Position-by-Position Breakdown of Dallas Cowboys' Top Combine Targets
With owner Jerry Jones and the rest of the front office searching for help on defense, their focus throughout the week will be searching for impact playmakers to add to a unit that desperately needs a shot in the arm in 2017.
However, that doesn't mean the team will avoid offense in this year's NFL draft. There is no position on the offense that couldn't use an upgrade or depth.
With that said, here are the top combine targets for each of the major positions of need for the Cowboys.
Everyone knows how special Ezekiel Elliott is and how bright is future is. Not only was he arguably one of the best running backs in the NFL last season, but he also set the record for the most rushing yards through the age of 21 at 1,631. For the foreseeable future, he will be the team's most important offensive player.
But behind the star running back is much uncertainty. Darren McFadden and Lance Dunbar will become free agents on March 9, and that only leaves the underwhelming and aging Alfred Morris to back him up. If the team doesn't re-sign a running back it almost assuredly means they will be looking for a back in the draft.
If the Cowboys do decide to address the position in the draft, expect it to be after Day 2. As talented as this class is, it just doesn't make sense for them to grab one in the top 100. The only exception may be Oklahoma's Joe Mixon who won't attend the combine after a new rule that was implemented this year in regards to players with domestic violence issues.
Assuming the team doesn't spend a top-100 pick, here are some of the names to keep an eye on at the scouting combine:
Samaje Perine: Oklahoma
If the Cowboys are looking for a bigger running back in the draft, one of the premier inside runners is Oklahoma's Samaje Perine. Rotating with Joe Mixon, in his three-year career at Oklahoma, Perine rushed for over 1,000 yards each year for a total of 4,122 yards and 50 touchdowns.
Perine is the ideal rotational player in a committee who can contribute in multiple ways. His fit with Dallas could be as a change-of-pace runner who could handle the short-yardage and goal-line work for Ezekiel Elliott.
Joe Williams: Utah
After "retiring" mid-year, Williams returned for the team's final seven games to rush for 1,332 and 10 touchdowns. He's a fantastic athlete who has the ability to make people miss in space.
However, there are many questions about him and his character. There are questions about why he retired for a month and the crimes he committed earlier when he was at UConn. He's got a ton of talent, but he may be available on Day 3 because of these question marks.
After battling and beating cancer in 2015, James Conner returned in 2016 to play in every game for the Pitt Panthers. In his return, he rushed for over 1,000 yards and scored 20 total touchdowns to raise his career total to 56. Conner is a bull at 6'2", 235 pounds and moves well for his size.
Conner's best fit (maybe his favorite fit) might be at linebacker in the NFL, but he's a player who could be had in the later rounds of the draft. He's an incredibly balanced player both on and off the field and would be a perfect fit in Dallas behind Ezekiel Elliott.
Donnel Pumphrey: San Diego State
At just 169 pounds, Pumphrey broke college football's rushing record for a single season after he rushed for 2,133 yards in 2016. He is an outside runner who relies on speed and patience in the wide zone to exploit defenses. His quick-twitch ability allows him to thrive as a one-cut runner who plays much bigger than his size would indicate.
He's likely going to be a part-time player in the NFL due to his size, but his ability to play in both man- and zone-blocking schemes will allow him to get on the field sooner rather than later. Teams searching for an explosive playmaker to pair with their workhorse may select Pumphrey as soon as the third round.
Wayne Gallman: Clemson
Not overly athletic or spectacular in any one area, Gallman was an important part of the Tigers' National Championship run in both 2015 and 2016. His ability to play on all three downs and be a reliable option in short yardage allowed him to stay on the field against any type of defense in the past few seasons.
He's one of the most complete runners in this draft class, but he lacks the one special trait that separates him from the rest of the group. Teams looking for a high-level backup who can contribute right away in an offense may consider Gallman in the middle rounds of the draft.
With Dez Bryant being the only Cowboys' outside receiver who is under contract, the team will likely explore adding a receiver in the draft if they can't retain one of, if not both, Terrance Williams and Brice Butler.
With Dallas being awfully specific in what they look for in an outside receiver, here are a few names to keep an eye on during the combine and throughout the draft process:
Chad Hansen: Cal
One of the most underrated players in the class, Chad Hansen has everything it takes to be a high-end No. 2 receiver in the NFL. His speed and ability to play the ball in the air makes him an attractive option in the second round.
If Dallas decides to select a receiver in the second round, Hansen may be the best fit due to his ability to win down the sideline in contested areas. However, he's often forced to make plays in contested areas because of his overall lack of quickness. The combine should help ease some of those concerns for the former Pac-12 star.
JuJu Smith-Schuster: USC
Smith-Schuster checks all the boxes that the Cowboys look for in a receiver. He's big at 6'2", 220 pounds and dominated at a big school. He's physical and can win on the outside.
The combine will reveal just how athletic Smith-Schuster is for his size. At just 20 years old, his athletic peak is still years away. Does he test like someone who is still growing into his body or does he test similar to Allen Robinson? His combine performance, specifically his 40-yard dash time, will be critical to his stock going forward.
Isaiah Ford: Virginia Tech
Listed at 6'2", 195 pounds, Isaiah Ford is one of the best athletes in this entire receiving class. His ability to create separation at all levels of the defense would make him an outstanding No. 2 receiver in the NFL.
Ford's biggest weakness is his inconsistency at winning with the ball in the air. He's a phenomenal athlete but could stand to be tougher at times.
Noah Brown: Ohio State
Rarely used with the Buckeyes (only 33 career catches), Noah Brown will try to be the next Ohio State receiver to make an impact in the NFL. At 6'2", 218 pounds, he's one of the more physically imposing receivers in the draft class.
Brown's ability to win big will endear him to teams who want a classic west coast receiver. Despite only being a part-time player at Ohio State, he's got the talent to be a steal in the middle rounds of the draft. The combine will be a big test for him to show that he's a much better player than what his film shows from the past few seasons in Columbus.
Malachi Dupre: LSU
Dupre is another receiver with a huge catch radius (listed at 6'4", 195 pounds) who will be a fascinating watch at the NFL combine. Limited by inconsistent quarterback play, he only caught 41 passes in his final year with the Tigers.
Dupre finished the season strong with 139 yards against Louisville in the team's bowl game and showed the potential he may have in the NFL.
The biggest test for Dupre throughout the draft process will be his speed. He can win all over the field, but if he can prove that he can stretch the field as an outside recevier, his stock will soar in March and April.
Jason Witten turns 35 in May and isn't the dominant force at tight end that he was just a few years ago. With the team's offense relying heavily on the tight end position for production, the Cowboys may consider drafting his replacement in a deep tight end class.
The team's roster is littered with upside at tight end, but there is no player who is the definite answer at tight end. Geoff Swaim and James Hanna are both rehabbing from major injuries and both project as solid backups rather than the No. 1 option. 2016 sixth-round pick Rico Gathers is an athlete, but he never played a snap in his rookie year. Gathers spent most of the 2016 season on the practice squad learning the position.
This may be Witten's last year, so it's vital that the team address the need as quickly as possible. Here are some of the best options at tight end, each of which will participate in the on-field drills at the combine on Sunday:
O.J. Howard: Alabama
Maybe the cleanest prospect in the entire draft, O.J. Howard is a lock to be a first-round selection. At 6'6", 250 pounds, he's got the athletic ability and natural hands to be a dominant receiver in the NFL; he also has the size and toughness to be able to hold up inline versus defensive ends and linebackers on the ground.
The only question teams will have concerning Howard is his value to an NFL offense because he's clearly one of the best prospects in the draft. With few flaws in his game, expect to hear his name called earlier than where the Cowboys pick in the first round. However, this is a player who fits the mold of what the team is looking for in their No. 1 tight end.
David Njoku: Miami (FL)
As great as O.J. Howard is, he has some competition for the No. 1 tight end spot in the 2017 draft. At just 20 years old, David Njoku is the prototypical new-age tight end. A super athlete, he can beat defenders with size and speed with ease. But he's even more dangerous in the open field as he can run past defenders, power through tacklers or even leap over them.
Njoku isn't the same dominant blocker on the ground nor does he have the experience Howard has.
Njoku is a red-shirt sophomore whose best football is ahead of him. He's going to need time to develop, but his potential is through the roof. He's got the chance to be the best receiving tight end to enter the draft in the past decade.
Evan Engram: Ole Miss
With teams searching for more athletic tight ends rather than the traditional inline player, Evan Engram will be a hot commodity on Day 2 of the NFL draft. At 6'3", 236 pounds, he looks more like an oversized receiver rather than a tight end.
He's one of the most explosive tight ends in this class and can be used out of the slot or on the outside. His ability to create quick separation and then turn upfield makes him a dangerous weapon in the passing game. He's not an atrocious blocker, but that's not where he will make his money in the NFL.
If the Cowboys want to get more athletic at tight end and want a true seam-ripper in the mold of Jordan Reed, Engram is a legit option for the team in the second or third round.
Gerald Everett: South Alabama
At just under 6'3" and weighing in at 227 pounds at the Senior Bowl, Everett is the same size as the Cowboys' Dez Bryant. But after an impressive week at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, he has proved he's one of the best tight ends in this class despite his underwhelming size.
Everett's fit in the NFL will solely depend on which team drafts him. Is he a rocked-up receiver or a super-athletic tight end? Can he be a useful blocker in the NFL or just a player who contributes in the passing game?
Like Engram, Everett can be a player the Cowboys could use to stretch teams vertically to keep safeties honest.
Adam Shaheen: Ashland
A relative unknown, Adam Shaheen's stock is about to soar after the combine this weekend. At 6'6", 277 pounds, he is one of the best tight ends after the catch in the entire draft. His combination of size and speed allowed him to dominate teams at the D-II level.
Shaheen will show his athleticism on Saturday during the individual drills, but scouts will be looking to see if the spotlight is too big for him during the positional drills. With a solid performance in Indianapolis, he could be a top-100 selection in April's draft.
It's no secret the Cowboys need to upgrade their defensive end position. Owner and general manager Jerry Jones recently told J Dub City that the team needs a "war daddy" on defense. Ever since DeMarcus Ware left in 2014, the team just hasn't been able to find that consistent rush from the outside.
While the team may not be able to find a "war daddy" late in the first round, there are players who can contribute to the Cowboys' defense right away in 2017. Here are some of the players to track on Monday during the on-the-field drills at the combine:
Taco Charlton: Michigan
At 6'6", 270 pounds, Taco Charlton has the rare size and athleticism for the position. His freakishly long arms allow him to forklift offensive tackles back into the quarterback, but his loose hips give him the option to bend around the edge.
The only question surrounding Charlton is the lack of overall production. With as many attributes as he has in his toolbox, he should have been able to put it all together more frequently to terrify quarterbacks. Once Charlton proves how athletic he really is for his size, the first-round buzz will heat up. As for Dallas, he's got the flexibility to play multiple positions across the Cowboys' defensive line.
Takkarist McKinley: UCLA
As athletic as Charlton is, UCLA's Takkarist McKinley blows him out of the water. McKinley is an elite athlete on par with Von Miller and Vic Beasley as edge rushers. Combining McKinley's athleticism with his non-stop motor could make him an ideal pick in the second half of the first round.
McKinley's biggest problem is his health. It's been reported that he will need surgery after the combine on a torn labrum. His surgery could put him out five to six months, meaning that part of his rookie year could be in a jeopardy. Luckily for Dallas, they may be able to capitalize on that injury and steal an elite rusher at the bottom of round one.
Charles Harris: Missouri
In a talented pass-rushing class, Missouri's Charles Harris may be the best fit in Rod Marinelli's 4-3 defense. His burst off the line of scrimmage with his ability to dip around the edge make him one of the most attractive first-round options for the Cowboys.
But Harris can win in multiple ways, from winning with speed or by a strong inside rip move. His arsenal is full of the necessary tools to beat offensive tackles
At only 20 years old, Harris' ceiling is through the roof. There are going to be questions about his lack of production in college, but don't let that fool you; he's a great pass-rusher in a deep class.
Derek Rivers: Youngstown State
The Cowboys generally prefer players from bigger schools, but Derek Rivers is one of the more intriguing options in the second round. At the Senior Bowl, he showed his ability to get to the quarterback as an edge rusher.
Rivers' motor will endear him to teams, and he could be a fast-riser with a solid performance in the individual drills.
Daeshon Hall: Texas A&M
At Texas A&M, Daeshon Hall was the pass rusher opposite of potential first-round pick Myles Garrett. At 6'5", 265 pounds, he may be the best option in the middle rounds if the Cowboys decide to forgo pass-rusher in the early portions of the draft.
Hall never had elite production in college, but with his size and athleticism, it's not inconceivable that his best football will come when he is in the NFL with a teacher at defensive coordinator. Pair him with a coach such as Rod Marinelli and you could be looking at a starting defensive end sooner rather than later.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Dallas Cowboys had the No. 1 secondary in the NFL during the 2016 regular season. The unit thrived despite having no one dominant player in the group; they achieved the best grade by having multiple above-average players and no real weakness.
Despite their growth and high level of play in 2016, the group may look much different in 2017. At cornerback, Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr are both free agents.
According to the final rankings of the NFL1000, Claiborne finished as the 19th-best corner in the league while Carr finished 44th.
Even if the Cowboys re-sign one of the two players, there will still be a need at the position. With cornerbacks being one of the deepest positions in the draft, Dallas could look to grab a talented player in the second or third round to sit behind Orlando Scandrick, Anthony Brown and whichever cornerback they may sign.
At cornerback, the team is searching for players with long arms and the ability to play in both man- and off-coverage. Another trait the Cowboys covet in their secondary are players who played at big schools. The team is looking for players who won't be afraid of the big stage in Dallas. Here are some names to consider as we enter the combine:
Sidney Jones: Washington
With the Cowboys looking to add length and playmaking to their secondary, one of the most intriguing options in the first round may be Washington's Sidney Jones.
One of the most electric defensive backs in the country, his quick feet allow him to mirror even the fastest receivers in the NFL on short to intermediate routes. His best fit is in a Cover-2 scheme where he can play press coverage.
Two of Jones' biggest weaknesses are his lack of deep speed and his weight. Receivers have beaten him over the top at times as well as off the line. His arm length can make up for his overall lack of physicality at times, but he's going to need to bulk up to be an elite corner in the NFL.
Jones is the best fit in terms of what the Cowboys are looking for in a corner and could be an option for them at the bottom of the first round.
Adoree' Jackson: USC
Much like Michigan's Jabrill Peppers, Adoree' Jackson is an explosive athlete who has experience playing multiple positions. He's spent time at receiver, running back, cornerback and also returned kicks for the Trojans.
However, Jackson's size and lack of experience playing cornerback will likely knock him down to the bottom of the second round. There is just too much bad tape of him out there, especially against good competition.
If a team selects Jackson, they will need to be patient as he's not ready to contribute on defense right away. His best spot as a rookie will likely occur on special teams as a returner and a gunner, but there is talent and potential for him to be a star corner a few years down the road.
Gareon Conley: Ohio State
The best cornerback in the draft is Ohio State's Marshon Lattimore, but his teammate opposite of him may be one of the better values in the draft.
Conley is a press-man corner who isn't afraid to get in a receivers' face and challenge him at the line of scrimmage. He's not the elite athlete Latimore is, but his physicality makes him an ideal fit in a press-bail scheme.
If the Cowboys fail to draft a corner in the first round, Conley would be an ideal fit at the bottom of the second round. He's got the size and length they want as well as the big school production they want from a defender.
Rasul Douglas: West Virginia
At 6'2", Douglas is another long corner in a deep draft class. But outside of just length, he has the production to back up his physical skill set. He led the nation in interceptions in 2016 as he won multiple fights in the air for contested footballs.
The only question about Douglas is his hip flexibility. There are times where quicker receivers can create quick separation, but those times aren't all that frequent. His best fit is in a zone-heavy defense where he's asked to play off-coverage. Douglas will be one of the better steals on Day 2 of the NFL Draft.
Kevin King: Washington
The cornerback opposite of Sidney Jones in Washington's talented secondary is another player who fits what the Cowboys want to do on defense. Kevin King is a long corner at 6'3" and knows how to use his length.
His biggest question mark is his lack of deep speed. He gets beat deep quite often and his lack of physicality may be just too much to overcome in the NFL. But teams searching for those long-armed corners may fall in love with King in the middle rounds.
Much like cornerback, the Cowboys have two of their top three safeties entering free agency in March. Both Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox graded out as top 30 safeties in 2016, according to the final NFL1000 rankings.
With the team tight up against the cap, it's unlikely that they can re-sign both players. Even if one returns, the Cowboys could dip their toes into this talented class to find a true playmaker in their secondary. Here's a look at some of the top safeties in the 2017 draft:
Jabrill Peppers: Michigan
One of the most exciting players in college football over the past two years, Jabrill Peppers' best position may not be at safety. But his lack of size may force him to be a safety in the NFL. He will test as one of the best athletes at the combine, but his lack of a true position may push him down to the bottom of round one.
Peppers' best skill is his ability to run and chase ball-carriers from sideline to sideline. He's an explosive kick-and-punt returner, and he could even get touches on offense depending on the team he goes to.
If Peppers can show he has the flexibility in his hips to be a full-time safety, he could find himself going in the first round.
Budda Baker: Washington
The Cowboys typically don't prefer undersized safeties, but they may make an exception for Washington's Budda Baker. At 5'10", 180 pounds, his size will scare some teams, but he plays so much bigger than his measurements. He's a playmaker, and it's hard not to compare him to former Colts safety Bob Sanders.
His best spot in the NFL may be as a free safety who has the freedom to roam depending on what his instincts tell him. Outside of his size, there's not much to dislike about Baker. He's a legit option for the Cowboys at the bottom of the first round.
Obi Melifonwu: UConn
At just under 6'4", Obi Melifonwu is going to be miscast as the next Kam Chancellor after the combine.
In Mobile, he was the star of the weigh-ins after measuring in at a ripped 219 pounds. But what was even more impressive was his ability to cover during the week. He was lined up outside and fared quite well against a pretty talented group of receivers.
But where Melifonwu struggles is in the box as a safety. He's a much better fit as a true free safety or as a Cover-3 cornerback. Once he goes through the individual drills on Monday at the combine, people will begin the comparisons. Despite his size, he's one of the better coverage safeties in this class.
Eddie Jackson: Alabama
A true center fielder, Eddie Jackson returned for his senior year at Alabama. But after a broken leg ended his season, he missed the team's National Championship run and the All-Star circuit to follow. Jackson is one of the better ball hawks in this draft class with 10 career interceptions in the SEC.
As well as Jackson plays the ball in the air, his lack of physicality and ability to make plays in the run game may limit him to being just a nickel or dime player. But a team that plays a lot of Cover-1 or Cover-3 will love his ability to play center fielder and make plays on the ball.
Desmond King: Iowa
A Jim Thorpe winner in 2015, Desmond King is going to be an interesting test case to see just how much teams truly care about size and speed on the outside.
He's likely going to run in the 4.5s at the combine and will have arms that measure under 30 inches. But he passed every test he's faced at Iowa and has been one of the best cornerbacks in the country the past two years.
King is a corner/safety hybrid whose best spot may be as a slot corner in the NFL. With his instincts, competitiveness and toughness, he's going to be a steal on the second day of the draft for a team that doesn't care about length with their defensive backs.