 96 touchdown passes while starting three years for the Golden Bears. He also completed 977 of 1,569 passes with only 30 interceptions. Perhaps Goff’s best attribute is the fact that he steadily improved every season in college. Goff started as a freshman and improved every year in reading defenses, a key skill for playing quarterback at any level. He also showed the ability to throw and complete passes all over the field which is similar to what Rodgers can do on the run.
If Dallas was to draft Goff, he would be more of a project behind Romo. If Dallas does not select Goff at the number four pick overall San Francisco is a likely spot at the seventh overall pick. Goff would allow new incoming head coach Chip Kelly to start fresh with a new quarterback. Or, Goff would at least provide good competition with Colin Kaepernick whose future as a 49er is in question.
Ezekiel Elliott – RB, Ohio State
In three years at Ohio State, Elliott excelled as one of the nation’s top running backs. A two-year starter for the Buckeyes, Elliott burst onto the national scene during the 2014 season when he was instrumental in leading Ohio State to the national championship. Elliott ran for 246 yards and scored four touchdowns on 36 carries in leading the Buckeyes to a 42-20 win over Oregon in the national title game. After appearing in only seven games as a freshman when he totaled just 262 yards rushing, Elliott followed that up with consecutive 1,800-yard rushing seasons.
He ran for 1,878 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2014 and followed that up with 1,821 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2015. At 6-0 and 225, Elliott has a short and powerful build that makes him hard to tackle. Combine that with his 4.42 speed and Elliott has the unique blend of power, speed, quickness, and toughness that is rare in a running back. Elliott also has agility that allows him to avoid tacklers around the line of scrimmage and in the open field. His vision and balance allow him to see openings on inside runs and bounce them to the outside where he can use his home-run speed. Elliott also shows the ability and willingness to block in pass protection and can be a three-down back.
Although running backs have been de-emphasized as first round picks recently, Elliott is a can’t miss prospect and should make an immediate impact. Elliott’s value and well-rounded ability are seen in the fact that he won four high school state championships (100 meters, 200 meters, 110 high hurdles, and 300 hurdles) at the Missouri Class 3 state championships in 2012. With Darren McFadden in the second and final year of his contract in Dallas, Elliott could be a dark horse pick for the Cowboys at number four overall. While Dallas can also look to free agency for a running back – such as Lamar Miller of Miami, Matt Forte of Chicago, or Doug Martin of Tampa Bay – Elliott could be a better option and give them some longevity at the position.
Laquan Treadwell – WR, Mississippi
With a pro bowl talent in Dez Bryant, a solid number two pass catcher in Terrance Williams, and slot receiver Cole Beasley working underneath, Dallas is in great shape at wide receiver. Third-year man Devin Street (7 catches, 114 yards, 1 touchdown in 2015) and fourth-year receiver Brice Butler are also on the roster along with second-year receiver Lucky Whitehead who is also the team’s return ace.
While Bryant is a premier receiver in the game today, he will have to show that he can bounce back from injury and continue to play at a pro bowl level. Bryant missed seven games in 2015 due to a broken right foot that he suffered in the season opener last year. Although he came back from it around midseason, he never seemed to be the same. Bryant had foot and ankle surgeries in January of 2016 and time will tell if he can regain his form as an elite receiver.
With the NFL being a receiver-driven league today, you can always have some insurance in case someone goes down with an injury. Treadwell would provide that while also giving the Cowboys two big and physical receivers that would pose matchup problems for defenses. At 6-2 and 210, Treadwell has the size to out muscle defensive backs for the ball. Treadwell started for three years at Mississippi and lead the Southeastern Conference with 82 receptions for 1,153 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2015. While he lacks elite speed, he will still be effective in the NFL due to his strong hands, big body, and ball skills. In addition to providing Dallas with another weapon on offense he would also add depth to the Cowboys’ receivers. There are probably more pressing needs for Dallas with the number four overall pick. If not taken by Dallas at number four, Treadwell will likely go later in the first round. If that is the case, the Cowboys should be able to find another receiver in the second, third, or fourth rounds with players such as Oklahoma’s Sterling Shepard, Tulsa’s Keyarris Garrett (6-3, 221), or Oregon’s Byron Marshall.
Corey Coleman – WR, Baylor
Coleman was productive at Baylor as his catches, yards, average yards-per-catch, and touchdowns all increased each of his three years with the Bears. He caught 20 touchdown passes in 2015 after which he received the Fred Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver.
Although he is 5-11 and 194, he makes up for a lack of size with a burst and the fact that he is an explosive player down the field who makes big plays. Coleman excels in running take-offs, posts, and hitches and he can win contested balls as his jumping ability allows him to high-point balls consistently. He will have to develop as a route runner but his combination of speed and ball skills is special.
Dallas could benefit from his speed as it would give them a deep threat to go along with Bryant and Williams. Jones might steer away from a receiver in the first round. It is not likely that Coleman will be on the board in the second round. However if he is, he would be a steal for the Cowboys. Although the Cowboys don’t have a pressing need for a wide receiver, they would still benefit from Coleman’s deep speed and at depth to that position.
Sleeper pick: Devontae Booker – RB, Utah
In two seasons at Utah, Booker posted impressive numbers. After sitting out the 2013 season following his transfer from American River Junior College, Booker rushed for 1,512 yards and 10 touchdown in 2014 for the Utes. At 5-11 and 212, Booker has a low center of gravity that makes him difficult to tackle. His power, burst, and tremendous leg drive are his strengths which enable him to break tackles.
Although the concern with him is that he lacks speed, his 4.56 40 time gives him enough burst to get through holes at the line of scrimmage. While he will likely be chased down by NFL defenders after breaking free, his tremendous leg drive will enable him to gain yards after contact. Some scouts feel that teams are rolling the dice with Booker in part due to a torn meniscus that ended his 2015 senior season. However he still was named to the All PAC-12 second team.
Overall, Booker’s compact and powerful build makes him the kind of running back that can churn out yards and eat up clock. Those same skills will allow him to gain yards in bigger chunks as well. It is a combination in a running back that is rare and is hard to scout. Dallas could be a fit for Booker if they want to go running back in the second or third rounds. His powerful running style combined with a burst would fit nicely behind the Cowboys dominant offensive line. Better yet for Dallas, Booker could be there as late as the fourth round. Unless the Cowboys have already signed a running back in free agency, Booker could be a nice addition for them and solve a need in the process.
Credits: Information from capsule summaries on these NFL draft prospects were obtained from the following electronic and broadcast sources:
The NFL Network (reports during the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, IN. Feb. 23-29, 2016).