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NFC East Review: Evaluating the Dallas Cowboys’ 2021 draft class

How did the Cowboys do in the 2021 NFL Draft?

Penn State v Memphis Photo by Benjamin Solomon/Getty Images

Defense. Defense. Defense.

The overwhelming needs for the Cowboys heading into the 2021 NFL Draft were on defense after the team allowed a franchise-record 473 points and 6,183 yards last season.

The major question however, was whether or not they would address them.

At the end of the three days, eight of Dallas’ 11 selections in the draft were on the defensive side of the ball. So it is safe to say that the Cowboys addressed their major weaknesses. There was a fear that Dallas would pull another CeeDee Lamb-type pick in the first round and grab Jaylen Waddle or DeVonta Smith if both or either was still on the board at No. 10. But it became clear that their priority was defense. The Panthers selected cornerback Jaycee Horn and then the Broncos traded up to take the other top cornerback in the draft, Patrick Surtain II with the No. 9 overall pick. The Cowboys could have stayed put at No. 10 and taken Smith if he was still on the board. Instead, they made a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles to gain additional draft capital and then selected the top remaining defensive player on the board at No. 12 in Micah Parsons.

That trade set the tone for the Cowboys in the rest of the draft: defense was the priority. With the new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn no doubt exerting some influence, the Cowboys’ first six selections in the draft — linebacker Micah Parsons, cornerback Kelvin Joseph, defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa, defensive end Chauncey Golston, cornerback Nahshon Wright and linebacker Jabril Cox — were defensive players.

The most defenders ever selected by Dallas in the Jerry Jones era before this year’s draft was four back in 2012. For the first time since the start of the seven-round draft in 1994, the Cowboys drafted eight defensive players (out of 11 total players selected).

Below is the complete list of the Cowboys’ 2021 NFL Draft picks:

  • Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State (12th Overall)
  • Kelvin Joseph, CB, Kentucky (44th Overall)
  • Osa Odighizuwa, DL, UCLA (75th Overall)
  • Chauncey Golston, EDGE, Iowa (84th Overall)
  • Nahshon Wright, CB, Oregon State (99th Overall)
  • Jabril Cox, LB, LSU (115th Overall)
  • Josh Ball, OT, Marshall (138th Overall)
  • Simi Fehoko, WR, Stanford (179th Overall)
  • Quinton Bohanna, DL, Kentucky (192nd Overall)
  • Israel Mukuamu, CB, South Carolina (227th Overall)
  • Matt Farniok, OL, Nebraska (238th Overall)

So, we have established that the Cowboys did indeed focus on the defensive side of the ball. But now let’s take a closer look at the quality of some of the picks.

First-Round Analysis

We know that the Cowboys prioritized defense in the first round in trading back to select Parsons. But was Parsons the guy for them, especially when considering some of the other players on the board?

Parsons opted out of last season at Penn State. On the Tuesday before draft, Jones said that players that opted out are “compromised.” I guess Parsons did not fall in that category...

But we also have to consider the value of the first-round pick and the fact that Northwestern offensive tackle Rashawn Slater was still available. Yes, the Cowboys needed to focus on defense but did they overcorrect and ignore a player who could have become a mainstay on their offensive line for years to come?

Tyron Smith has battled injuries the past five seasons and has not played a full season since 2015. He also missed 14 games last season after undergoing neck surgery. Additionally, right tackle La’el Collins missed every game last season due to hip surgery. Slater could have provided the Cowboys with depth at a position that is poised to become thin very soon.

Off-the-field concerns

Parsons turned out to be the first in a series of players drafted by the Cowboys who bring some off-the-field issues with them to the NFL.

Parsons has had maturity concerns attached to him in high school and college and he missed one start sophomore year due to a “behavioral” issue.” Then in the second round, the Cowboys drafted CB Kelvin Joseph - filling a major need. Joseph recorded five pass deflections and four interceptions at Kentucky in nine games before opting out of the final two games of the 2020 season. Here is what The Athletic’s Dane Brugler wrote about Joseph in his 2021 NFL Draft guide.

…there are character red flags due to youthful immaturity and accountability issues (on and off the field)…some of his former coaches go to bat for him, but some don’t (he “needs to grow up,” according to one former coach)…scouts say his rapping passion might supersede his football passion (has released six albums under the name “YKDV Bossman Fat”)…suspended for the 2018 bowl game for a violation of team rules.

Additionally, Josh Ball, the offensive tackle the Cowboys selected out of Marshall in the fourth round, was found guilty of dating violence in 2018.

Something to keep an eye on moving forward.

The strongest picks

Jabrill Cox, the linebacker out of LSU, is maybe the closest the Cowboys came to a steal in the draft. Dallas nearly picked Cox with their final third-round pick on Friday and was able to get him in the fourth round.

Cox began his college career at North Dakota State before transferring to LSU, where he was eventually named a team captain. He recorded 26 pass deflections and nine interceptions, and the Cowboys hope he will be able to develop into a starter after the 2021 season.

Then there is sixth-round pick Israel Mukuamu, a cornerback out of South Carolina.

While the Cowboys missed out on their chance to draft Jaycee Horn in the first round, Mukuamu was the starting cornerback opposite Horn in South Carolina. While there, Mukuamu recorded seven interceptions and 17 pass deflections. He has experience playing safety in college, which might come in handy considering the Cowboys also selected cornerbacks Kelvin Joseph and Nashon Wright in the draft.

The takeaway

The good news is that the Cowboys prioritized defense in the draft, but the bad news is that they did not always address their specific needs with those picks. Dallas needed a nose tackle but it elected to select defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa in the third round instead. Iowa defensive end Chauncey Golston will join a now-crowded edge rushing group of DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, Tarell Basham Brent Urban, Dorance Armstrong and Bradlee Anae, especially if Micah Parsons is used as a rusher at times. And then there are the three cornerbacks selected.

Quantity does not necessarily mean quality. It therefore remains to be seen if Dallas is able to find a specific use for most, if not all, of the players selected in their 2021 NFL Draft class.