March 1, 2021

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Evaluating 3 potential draft scenarios and determining which is best for the Dallas Cowboys

With Super Bowl LV in the books, it’s officially the offseason, so get ready for a steady diet of mock drafts in the lead up to the 2021 NFL draft festivities.

One of the reasons why mock drafts are so popular is the unpredictable nature of the NFL draft, as it’s impossible to foresee what 32 separate franchises are going to do on draft day. There are so many plausible scenarios and, oftentimes, some implausible come to fruition as well.

The Dallas Cowboys, specifically, could go in myriad directions during this year’s draft. They’re likely to go heavy on the defensive side of the ball given the team’s needs there, but don’t discount Dallas fortifying its strengths on the offensive side of the ball, especially early, as this class lacks top-tier defensive talent but is littered with blue-chip prospects on offense.

Given that Dallas’ draft could go in a variety of directions, I thought it would be a great opportunity to compare, contrast and evaluate three different Cowboys scenarios in an effort to see which combinations tend to net the best results for the franchise.

As always, I used The Draft Network’s Mock Draft Machine to guide the process and keep the picks as realistic as possible.

Let’s dive in:

Scenario 1

Round 1: Northwestern OT Rashawn Slater
Round 2: Syracuse CB Ifeatu Melifonwu
Round 3: NC State DT Alim McNeill

In this scenario, while many are screaming for Dallas to go defense in Round 1, the team opts to solidify its offensive line by selecting the most technically proficient offensive tackle prospect in this draft class — Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater. Nonetheless, this selection doesn’t mean impending doom for Tyron Smith or La’el Collins, as Slater’s mediocre length has many projecting him inside to guard anyways. I think Slater would be just fine at tackle in the NFL, so if and when the Cowboys lose either of their starting tackles, Slater could easily bump outside and maintain Dallas’ level of play on the edges.

In the second round, new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn gets a cornerback who possesses nearly all the traits he craves in a cornerback. Measuring in at 6-2 and 213 pounds with 32-inch arms, Melifonwu is a long and athletic cornerback who thrives in zone coverage while possessing the traits to grow into an effective press-man cornerback as well. Pairing Melifonwu with Trevon Diggs would give Dallas two long, rangy DBs with ball skills who could be dominant deep-third defenders.

In the third round, NC State’s Alim McNeill gives the Cowboys the run-stopping true nose tackle that they have needed for quite some time. McNeill stacks and sheds blocks, and occupies double teams with consistency, and there’s no doubt he’d quickly become a favorite of both Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith. In addition, McNeill, who played running back in high school, possesses sneaky athleticism that could enable him to contribute more as a pass rusher than the typical 6-2 and 320-pounder.

This scenario proves that even if the Cowboys opt to go offense in Round 1, they can still improve the defense in Rounds 2 and 3.

Scenario 2

Round 1: Alabama CB Patrick Surtain
Round 2: UCF S Richie Grant
Round 3: LSU LB Jabril Cox

In Scenario 2, instead of grabbing the most technically proficient tackle in the class in Round 1, the Cowboys get the most technically proficient CB instead. Without even seeing the name on the back of his jersey, it’s not a surprise that Alabama’s Patrick Surtain is the son of a former All-Pro CB. He checks all the technical boxes you look for in a CB. Surtain has smooth feet, great eyes and effective hands. He’s extremely patient at the line of scrimmage, plays to his leverage and processes routes extremely well. Surtain isn’t a burner by any means, but he proved in the National Championship against two future NFL WRs in Ohio State’s Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson that he has enough speed to carry vertical routes from press alignments against NFL caliber talent.

In the second round, the Cowboys are able to grab the all-important centerfield safety in Dan Quinn’s base Cover 3 scheme. UCF’s Richie Grant is a rangy and intelligent safety who isn’t afraid to come downhill and throw his body into the fray against the run, either. He also proved at the Senior Bowl to have legitimate man coverage ability against wide receivers and tight ends alike. Grant is an older prospect (will turn 24 during his rookie season) and isn’t the biggest safety (5-11 and 200 pounds), but his ability to be an impactful defender from a single-high safety role makes him more than worth it in the second round.

In the third round, the Cowboys continue to carpet bomb the defensive side of the ball, selecting LSU LB Jabril Cox. Much like Surtain and Grant, Cox adds the most value against the pass, as he’s skilled in zone coverage and effective in man coverage. During the Senior Bowl practices, Cox was the only LB who didn’t make a fool of himself during the one-on-ones, as he stayed in the hip pocket of running backs and tight ends throughout the week. Don’t get it twisted, however, the 6-2 and 233-pounder has promising traits against the run as well. He’s not the quickest processor, but he has sideline-to-sideline speed and does a better job taking on blocks than most sub-240-pound LBs.

The NFL is a passing league, and the three selections in this scenario would go a long way toward fortifying Dallas’ pass defense.

Scenario 3

Round 1: Florida TE Kyle Pitts
Round 2: Miami EDGE Jaelan Phillips
Round 3: Washington DB Elijah Molden

Scenario 3 was done with a pure best-player-available (BPA) approach in mind, as there was little regard for positional importance or need.

Florida’s Kyle Pitts could become the Cowboys’ version of Travis Kelce, as he’s a true matchup nightmare in the passing game. At 6-6 and 240 pounds, Pitts runs routes like a receiver in a tight end’s body. He effortlessly defeats press coverage, finds holes against zone coverage and can dominate at the catch point even when contested. Pitts is a truly rare passing game talent at the tight end position. In addition, he’s somehow not a terrible run blocker, either. Now, he’s not going to get confused with George Kittle anytime soon, but he has displayed improvement there and can actually add value there with some seasoning.

In Round 2, the BPA approach nets the Cowboys my favorite player in this class — Miami’s Jaelan Phillips. The 6-5 and 266-pounder possesses a potent combination of athleticism and refined technique, as Phillips uses effective footwork deception to manipulate tackles and create advantageous rush angles for himself. In addition, Phillips possesses the bend and cornering ability to threaten tackles around the arc. If it weren’t for a scary injury history, Phillips would warrant consideration (in my opinion, at least) at pick No. 10, so if Dallas can get comfortable with the medicals, grabbing him in the second round would be a boon. Phillips is the best pure pass rusher in this class, in my opinion.

Washington’s Elijah Molden might be the best slot cornerback in this class, and even though he doesn’t possess the size and length Quinn values in his CBs, the 5-10 and 190-pounder’s versatility to play safety in addition to slot CB should make this selection more palatable for Quinn, who has had smaller slot CBs and safeties in the past (such as the 5-9 Brian Poole in Atlanta). Despite his lack of size, Molden is unafraid to come forward and make plays in the run game while his smooth feet, quickness and quick processor enable him to add value in both man and zone coverage against the pass.

Pitts, Phillips and Molden don’t exactly fill Dallas’ most pressing needs, but it’s hard to not like each player individually and what they can contribute even if not necessarily at a need position.

Which scenario is best?

I seriously considered choosing Scenario 3, as the combination of Pitts-Phillips-Molden is extremely enticing. However, I’m just not sure Pitts adds as much value to a team that’s already strong at tight end when there are other prospects who would be similar values but at a position of a need. Now, this could easily change after free agency if Dallas fills a couple key needs with notable talent. As things stand right now, I think the other two scenarios provide the Cowboys with a bit more value.

I’ve gone back and forth repeatedly on whether to choose Scenario 1 or 2 (and I’ll probably change my mind another 15 times before this even publishes), but ultimately, I prefer Scenario 2. The Grant selection in the second round is what put it over the top for me, as this draft class is extremely scarce on safeties who thrive in coverage. So while I felt relatively similarly about the rest of the picks, Grant’s ability to add value in coverage broke the tie.

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