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Cowboys' biggest problem is a quick fix

by KEVIN SHERRINGTON THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS | April 17, 2021 at 2:33 a.m.

DALLAS -- Believe it or not, the NFL season officially kicked off Friday when Caesars William Hill came out with its over/under projections, meaning you can bet whether the Cowboys will finish with more or fewer than 9.5 wins. If Vegas' number seems a little optimistic, given the horrors still fresh from last season, remember the Cowboys have 17 whacks at it now instead of 16.

Give me the over, just barely, and it comes with a caveat: Everyone needs to be at the top of his game. Not just Dak Prescott or Mike McCarthy or DeMarcus Lawrence or John Fassel, but every soul aboard the storm-tossed Star, including the upcoming draft class, in particular.

Last season taught us that even Dak is breakable and Mike Nolan was apparently speaking an unknown tongue, but the greater lesson has yet to be determined.

The Cowboys' biggest problem was that they were:

A) Poorly coached

B) Underachievers

C) Lacking talent

Notice that I didn't give you D.) All of the above as an option because it's too easy. Also true. Elements of all three choices were evident in the Cowboys last season, which explains why Dan Quinn is now the defensive coordinator. Zeke Elliott, Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith also had track records indicating they've been better.

But the safest bet on an overarching problem until further research indicates otherwise is a lack of NFL-caliber talent, and the good news is it's fixable, and sooner than you think.

Much of the debate these days is what the Cowboys will do with the 10th pick of the draft. Do they use it on Patrick Surtain II or Jaycee Horn, cornerbacks who could fill the team's biggest need? Do they grab Rashawn Slater or Penei Sewell if either offensive lineman drops that far?

Or do they trade down to say, 15, particularly if Bill Belichick wants one of the five quarterbacks who might still be on the board at 10?

For the record, I'd be inclined to go with the third option, not only because one of the top corners -- Surtain, Horn or Caleb Farley -- would still be available. They'd also probably get a first-rounder in '22 out of the swap.

And that, friends, is the secret of success in the NFL: Draft well and often, a track record that carried the Cowboys in the glory days.

Unless Jerry Jones gets jumpy, the Cowboys have four picks in the top 100 -- at 10, 44, 75 and 99. Just so you know, 100 is considered a golden number in drafts. The more picks you have inside those parameters, the better your chances of remaining employed.

The Cowboys had as many as four top-100 picks only once in the last decade, and that was in 2013, when they used them on Travis Frederick, Gavin Escobar, Terrance Williams and J.J. Wilcox. Not bad but not exactly a haul, right? As my in-laws liked to say to their lovely daughter, you could have done better.

But '13 was also the last draft before the Cowboys put Will McClay in charge, and his record is pretty good, especially when you consider what he's had to work with.

Over the last decade, the Cowboys averaged 2.8 picks in the top 100, which was the same they averaged in the aughts. In the '90s, they averaged four.

And from 1989-93, the five-year period in which Jimmy Johnson built the nucleus of three Super Bowl champions, the Cowboys averaged 5.6 picks in the top 100.

If the Cowboys get this right, they should acquire a walk-in starter with their first pick, a starter sometime this season in the second round and a couple of key rotational pieces in the third and fourth, especially if they were to end up with, say, North Carolina State's Alim McNeill to plug the leaks in their run defense.

They can't fix everything wrong with this defense in one offseason, but if they could ramp it up to mediocre, which is what it was in Rod Marinelli's last days, that might be enough. The offense would simply have to carry the load. Frankly, that's what Jerry is paying it to do.

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