There’s a sizable mix of opinions regarding just how Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones should spend the No. 27 overall first-round pick in the upcoming 2015 NFL Draft, and the six subsequent picks later.
The order of needs for a team coming off its most successful season in half a decade is some mix of defensive end, defensive line, running back, and cornerback. But which position is in more dire need than the others?
In 2014, Jerry Jones used a first-round pick on offensive guard Zack Martin, addressing a serious need that would ultimately provide Dallas with a major boost. This year's most glaring area appears to be the defensive line. The Cowboys pass rush was atrocious last season, finishing No. 28 in the league with 28 total sacks. Dallas did complete a controversial one-year, $11-million deal with pass rusher and defensive end Greg Hardy, but for now that move can be categorized as a band aid and not a long-term solution, especially after Jeremy Mincey bolted for Jacksonville.
The Cowboys defense wound up ranking No. 8 against the rush last season with starting defensive tackles Terrell McClain and Nick Hayden combining for seven run stuffs, and linebackers Rolando McClain and Anthony Hitchens ranked second and third on the team in total tackles, respectively. However, Hayden will be an unrestricted free agent after next season, and McClain’s up for a new deal in 2017. Linebacker is the one area the Cowboys splurged on during free agency last month, re-signing McClain and adding Andrew Gachkar and Jasper Brinkley for only $4.7 million in guaranteed money.
Running back is the most high-profile issue following the departure of 2014’s top rusher DeMarco Murray to the Philadelphia Eagles. Dallas plugged the hole with a two-year, $3 million contract ($1.5 million guaranteed) to former Oakland Raider Darren McFadden, but his injury history and lack of consistent production could mean the Cowboys will waste a year of one of the most effective offensive lines in football.
The Cowboys opted not to address the secondary via free agency, leaving speculation to build that they will spend at least one pick on a vaunted cornerback at some point in the draft. From a fiscal standpoint, Dallas does need some insurance at corner with underachieving 2012 first-round pick Morris Claiborne up for a new deal after next season, and the on-going rift between the front office and high-priced corner Brandon Carr over a pay cut.
Not to mention the top receivers who call the NFC East home. Dallas will have to find solutions for the New York Giants tandem of Odell Beckham Jr. and Victor Cruz, any receiver in Chip Kelly’s lightning-quick Eagles offense, and the Washington Redskins' speedy threat DeSean Jackson.
The Cowboys have already brought in top defensive back prospects for Jerome Henderson's unit, like Florida State’s Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams, Wake Forest’s Kevin Johnson, and Arizona State’s Damarious Randall. More reinforcements are probably needed, and there plenty of options in the draft beyond the likes of cornerbacks Trae Waynes of Michigan State and Marcus Peters of Washington.
The cornerbacks listed below could be strong options for Dallas to pick throughout the seven-round selection process beginning Thursday, April 30.
Byron Jones, CB, Connecticut
Jones’ draft stock took a hit after he missed the last five games of the Huskies 2014 season with a shoulder injury, but he’s now projected to go in the first round after a blazing performance at February’s scouting combine.
Jones is still facing strict scrutiny over his lack of quickness, but he has the size (6'1, 199 pounds) and football IQ to hang in the NFL. Before the injury last year, Jones never missed a game and over four seasons he tallied eight interceptions and 21 passes defended.
With his size and intelligence, Jones can stick to the outside against bigger receivers and allow Orlando Scandrick to stunt pass catchers coming out of the slot.
The main question is whether Dallas wants to use their first rounder on a corner, or snag a running back like Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon or Georgia’s Todd Gurley, each considered to be the top rushers in this year’s draft class. It’s likely neither Gordon nor Gurley will be available when Dallas picks in the second round at No. 60 overall.
Eric Rowe, CB, Utah
Another defensive back with requisite size (6'1, 205 pounds) and an outstanding showing at the combine, but who has drawn criticism from scouts for a lack of down-field speed. Rowe’s stock is somewhere between the first and second round, so Dallas might address the pass rush, defensive line or running back in the first, and land a quality corner in the second.
Rowe’s college career suggests he’d also be an excellent complement to Scandrick on the inside. Playing four years at Utah, Rowe snatched only three interceptions, but totaled 36 passes defended and seven tackles for a loss. Last season alone he had 13 passes defensed and three tackles for a loss.
While there might be other cornerbacks who are more athletic, Rowe might be the most prepared to make an immediate impact. He faced some strong competition in the Pac-12, including potential quarterback picks like Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, UCLA’s Brett Hundley, and Oregon State’s Sean Mannion. Rowe can also play safety, which would add much-needed depth to the position.
Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon
A year ago Ekpre-Olomu was one of the top corner prospects in the country. One year and one torn ACL later, he may be slipping to a third-round pick. Ekpre-Olomu struggled a bit in his final year in Eugene before the injury, but he stood primed to improve his draft stock in Oregon’s postseason before the knee injury occurred.
Nevertheless, he’s still the same corner who ripped down nine career interceptions and 43 passes defended over four seasons, and stood out on an Oregon squad not exactly known for its defensive prowess. Ekpre-Olomu’s height, 5-foot-10, and ongoing rehab for the knee injury do hurt his status. But scouts have tabbed him for the third or fourth round, where he’d be "low-risk and high-reward."
Senquez Golson, CB, Ole Miss
Golson didn’t put up any particularly eye-popping times at the combine, and his glaring lack of size (5'9, 176 pounds) can easily explain why he’s projected to fall to the early fourth round.
Yet it’s hard to discredit the incredible 2014 season Golson had. As one of the leaders of a resurgent Ole Miss defense that led the packed SEC in points allowed (13.8) and tied for the lead in interceptions forced (22), Golson was first in the conference with 10 of those picks and added a career-high eight passes defended.
Eventually garnering All-American and All-SEC first-team honors, scouts have heaped praise on Golson’s ball skills and his tackling and speed in the open field. It’s very possible the undervalued Golson could be the corner Dallas expected Claiborne to be when they traded up to No. 6 overall to land him in 2012.
Pushing back the need for a corner into the middle rounds of the draft will allow the Cowboys some flexibility in the early rounds. If Dallas firmly believes Golson will still be available in the third or fourth round, they can pick up a top pass rusher or running back and then address cornerback with Golson.