The Dallas Cowboys‘ 2020 season never really got on track. They stumbled out of the gate thanks to a disastrous defense, and by the time the offense really got clicking, everything got thrown off by injuries both along the offensive line and to star quarterback Dak Prescott.
With Prescott healing and now under a long-term contract, and the offensive line on the mend, it was clear Dallas entered the draft with a narrow focus on improving its defense. The Cowboys used each of their first six picks on defensive players, and took offensive players with only three of their 11 selections. So, how did the Cowboys do?
As part of our ongoing series here at CBSSports.com, in the space below, we are going to discuss one thing the Cowboys didn’t do in the 2021 NFL Draft, and also break down one thing they definitely got right.
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Still no investment in safety
One of these years, the Cowboys will invest actual assets in their safety play. With the team hiring Dan Quinn as defensive coordinator and Stephen Jones dropping pre-draft hints that the team had tried and failed to address the position in the past, it seemed like this might be the year. Alas, no dice.
The Cowboys technically used one draft pick on a safety as they are planning to convert 6-foot-4 South Carolina cornerback Israel Mukuamu (their sixth-round pick) to safety, but they continued to pass on using premium assets to cover up what has been one of the team’s biggest weaknesses for years now.
Their only signing at the position was Damontae Kazee, who was signed for less than $1 million and guaranteed only $250,000. They declined to use one of their four Day Two selections on a safety, instead going with a cornerback, two defensive linemen, and a linebacker.
Since drafting Roy Williams with the No. 8 overall pick back in 2003, the Cowboys have drafted exactly one safety in any of the first four rounds. They haven’t signed a free-agent safety to a multi-year deal since at least 2010, per contract records on Spotrac.com. With a new scheme that requires a ball-hawking center-fielder who can patrol the middle of the field, the failure to address perhaps the team’s most glaring need really stands out — especially when the Cowboys had ample opportunity to do so in the middle rounds, where there was plenty of value at the position.
Linebacker should no longer be a problem
When we did our pre-draft position group rankings before the 2019 NFL Draft, the Cowboys had the league’s top-ranked linebacker unit. Jaylon Smith was coming off a season where he took a significant step forward, Leighton Vander Esch was coming off a rookie campaign during which he made the Pro Bowl, and despite Sean Lee getting injured that year, the team had reason to believe he’d be more effective in a reduced role behind their two emerging studs.
What a difference two years makes. Lee retired last week. Vander Esch played just nine games in 2019 and 10 in 2020, and the Cowboys declined on Monday to pick up his fifth-year option. Smith has taken dramatic steps backwards since signing his big-money contract extension, and seems incredibly likely to be released as a cap casualty following the 2021 season, barring a miraculous return to his pre-injury self.
The Cowboys moved aggressively to secure replacements for both Smith and Vander Esch before they even leave the roster. They moved down a couple spots in the first round on Thursday, then picked Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons at No. 12 overall. Parsons is a fantastic athlete who is at his best moving downhill against the run or rushing the passer, and seems like a probable replacement for Smith. In the fourth round, Dallas landed LSU linebacker Jabril Cox, a coverage specialist who seems likely to slide into Vander Esch’s role, if all goes well. They’re also apparently planning to play former Falcons safety Keanu Neal at linebacker, and have depth pieces they like in Francis Bernard and Luke Gifford.
Add it all up, and it would not be a surprise if both Smith and Vander Esch were off the roster by this time next year. Linebacker didn’t look like the team’s most pressing need heading into the draft, but you’d rather address an opening too early rather than too late, and that’s what the Cowboys did here.