NFL draft makeover: What roster help do Cowboys need to regain respectability?

Eric Edholm
·7 min read

Every week during the 2020 NFL season, we’re going to — just being honest here — overreact to what we’ve seen on the field the previous Sunday and start projecting NFL draft prospects to teams that might need help at certain spots.

Think of it as a mini one-team mock draft, with early (Rounds 1-2), middle (Rounds 3-4) and late (Round 5 and later) prospects at each team’s respective position of concern.

This week’s NFL draft makeover focuses on the Dallas Cowboys. What does this team need to return to contention?

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

Heading into their bye week, the Dallas Cowboys are 2-7, exactly a month removed from their last victory.

Over the past four games, all losses, they’ve scored 41 points and allowed 110. Those 110 points are a vast improvement over the first five games of the season, when the Cowboys gave up a whopping 180, with three of those games being played in Dallas.

At least the offense was decent back then. Since, the Cowboys have lost their franchise QB (Dak Prescott), both starting offensive tackles (Tyron Smith and La’el Collins) and their second-round cornerback (Trevon Diggs).

The last time the Cowboys were this banged up on offense was in 2015, when they lost Tony Romo, Dez Bryant and others, and Dallas’ current offensive coordinator — Kellen Moore — was the starting quarterback to finish out a 4-12 season.

The bad news? Dallas started 2-7 that year, too.

The good news? The following offseason, they drafted Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and Jaylon Smith and rebounded with a 13-3 season.

Is a turnaround of that magnitude possible in 2021? It wouldn’t be the most absurd thing ever. After all, Prescott should be back one way or another, the NFC East is a landfill, the Cowboys’ scouting staff is considering one of the league’s best and head coach Mike McCarthy (who has been told he’ll be back) should have something approximating a normal offseason to fix things.

McCarthy — happy birthday, coach! — engineered a five-game improvement in his second season as Green Bay Packers coach. If he’s going to do it again in Dallas, the Cowboys will need to boost the talent on both sides of the ball.

Our birthday gift to McCarthy? A 2021 NFL draft roadmap of how the Cowboys could navigate some critical additions this coming offseason.

Oregon OT Penei Sewell opted out of the 2020 season but might be the best non-QB prospect in the 2021 NFL draft. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Oregon OT Penei Sewell opted out of the 2020 season but might be the best non-QB prospect in the 2021 NFL draft. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Early-round prospect

Oregon OT Penei Sewell

As of this week, the Cowboys are picking third overall. Ahead of them are the New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars. Assuming both of those teams select quarterbacks — Trevor Lawrence followed by Justin Fields would be our best guesses now — the Cowboys could be positioned to select the best non-QB in the entire class.

That pick is Sewell.

In fact, there’s little doubt about that, even if a few scouts have grumbled that there are no perfect prospects and that the 6-foot-6, 325-pound Sewell isn’t the finished product that some might have you believe.

We’re willing to bypass their hesitation and pencil Sewell in for Dallas. Why? Well, even assuming Smith and Collins return, the Cowboys need help up front.

Smith turns 31 next year, averaged three missed games per season the past four years and will miss all but two this season. Can Dallas count on him? Collins also has missed this whole season, and he has played guard before.

From a need standpoint, it makes sense. And from a talent one, too. I asked two famous Ducks offensive linemen about Sewell this summer. Sure, they’re biased, but Kyle Long and Geoff Schwartz couldn’t hide their infatuation with Sewell as an NFL prospect.

Long compared Sewell to All-Pro Ronnie Stanley of the Baltimore Ravens, who recently became one of the game’s highest paid offensive linemen.

“I’ve got to tell you … this kid Penei Sewell is violent, he is consistent, he’s a good teammate from all I’ve heard, and he’s tough as [heck],” Long told Yahoo Sports. “And you know what? He seems like a nice kid. And that’s a really, really bad combination for defensive linemen.”

Added Schwartz: “I think he’s the best offensive tackle prospect since Joe Thomas.”

So there you have it, Cowboys: Draft Sewell and figure where everyone should play later. It’s not that hard.

Mid-round prospect

LSU DT Tyler Shelvin

The good news for the Cowboys is that even though they currently have only seven draft picks, they’re projected to land four more compensatory selections — one each in Rounds 3, 4, 5 and 6.

That is a good allotment to help fix all the problems on defense. In my draft simulation, I had them addressing the defensive backfield in Round 2, with a big hole at safety and only Diggs and Saivion Smith as cornerbacks of note who are under contract for 2021.

So here, I turn my attention to the defensive front.

There’s a bigger issue inside. The team let Maliek Collins walk and since have cut Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe. Rookie Neville Gallimore is worth investing in, but 2019 second-rounder Trysten Hill is starting to feel like a bust, Tyrone Crawford is a free agent in March and the production up front has been shockingly poor.

LSU DT Tyler Shelvin could help shore up the Cowboys' interior. (Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports)
LSU DT Tyler Shelvin could help shore up the Cowboys' interior. (Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports)

The 2021 class looks weak at tackle. I don’t know that more than three land in the first two rounds.

Shelvin opting out certainly hurt his chances to rise into that top-50 mix; it’s more likely he goes lower if he comes out. For all of his potential — and it’s vast — we can’t stamp a huge grade on a player with a shade over 700 college snaps (none in 2020) and minimal production.

That said, he could be the space eater the Cowboys could use up front. Those linebackers need a personal protector, and the run defense has been ghastly, so the 6-3, 350-pound Shelvin should fill the role Poe could not.

Late-round prospect

Notre Dame EDGE Daelin Hayes

There are issues on the edge, too.

Demarcus Lawrence, the Cowboys’ best defensive player, hits the salary cap at $25 million next year. Aldon Smith has been a good reclamation project, but is a misstep away from another suspension. The same applies to Randy Gregory. Recent Day 3 draft picks Dorance Armstrong and Bradlee Anae have not shown much.

If they went this direction in the middle rounds, there are some good candidates to help out. But the Cowboys might be able to wait and find a gem in Day 3.

Notre Dame EDGE Daelin Hayes is starting to come into his own this season. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Notre Dame EDGE Daelin Hayes is starting to come into his own this season. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Would Hayes last to Round 5? It’s hard to say. He received Day 3 grades over the summer coming off his injury-marred 2019 campaign but has been very good so far this season. And the more Notre Dame wins, the more people will realize how vital a role he plays for an Irish defense that allowed 62 points in six games before Clemson came to town.

The 6-3, 266-pound Hayes (scout’s measurement) is a team captain who has five tackles for loss, three sacks and two forced fumbles in seven games. He has an NFL build, minus some shorter arms, and maxes out his athletic traits.

Hayes will be a better pro than where he could be drafted. This is a deep class of edge rushers, and he might not be the sexiest prospect, but Hayes would be excellent value if he were to land outside the top 100-plus picks.

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