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2018 NFC East draft preview: Dallas Cowboys need to replace Dez Bryant

What else do the Cowboys need to accomplish?

Dallas Cowboys v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The 2018 NFL Draft is fast approaching. A lot of time has been spent wondering and analyzing what the New York Giants will do with the second overall pick — rightly so. Another important aspect of the draft will be how the other NFC East teams will approach the event. The Giants were last in the division during 2017 and by a significant margin. The three other teams each had at least seven wins and one of them won that important last game of the season that’s typically a pretty big deal.

Next up on the docket is the Dallas Cowboys.

2017 season review

After a dominant 2016, the Cowboys fell back down the earth in 2017. Some will pin that on the suspension of Ezekiel Elliott, but Dallas was still second in rushing DVOA last season with Alfred Morris and Rod Smith starting a combined six games. The problem was a since released ineffective Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams as a No. 2 receiver helped drop the passing offense from third in passing DVOA to 18th in 2017.

The defense was also bad — 25th in DVOA — though looking at raw stats — just 13th in points allowed and eighth in yards allowed — wouldn’t tell that story.

Overall 9-7 was a pretty good result for what the Cowboys ran out on a week-to-week basis, but it felt like a much bigger letdown after the promise of an 11-5 2016.

Offseason overview

Dallas wasn’t very active in free agency because they really didn’t have the cap space to be. If there’s a manual on how not to manage a cap by giving out inefficient big contracts while creating space by continually pushing money into future seasons, it was written by the Joneses.

The construction of the Cowboys’ books limited them to signing Allen Hurns as their only free agent of any consequence. The two-year/$11 million deal might look like a steal now with the increased role Hurns will see with the release of Bryant. Parting ways with the the former franchise receiver did create $8.5 million of cap room — though that would more useful in March than April — but it also left $8 million on dead money in 2018.

In a vacuum dead money can be a little overrated because teams do have the means to pay more in salaries than the cap allows. The real problem comes for teams like the Cowboys who eventually see all their contract restructures catch up with them. On top of the dead money allotted to Bryant, there’s still $8.9 million on the books for Tony Romo and a total of around $23 million tied up in six former players.

Any major outside spending was also halted by the need to use the franchise tag on Demarcus Lawrence at $17.1 million. Lawrence broke out and led the NFL is pass pressures per Sports Info Solutions charted from Football Outsiders and had the eighth-highest percentage of his team’s total pressures (27.1 percent). Dallas signed Kony Ealy to a one-year/$1.25 million contract in an attempt to give some pass rush help along with recent draft picks Charles Tapper and Taco Charlton.

Roster weaknesses

Wide receiver was going to be weak with Dez Bryant on the team, now it might be the worst group of pass catchers in the league — and this is from someone who believes Allen Hurns to be quite good. Even if there’s a lack of No. 1 receivers in this year’s draft class, almost anything would help a group that will continue to rely on Terrance Williams to play a big part. Linebacker is a wasteland of false promise. Sean Lee is one of the league’s best linebackers when healthy, but that’s continually been a problem throughout his career and he’ll turn 32 in July. 2016 second-round pick Jaylon Smith has struggled to regain his pre-injury form and hasn’t come close to the impact of Myles Jack, who was in a similar situation coming into the league. Dallas struggled covering both tight ends (25th by DVOA) and running backs (28th) last season. The defensive interior had some surprising performances from Maliek Collins and David Irving, but that’s still a place where an upgrade could be made. Tight end should also be a priority in Day 2 with little depth behind a soon-to-be 36-year-old Jason Witten.

Draft capital

Round/Pick (overall)

1.19 (19)

2.18 (50)

3.17 (81)

4.16 (116)

4.37 (137)

5.34 (171)

6.18 (192)

6.19 (193)

6.34 (208)

7.18 (236)

Dallas holds at least one pick in every round — though not all picks are original — and added fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-round picks as compensatory selections. The third sixth-round pick came in part of a pick swap in a trade that acquired fullback Jamize Olawale from the Oakland Raiders.

Potential draft targets

Since there’s no consensus of a true No. 1-type receiver in this class, Dallas could go many ways with that position if that’s the target in the first round. SMU’s Courtland Sutton, Alabama’s Calvin Ridley, and Maryland’s D.J. Moore all bring different skill sets to the table and all could be in play at pick 19.

Linebacker would also be a top priority and if one of the big-two — Roquan Smith or Trumaine Edmunds — fell to the late-teens, expect the Cowboys to jump at the opportunity. If both go as high as expected, Dallas could pick between Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch and Alabama’s Rashaan Evans. Vander Esch holds a significant edge in athleticism (97th percentile in SPARQ) and would be able to fill more of the holes where the Cowboys struggled last season, especially in coverage. Vander Esch is the most commonly mocked player to Dallas, per SB Nation’s tracker, but that’s in just 19 percent of the sampled mock drafts.

It would appear to be a safe bet that one of those two positions would be the target at that spot, though the specific player in mind may vary.

Prospect Meetings/Visits

Per Blogging The Boys’ tracker

James Daniels, C, Iowa

Will Hernandez, OG, UTEP

Connor Williams, OT, Texas

Kolton Miller, OT, UCLA

Desmond Harrison, OT, West Georgia

Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama

D.J. Moore, WR, Maryland

Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M

James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State

Antonio Callaway, WR, Florida

Daurice Fountain, WR, Northern Iowa

Vita Vea, DI, Washington

Da’Ron Payne, DI, Alabama

Taven Bryan DI, Florida

Harold Landry, EDGE, Boston College

Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State

Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama

Darius Leonard, LB, South Carolina State

Nyheim Hines, RB, NC State

Deshon Elliott, S, Texas