The Dallas Cowboys draft class and choices during the 2021 NFL Draft raised plenty of eyebrows. One thing is for sure, the Cowboys placed a much higher value on what they saw on the field versus off of it.
Let’s take a look at some of the takeaway from the Cowboys draft class.
1. Cowboys willing to look past character concerns
Is Micah Parsons the Next Zeke?
There have been mixed reviews on this Cowboys draft class, with most of the negative commentary coming from the risk involving several prospects and their history off the field. That starts with first-round pick Micah Parsons, who many predicted to slide into the latter half of day one over issues that consistently popped up in high school and college.
There were also reports of teams taking him completely off their board following his virtual visit with them. That could stem from him lying about the incidents, making excuses or deflecting blame to others when teams want to see maturity and accountability.
Whatever the case is, Dallas has possibly opened up the door to be in a similar situation to the one with Ezekiel Elliott, where it seemed like his name was routinely in the news surrounding something negative.
Second-round pick, Kelvin Joseph also has a history of issues that surrounded him leaving LSU after his freshman year. In fact, the top two prospects in this class that were expected to be picked significantly lower than their play on the field warranted were Parsons and Joseph.
Fourth-rounder Josh Ball also fits into this category. Given the details involving abuse with his college girlfriend at Florida State, it’s safe to say that every team Ball talked with had an extensive conversation with him about the situation.
Fans of America’s Team are sure to roll their eyes and chalk this up to Jerry Jones’ history of giving second (and third) chances to players like this. Still, in recent years, Stephen Jones and Will McClay seemed to cut down on the number of risks Dallas takes on prospects with character red flags.
This roster already has several players that are examples of the Cowboys and NFL’s willingness to give second and third chances. Hopes are that the players with more exemplary reputations will be the role models for guys like Parsons, Joseph, and Ball.
2. Dallas’ inability to move up, despite having ammunition
Top Two Corners go Eight and Nine
This might be the most prominent narrative from the three-day event for Dallas. It started on day one when the Cowboys saw both Jaycee Horn and Patrick Surtain picked at eight and nine.
We heard plenty of pre-draft whispers that teams were looking to jump Dallas for one of the corners, but it appeared Carolina and Denver were intent on staying put because they had their own plans of addressing the position.
Snooze You Lose on Day-Two Safeties
In addition, Dallas showed plenty of interest in each of the top safeties in this class. When all Jevon Holland, Richie Grant, and Trevon Moehrig all made it to the second round, it seemed like the Cowboys were destined to secure one of them.
I felt Christian Barmore could be some Dallas had their eyes on as well, but one by one, each was taken, capped by Las Vegas jumping the Cowboys to select Moehrig.
I even have questions about Dallas sitting back while Milton Williams slid into the third round, and several other names were mentioned in which Dallas had interest only to see them drafted just before they came up.
Are 11 Draft Picks Really Neccessary?
What’s so frustrating about those scenarios, if they are indeed true, is that following their first-round trade, the Cowboys had 11 picks in this class. It’s highly doubtful that even eight rookies make this roster out of camp, which raises the question, why didn’t this team use some of their draft capital to move up.
If there were indeed players that they coveted, why not use a later pick to help move up and secure them? Given the number of times it seemed like Dallas had to move on to Plan B, you would think we would have seen them get more aggressive as the draft went on.
3. Front office over-compensates for Dan Quinn after failing to help Mike Nolan a year ago
The most significant positive that Cowboys fans can take from the draft is that this front office will not repeat the same mistake in two straight offseasons. A year ago, Mike Nolan planned to transition this defense to an odd-front scheme that couldn’t have been further from what Dallas had run under Rod Marinelli.
There were minimal additions to accommodate that switch, and while Nolan got fired as the scapegoat, the front office deserves their fair share of the blame. As usual, the front office didn’t get caught up in the feeding frenzy of free agency, choosing instead to spend modest while locking up Dak Prescott long-term.
Defensive Coordinator Won’t be Doomed by Front Office
So, the draft was going to feature their most impactful additions to this defensive unit, and the front office delivered. Eight of their 11 draft picks were spent on defenders, including each of the first six.
They added three defensive linemen, two linebackers, and three defensive backs. More importantly, it sounds like they drafted all eight to fill different roles in this defense. Each of the three defensive linemen fit best at different spots along the front, though Osa Odighizuwa could end up seeing time at various positions.
Parsons and Jabril Cox are also very different players based on their size, although both fly to the football. It also sounds like Israel Mukuamu will initially play safety on this roster, while Joseph and Nahshon Wright will compete at corner.
These were all picks endorsed by Quinn, which guarantees that he will have players that fit what he wants to do on defense. We should see several impact players come out of this bunch very early.
4. Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch definitely on thin ice
This became one of the instant narratives to Quinn’s hiring. One of the first things he did when taking over in Atlanta was to overhaul their linebacker core with players that fit his system.
Is This the Beginning of the End for Smith/LVE?
While Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith are talented, proven players, they’ve each put themselves in a position to be dispensable through recent play or injuries. While one could argue that they are similar to the kind of linebackers Quinn had in Seattle, there is no arguing that they are nothing like the smaller, quicker players he employed in Atlanta.
After Dallas chose not to release Smith in March, guaranteeing his salary , I thought we’d see both Smith and Vander Esch get an opportunity to win Quinn over in 2021. After all, the Cowboys can always cut Smith next spring to get out of his deal while only paying him $6.8M in 2022 while saving between $12-14M each of the next three years.
They also recently chose to decline the fifth-year option on Vander Esch, making 2021 a prove-it year for both. After the selection of Parsons and Cox, it’s fair to question if they will even get that chance.
New Additions are Going to Play for Dallas
They’re not taking Parsons to sit on the bench. He’s one of the better linebacker prospects we’ve seen in the draft in some time, and I had a higher grade on him than I did Smith or Vander Esch when they came out.
Dallas has also made it clear that they have a role in mind for Keanu Neal, and I wouldn’t be shocked if his biggest competition for that role was Cox, who Dallas stole in the fourth round.
I’m not sure how many reps that leaves open for the combination that many thought was one of the best young duos at the position in 2018. At the end of the day, I believe the best players will play in 2021, and the front office made it clear that they want Vander Esch around long-term.
Still, if things go as planned for the Cowboys’ two newest additions at the position, I’m not sure Smith or Vander Esch has a future here.
5. Cowboys want length on their defensive front
A year ago, the most significant transition this defense was making in the new system was going from a one-gap penetrating scheme under Marinelli to a two-gap strategy under Nolan. The physical profile of what you want in those two schemes couldn’t be more different, as one employs undersized athletes, while the other wants big, long-armed space-eaters.
Vander Esch and Smith may not look like their former-Pro Bowl selves for various reasons, but none are more prominent than the play of the guys in front of them. However, it’s hard to blame guys like Trysten Hill and the recently-cut Antwaun Woods , considering they don’t have the girth or arm length to manhandle blockers and hold up against double teams.
Quinn’s Hybrid Scheme is Great Fit
Having said that, what excites me about Quinn’s system is that it’s a hybrid scheme that requires both kinds of players. While the under tackle is more of a one-gap penetrator, the nose and interior-shaded end are both two-gap players most of the time.
This means guys Hill will have a defined role in our base defense, and if I’m being honest, the under-tackle position is more suitable for Neville Gallimore as well. Still, for the other two spots, this team needs those long-armed linemen, and Dallas delivered in the draft.
Starting to Look the Part up Front
Between Odighizuwa, Chauncey Golston, and Quinton Bohanna, all three have arms that measure 34 inches or longer, and you can include free-agent additions Carlos Watkins and Brent Urban into that category as well. That’s what teams look for in a left tackle, where arm-length is one of the most critical assets to the prototypical player.
So, to say that Dallas was committed to making sure they had the right kind of physical build to fill those spots is accurate. They still need to go out and perform on the field, but at least they won’t be at a physical disadvantage going into the action.