With the NFL Draft almost 2 weeks away, each team should be close to done with their personal draft boards. While teams’ opinions on players are different in every class, 2020 is different because team perception of certain players and positions is all over the place. To predict what may actually happen come draft night, I used the draft simulator from “The Draft Network” to influence my picks for the Cowboys in all 7 rounds. Here is what I would consider a fantastic draft class for the Cowboys.
Round 1, Pick 17: Jeff Gladney, CB, TCU
Dallas has to address cornerback in Round 1. There is no but. After losing Byron Jones, the top 3 corners on the Cowboys’ roster are Jourdan Lewis, Chidobe Awuzie, and Anthony Brown, with Brown getting hurt and Awuzie having a terrible 2019 campaign. However, Brown got resigned to a three-year deal, so it’s likely he takes the starting job at slot corner while Lewis starts on the outside. However, there’s still no replacement for Byron Jones’ lucrative ($16M) departure to Miami, and given Awuzie’s horrible performance the Cowboys definitely need to fill the slot Jones left, that’s where Gladney comes in.
People may call this pick a reach, commenting upon the fact that Gladney may be undersized for a corner, with a combine weigh-in of only 191 pounds while being 5’10”. However, Gladney plays like he’s 6’5″, 230 pounds. He’s so physical at the line of scrimmage and at the point of the catch that TCU played him against the giants of the Big-12, such as Texas WR Collin Johnson and Baylor WR Denzel Mims that he effectively intimidates his opponents and rarely appears underside. Dallas hasn’t rotated its corners in the past, but if they draft Gladney they should definitely shadow him against the opponent’s best receiver because he was almost always step-for-step with the NFL-level talent he played against. Allowing Gladney to take these matchups will also help develop his talent and gain necessary experience.
Furthermore, he is beyond fearless when it comes to contact. He takes it and gives it right back. He routinely attacks blockers in the short passing game and has no issues ripping the football out when the receiver tries securing the catch. Gladney’s play recognition is also incredible, as he routinely baits quarterbacks into throws they absolutely shouldn’t make, resulting in pass breakups or interceptions. His two weaknesses are tackling, which can be taught at the NFL level, and hip fluidity when he flips inside which is a little slow, and he is much better flipping outside.
All in all, his ability to carry receivers downfield by matching their routes and playing the ball aggressively makes him a slam dunk pick for the Cowboys. He has the ball skills to be an elite press corner at the next level, so a scrappy corner with elite toughness, unique play recognition, a competitive mindset, and decent athleticism should make him the #1 corner on Day 1, a fantastic beginning for the Mike McCarthy-Mike Nolan era.
Round 2, Pick 51: Justin Madubuike, DT, Texas A&M
Dallas did sign Dontari Poe and Gerald McCoy, but both are veteran players who are past their prime. While yes, they do add some bodies to the defensive line at the moment, outside of Trysten Hill, who didn’t have a good year at all in 2019, the Cowboys have no young talent on the interior defensive line. Enter Madubuike, who’s a local Dallas native himself.
For one, the Aggies standout is a fantastic athlete. Is he undersized to a certain extent? Yes, his combine weigh-in was a measly 293 pounds. However, he makes up for that with his freakish athleticism. Madubuike ran a 4.83 40-yard dash, which is quite fast for someone his size and even benched 31 reps. Dallas hasn’t exactly had an athletic freak at 3-technique defensive tackle in quite a while, so this pick would definitely be a welcome sign for Cowboys fans. Some may argue this is overkill, as the team has signed 2 veterans already, but they need those veterans to mentor their young defensive talent more than they need them to be bridge players.
Madubuike can replace the void left by Maliek Collins’ departure: 3-technique defensive tackle. Being incredibly strong really shows up when he sheds blocks. Because he’s a tad smaller, he plays with a lower pad level, which means he can anchor against the pass and the run with a lot more strength and power, allowing him to overwhelm interior linemen who are much stronger than he is. Think about future Hall-of-Famer Aaron Donald, who pretty much has a similar advantage due to his limited stature. Some were concerned about Donald’s size before the draft, calling him “too small”. Well, that aged well. Not saying Madubuike is Donald, but the similarity in their size, or lack thereof, has a correlation to their athleticism.
Outside of his incredible power and leverage, which allows him to easily shed blocks, Madubuike is lightning-quick. Once again, he’s similar to Aaron Donald in that sense. The former Aggie can get around offensive linemen really quickly, and even if he doesn’t, he can just overpower them to get to the quarterback. He doesn’t necessarily have a wide variety of pass-rush moves, so one could argue one of his flaws is a lack of technical development as well as relying too much on athleticism alone. He just really knows how to position his body so that he can either overpower, get around, or release off of the offensive lineman and make a play.
However, while Madubuike is indeed strong, he does have one weakness which could make him a potential liability in the run game. Because he’s undersized, he loses his leverage quite easily against double teams. Thus, to deploy him correctly, newly-hired defensive line coach Jim Tomsula needs to put him next to a much larger, space-eating, two-gapping nose tackle who can take on the double teams. However, on passing downs, he’s going to be an extremely valuable piece on stunt calls.
For example, if Gerald McCoy was the penetrator and DeMarcus Lawrence was the looper on a T-E stunt, that would leave Madubuike 1-on-1 with some guard who most likely can’t block him. That’s a sack waiting to happen, and Tomsula most likely knows it. This may likely be a possibility as long as they take the Dallas native in the 2nd round. Whatever they choose to do with this pick, the best option is to go defensive tackle, and Justin Madubuike is definitely worth this pick.
Round 3, Pick 82: Darrell Taylor, DE, Tennessee
Name a more Cowboys pick. In 2017, Taylor was suspended indefinitely by then-head coach Butch Jones for a practice altercation, where he kicked guard Trey Smith in the face, forcing Smith to get stitches, according to Yahoo Sports. Yahoo Sports also postulated suspicion towards Taylor’s teammate Shy Tuttle suffering an orbital bone injury as a result of a “fight with a teammate”. Taylor himself has been ejected and suspended multiple for in-game fights, according to Yahoo Sports.
In the eyes of the Cowboys, he would be a perfect player for DeMarcus Lawrence to take under his wing both on and off-the-field. Dallas always seems to give players with “off-the-field” issues a second chance, like Greg Hardy, Randy Gregory, and newly-signed Aldon Smith. Taylor was reinstated 2 weeks later, and in 2019, he showed flashes of future NFL potential as a redshirt senior at Tennessee, even with a mediocre-at-best supporting cast and one of the worst quarterbacks college football has ever seen.
Taylor is a perfect pick for Mike Nolan’s scheme because of his flexibility. Nolan has said multiple times that he would mix-and-match both 4-3 and 3-4 fronts with ambiguous coverages, something many Cowboys fans haven’t been accustomed to under Rod Marinelli for the last few years.
Taylor looked fantastic in coverage against the SEC’s running backs and tight ends, who he routinely took on when he identified potential check-downs/hot routes out of the backfield. He could legitimately be a fantastic 3-4 outside linebacker and an elite 4-3 pass rusher at his peak under the tutelage of Jim Tomsula, who has developed many elite pass rushers back in his days as defensive line coach for the 49ers.
Outside of his coverage skills, Taylor’s bend/burst is one of his best traits as an edge rusher. It’s not Myles Garrett-level, obviously, but it’s NFL-caliber and definitely something to build an arsenal of pass-rush moves on. He can routinely get around tackles by dropping his hips and getting very low, and this works to the point where he’s at the quarterback’s opposite hip pocket. Taylor also has a very good arm-over move. Whenever Tennessee played him inside against guards, he would wreck the pocket with that move because most college guards aren’t technically-refined enough to combat it.
Think about how Mike Zimmer creatively deployed Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter against the Saints. Zimmer played Griffen and Hunter, two very technically-refined edge rushers, inside against the Saints’ guards because he knew his two edge rushers were much faster and quicker with their hands, enabling them to compromise the pocket faster than if they were rushing against the Saints’ tackles. Considering one of Nolan’s key hires was Vikings’ defensive coordinator George Edwards, drafting Taylor makes sense because they can use him the way Minnesota used their edge rushers.
Taylor also shows potential as a run defender. He routinely set the edge, but that’s about all he did because the running back just cut inside and got tackled by the 2nd-level defenders. He also happened to struggle against technically-refined tackles, such as Georgia’s Isaiah Wilson and Andrew Thomas, who are much longer and stronger than he is. They were able to neutralize his bend by just setting themselves outside and having longer arms than Taylor did (33 inches, the same length as Nick Bosa).
However, not getting dominated by tackles of that caliber itself makes him an intriguing prospect. He needs to develop more pass-rush moves and get better at getting off blocks because those are 2 key elements holding him back. If Tomsula can get the best out of Taylor by improving his instincts and intelligence as well as his pass rush arsenal, the former Vol could end up as a potential starter after 2 seasons, but he’ll most likely start off as a developmental piece who can line up anywhere from 3-technique defensive tackle to 7-technique end in a 4-3.
Round 4, Pick 123: Harrison Bryant, TE, Florida Atlantic
Dallas signed Blake Jarwin to a 3-year extension worth $9.25 million earlier this offseason. However, the Cowboys are very thin at tight end outside of him, especially with the lack of development from Dalton Schultz. Jarwin showed a lot of upside last season, even though the coaching staff decided to prioritize a fossilized Jason Witten over him for some odd reason. Witten clearly wasn’t the Hall-of-Famer he was before retirement, and his return surely wasn’t a long-term commitment at the position, so good on McCarthy for not resigning him.
Select Harrison Bryant, and the team has its future at tight end. Bryant is a top-5 tight end in a very underrated class, and the label underrated doesn’t do him enough justice. People may knock him for his lack of athleticism, but who really cares? Jarwin is the clear TE1, and Bryant comes in as a pass-catcher if McCarthy’s West Coast offense wants to run 2-tight end sets in 2020.
However, while Bryant is a technically-refined blocker without a doubt, by no means is he George Kittle. He doesn’t have the strength to blow people off the line of scrimmage, so relying on him as a lead-blocker may not be the best idea. The Blake Bell signing indicates that Dallas won’t want to use the tight end they draft as such.
What Bryant can do, though, is roast linebackers and nickel/dime defenders in space with his exceptional route-running. His best example of this on tape was by far the road game against Ohio State, where he burned unanimous All-American and Jim Thorpe finalist cornerback Jeff Okudah, who is projected to be drafted in the top 10, multiple times. Sure, they were down a bunch of points, but this is Ohio State we’re talking about.
An exceptional route is an exceptional route, and Bryant has proven himself to run plenty of those en route to a unanimous All-American selection with little to no surrounding talent. He’s a fantastic player and fits exactly what the Cowboys want in a #2 tight end. Easy selection, especially considering the value of the player with respect to the depth of his position.
Round 5, Pick 164: Jeff Thomas, WR, Miami
Another Cowboys-esque pick. In 2018, Thomas got dismissed from the Miami Hurricanes football team amidst rumors of friction between him and the coaching staff, according to SunSentinel, who also claimed Thomas wasn’t too pleased about not starting the previous game against Virginia Tech. Subsequently, he got into an argument with his wide receivers coach and then made the decision to hold out of practice and meetings the following day, according to the Miami Herald. Several months later, he rejoined the team after former head coach Mark Richt retired, according to the Miami Herald, then totaling 31 catches for 379 yards and 3 touchdowns.
However, don’t let the stats fool you. When on the field, Thomas gets very open. Miami didn’t exactly have the best offensive talent to complement him, so as a result, his production suffered to some extent. However, he’s everything Dallas wants in a slot receiver. Thomas is a versatile receiver who can be used all over Kellen Moore’s playbook. He is a fantastic deep threat, a great route runner at almost every level, and he’s very fast. Sure, his production at Miami seems like a major underperformance, but once again, everything else in Miami sucked.
The reason this pick makes way too much sense for the Cowboys is because of the aforementioned versatility. Thomas was a fantastic kick returner for the Hurricanes and he fills the role left by the departures of Tavon Austin and Randall Cobb in free agency. However, he does drop passes (wow, what a perfect fit), so there may be an element of risk with this pick. He also lacks size, but that really doesn’t matter in a slot receiver. Dallas isn’t drafting him out of desperation; they’re drafting him because he’s a great fit and serves multiple positions for which they don’t have quality players.
Furthermore, if every Cowboys fan’s dream of a Dez Bryant return comes to fruition, fantastic. Thomas still gets a valuable special teams role as a punt returner and would definitely be on the kickoff team, but gets to refine his craft from a former All-Pro. Either way, taking on a player who’s had character issues in the past, and especially one who’s trying to make himself better on and off-the-field, is a Jerry Jones pick through and through.
Round 5, Pick 179: Parnell Motley, CB, Oklahoma
Motley is the most underrated football player in this entire class. This is a compensatory pick as well, so keep that in mind. Even with the selection of Gladney (at least in this mock), Dallas doesn’t have quality corner depth, especially with Awuzie, veteran Maurice Canady, and Lewis all on expiring contracts at the end of the season, the Cowboys need depth and should sign one of those free-agent corners, at best.
Since this is a compensatory pick, Dallas can essentially look for a guy who can contribute on special teams right away, as well as a corner who can perform adequately in nickel and dime packages. Whenever people see Oklahoma and defense, they just assume the worst out of defensive players from the program. However, Motley played extremely well against solid Big-12 and SEC competition.
Is it really the worst idea for the Cowboys to take an instinctual corner who can also provide a lot of help on special teams? Besides, it’s not like Dallas has very many needs on defense outside of adding depth to the interior defensive line, finding corners, and drafting safeties. So, Motley’s the guy here, and for a comp pick, building potential cornerback depth and adding a gunner makes this a worthwhile selection.
Round 7, Pick 231: Jalen Elliott, S, Notre Dame
Speaking of special teams, the Cowboys lost ace gunner Kavon Frazier in free agency and don’t intend to resign him. Why not replace that loss by drafting Elliott in the 7th round? He’s one of the many defensive backs from Notre Dame that have entered the NFL, along with the likes of Alohi Gilman and Troy Pride this year, and Julian Love last year. Either way, this pick, similar to the Motley pick, makes too much sense. If there’s a developmental safety who could contribute on special teams, might as well make the pick.
After all, the Cowboys’ special teams unit was absolutely terrible last season, and they definitely need new, fresh bodies to assist their offense and defense with the field position game. The 2010 San Diego Chargers had the league’s best offense and defense but didn’t qualify for the playoffs because of poor special teams play. For full disclosure, a special teamer should be taken here, especially a gunner, but if the Cowboys took a punter with this pick or the compensatory pick, that warrants no surprises.