The 2020 Dallas Cowboys are in a unique situation. The team has plenty of talent and a high-level quarterback at their disposal; and yet the team is teetering on the brink of disaster this season among a gaggle of sorry teams across the NFC East. The Philadelphia Eagles appear to be the de facto favorites in the division if for no other reason than they've shown some life as of late and are within a game of .500 on the season. That's a heck of a whole lot more than can be said for Dallas, Washington, and New York.
And while both Washington and New York were not supposed to be highly competitive this season, Dallas' tumble through the standings appeared imminent even before star quarterback Dak Prescott was knocked out of the lineup for the season with an ugly leg injury. That injury, along with several others on Dallas' offensive line, has snowballed into a sloppy, messy team with shortcomings on both sides of the ball that can no longer be masked by the team's identity. And with Prescott playing this season on the franchise tag and the Cowboys facing salary cap hell in the years to come based off of their ambitious spending spree over the last 18 months, the speculation is high that Dallas could swing the pendulum a different direction if the team is bad enough to land a top quarterback prospect.
That's a notion that would resolve many of Dallas' pending money issues and give the team a ton of assets to reload and work around the rest of the team's current infrastructure. But it is also a notion that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has pushed back against firmly.
“You asked me if it was crazy to bring the idea (of drafting a QB) up, and I’m answering you. Yes,” said Jones this week on his show on 105.3 The Fan. “We’re playing games here, guys, but it’s nothing to be talking about at all. Dak is our quarterback.”
Crazy could also be classified as paying a running back (Ezekiel Elliott) a six-year, $90M contract or a linebacker (Jaylon Smith) a six-year, $68M contract—and that's why we're in the frame of mind to play hypothetical games with how the Cowboys wriggle free of the complex cap situation that seems destined to await them. But presume Jones is being a straight shooter in this instance and the Cowboys pony up for the long-term contract that they were so hesitant to agree upon all summer, that won't help the Cowboys get any better this season. And Dallas is bad.
So what direction would make the most sense for Dallas to use their early draft selection on if the team commits to Prescott and is still picking in the top-five or top-10 picks of the 2021 NFL Draft?
OT Penei Sewell, Oregon Ducks
The long-term forecast for Tyron Smith is, well, not great. Smith, when he's healthy, is a stud. But he'll be 30 next season, he's struggled to stay healthy in recent years due to back and now neck issues. Smith hasn't played in 16 games since 2015. Dallas faces a cap hit in excess of $14M for his services in each of the next three seasons with over $13.5M in new cash due in both 2022 and 2023.
If Dallas wants the identity of their team to remain up front, they'd be wise to just go best player available and target the stud left tackle from the Ducks. His athleticism and size are a pretty special package, not dissimilar to what Dallas got when they drafted Smith in the top 10 all those years ago.
CB Patrick Surtain Jr., Alabama Crimson Tide
Surtain Jr. is trending toward becoming the 2021 NFL Draft's top available cornerback thanks to his rare size and athleticism and some terrific NFL bloodlines. The Cowboys bet big on the second level of their defense with the extension to Smith and the health of Leighton Vander Esch instead of retaining cornerback Byron Jones, who drew plenty of ire during his time in Dallas for a lack of interceptions despite really good overall play. Jones went on to sign with the Miami Dolphins this offseason and has been one half of one of the most effective cornerback duos in football alongside Xavien Howard.
Meanwhile, Dallas' secondary has been a train wreck. The team banked too hard on rookie cornerback Trevon Diggs (2020 second-round pick) to pick up the slack and the defense has conceded 21 passing touchdowns in nine games versus just three interceptions logged. The Cowboys will face sweeping changes here either way with so many expiring contracts in the secondary—if the team were to "start fresh" and hope that a young stud can be the glue that holds the unit together, Surtain Jr. would be a great one to keep an eye on. This is a more likely fit for Dallas if they finish outside the top-three overall picks in the 2021 order.
This should be pretty high up on Dallas' list of priorities behind a game-changer on either side of the ball. Why? Because a large part of Dallas' current predicament is that the team lacks flexibility. There's little change of direction Dallas can currently embrace from the current nucleus of their team—and if it turns out the team bet on the wrong pieces, those contracts will erode the rest of the roster until the Cowboys can free themselves from the cap commitments. For a team that still has plenty of talent and plenty of worthwhile pieces, moving back offers more ammunition, more swings of the bat, cheaper contracts, and opportunities to bring in more cheaper, younger players to help phase out the talent that is leaching off the cap.
Finding a dance partner could be complicated if the run on quarterbacks happens early—Dallas picking sixth and seeing three quarterbacks plus Sewell and Surtain Jr. going ahead of them is their absolute worst nightmare from a value perspective. But even if the team gets boxed in without a trade market, they can still pivot another direction, too.
DE Greg Rousseau, Miami Hurricanes
The returns of both Aldon Smith and Randy Gregory are fun stories—and Gregory is actually playing quite well opposite DeMarcus Lawrence. But there's no such thing as too much pass rush, and the Cowboys have struggled with a second legit threat for several seasons now.
Rousseau may have sat out the 2020 season in his preparations for the 2021 NFL Draft, but don't sleep on his potential to be an absolute terror rushing the passer. He's long, explosive, and very naturally gifted. This is probably the kind of fit Dallas would rally to if Sewell and Surtain Jr. are both off the board and the team isn't able to find a dance partner to facilitate a trade back.