Dallas Cowboys' Future Could Hinge on 2022 NFL Draft

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystApril 23, 2022

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) talks with center Tyler Biadasz (63) against the Philadelphia Eagles during an NFL football game, Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)
Rich Schultz/Associated Press

The Dallas Cowboys are one of the most high-profile franchises in professional sports. Maybe they're the most high-profile franchise in professional sports.

The Cowboys enter every season with a four-word mantra: Super Bowl or bust.

It's been a while since the Cowboys held the Lombardi Trophy aloft—27 years, to be precise. Dallas won 12 games last year and took home an NFC East crown, but the team was embarrassed at home by the San Francisco 49ers in the wild-card round of the playoffs.

That disappointing postseason exit was followed by an equally disquieting offseason. While the Tampa Bay Buccaneers got Tom Brady back after the shortest retirement ever and the Super Bowl champion Rams added big-name talents like Allen Robinson and Bobby Wagner, the Cowboys had mostly red marks in their free-agency ledger. The pressure is on for Jerry Jones to have a successful draft in 2022.

As a matter of fact, if the Cowboys are going to have any real chance at a long playoff run in 2022, Jones and Co. are going to need an outstanding draft.

Otherwise, Dallas may not even be able to win the league's weakest division. And the Cowboys certainly won't get anywhere near Glendale, Arizona, and Super Bowl LVII.

Part of Dallas' problem this offseason is that "Super Bowl or bust" mentality. For years, the Cowboys were aggressive in free agency. The team has been handing out bad contracts to veteran players since "Gangnam Style" was cool.

Ezekiel Elliott's six-year, $90 million extension is an anchor around the team's neck. And it's not the first bad contract the team has signed, There was the five-year, $64 million deal given to linebacker Jaylon Smith in 2019. The five-year, $105 million extension handed to edge-rusher Demarcus Lawrence that same year. The five-year, $50 million pact cornerback Brandon Carr got back in 2012.

The year a certain song came out. Good luck getting that out of your head now.

As a result, the team has been forced to play a shell game of sorts every season just to get under the salary cap.

And in 2022, those machinations have taken a toll.

First, the Cowboys traded star wide receiver Amari Cooper to the Cleveland Browns in a move that, for all intents and purposes, was a salary dump. As Rob Phillips wrote for the team's website, tight end Dalton Schultz admitted that the Dallas offense was better with Cooper on it.

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

"Obviously, Amari is one of the best receivers in the league, just personal opinion," Schultz said. "Obviously we're a better offense with him. Unfortunately, we don't have him, and so I think the next step is just having guys step up."

Cooper wasn't the only starter the cap-strapped Cowboys couldn't afford to keep. Last year, Pro Football Focus ranked the Cowboys O-Line as the best in the NFL. But that line is now short two starters after guard Connor Williams and tackle La'El Collins signed in Miami and Cincinnati, respectively. A contract kerfuffle over offset language led to edge-rusher Randy Gregory reversing course and spurning Dallas for Denver.

Kicker Greg Zuerlein joined the Jets. Wide receiver Cedrick Wilson is in Miami with Williams. Linebacker/safety Keanu Neal defected to Tampa Bay.

It's a significant loss of talent.

Now, to be fair, it's not like Dallas just watched all these players leave and did nothing. Edge-rusher Demarcus Lawrence was restructured. Wide receiver Michael Gallup and safety Malik Hooker were re-signed. The Cowboys brought James Washington and Dante Fowler in as discount replacements for Cooper and Gregory.

But all told, the reality is the Cowboys lost more than they gained. While making a radio appearance on 105.3 The Fan, though, Dallas executive vice president (and heir to the throne) Stephen Jones dismissed the notion that these Cowboys had taken a step backward.

"I don't think you ever win the Super Bowl in the offseason," Jones said. "I think it's a full body of work that you put together over time. I think we'll be a better team, and I think we can take the next step."

Jones is right. You can't win the Super Bowl in March or April. But you can lose it. And the Cowboys have taken hits at wide receiver, on the offensive line and in the pass rush.

That brings us to April's draft. Credit where it's due—Jerry Jones has quietly peeled off quite the run of first-round successes in recent years. There was Defensive Rookie of the year Micah Parsons in 2021 and wide receiver CeeDee Lamb the year before. Ezekiel Elliott was a hit in 2016, as was cornerback Byron Jones in 2015 and offensive linemen Zack Martin in 2014 and Travis Frederick in 2013.

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Over the past decade, there have been a lot more hits than misses.

Never one to sit on his hands, Jerry Jones told reporters that the team isn't the least bit averse to being aggressive once the draft kicks off in Las Vegas on April 28.

"I would trade up (in) this draft, and just going in (that's) as much as you can say about it until you see what's there or who's on the other line. But yeah, I would trade up since we're down as low as we are in those first two or three rounds. If we had a chance to and somebody that we had really coveted was sitting down there at the bottom, then we could trade up and get him."

Some mock drafts have forecast that this could be for a wide receiver, but that wouldn't be a wise play. Washington isn't Cooper by any stretch of the imagination, but the Dallas wideout corps is far from the team's biggest problem.

Besides, even with so many WR-needy teams picking in the back half of the first round, it's a deep class at the position. There's no need to expend extra draft capital to get pass-catching help.

There's also speculation that the team could have interest in becoming involved in the Deebo Samuel sweepstakes. But it could be argued that's an even worse idea. It's once again fixing a problem Dallas really doesn't have, and trading for Samuel would wreck the team's draft capital.

He isn't coming cheaply...if the Cowboys could convince San Francisco to trade him inside the NFC at all.

A wise GM never says never—the opportunity to grab an elite edge-rusher with a trade up would be tempting. But the last time Jones traded up in Round 1 was for cornerback Morris Claiborne in 2012.

That was a disaster.

Dallas can stay at 24th overall and potentially get immediate help in the trenches with Texas A&M guard Kenyon Green or Purdue edge-rusher George Karlaftis. The Cowboys can circle back at No. 56 and address the position that wasn't addressed in Round 1 with a guy like Houston edge-rusher Logan Hall or Minnesota tackle Daniel Faalele. Then they can bolster the NFL's 20th-ranked pass defense in Round 3 with a cornerback like Georgia's Derion Kendrick.

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

It's not exactly drafting for need or taking the best player available. It's a combo of making decisions based on who the best player available is at those positions of need. After the draft, Dallas may have enough cap space to patch a gap or two with discount free agents.

It's not reasonable to expect the Cowboys (or any team) to hit on every draft pick. Dallas has nine, including six Day 3 picks that set Jones up for some late-round moving and shaking. But after a less than ideal free agency period, the cold, hard truth is that the Cowboys have to at least nail their first few picks if they are going to stay on the heels of the Buccaneers and Rams.

Otherwise, yet another season with Super-sized expectations is going to end in Texas-sized disappointment.