Cowboys focus on trenches in 2024 draft, leave questions at skill positions

The Dallas Cowboys spent five of their eight draft picks on the offensive and defensive lines, starting off with Tyler Guyton after a trade back with the Lions that also netted them OC Cooper Beebe. They also picked up DE Marshawn Kneeland in the second, and seventh-round picks OT Nathan Thomas at #233 and run-stuffing DT Justin Rogers at pick #244.

This was a draft where Dallas, like many other teams, let the board come to them and didn’t reach for positional need. Blue chip prospects from college football playoff teams Alabama, Texas, Michigan, Washington, and outsider Florida State led the way and gave teams a clearer picture of who they were adding to improve the roster. The Cowboys stuck to power five conference players with all but three of their picks, though both Western Michigan DE Marshawn Kneeland and Southeast Missouri State WR Ryan Flournoy have plenty of traits that can make them early contributors as second- and sixth-round picks, respectively.

Flournoy represents the only pick the Cowboys spent on the offensive skill positions, most notably passing on the entire RB class once Texas’ Jonathon Brooks went to the Carolina Panthers at 46th overall. Brooks was the seventh RB or WR drafted in a 21-pick stretch between the end of the first round and early second, and once the Cowboys missed out on this run they stuck to their plan of improving up front by ending day two with Kneeland and iOL Cooper Bebe.

The Plan All Along?

It didn’t take long after the draft for the Cowboys to fall back on their contingency plan at RB, re-signing Ezekiel Elliott on Monday. Elliott returns to Dallas after one year with the Patriots, where the 28-year-old back had a hard time making plays in an offense devoid of many other playmakers anywhere else. The Cowboys clearly feel they’ve finally gotten to the point under Mike McCarthy where they can be comfortable with what they have at WR, a position that’s been under constant maintenance through the transition from Kellen Moore’s offense to now with McCarthy as play-caller. Choosing now to pass on WR until the sixth round, and RB entirely, to address the next part of how McCarthy has said he wants to build this roster is admirable. The Cowboys will look to be good enough on the offensive line again for a platoon approach at RB with Elliott, Rico Dowdle, Royce Freeman, and Deuce Vaughn to make plays, while leaning heavily on the duo of CeeDee Lamb and Brandin Cooks again at receiver.

Defensively, the Cowboys added size and toughness that was lacking under Dan Quinn to the front seven for Mike Zimmer’s first season. Kneeland joins a defensive line rotation that saw Osa Odighizuwa break out in 2023, with Zimmer also having Mazi Smith, Chauncey Golston, Junior Fehoko, and latest addition Justin Rogers to work with around centerpieces Micah Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence. Sam Williams will also be int he mix. The Cowboys heavy pre-draft focus on linebackers led to Dallas drafting their only player that visited The Star formally in the third round with Notre Dame LB Marist Liufau.

Zimmer was impressed with Liufau’s knowledge of defensive assignments during this 30 visit, something that will be important if the Cowboys are going to transition to a new scheme effectively in just one offseason. The Cowboys weren’t done with adding to the LB position with just Liufau though, or bringing back former players after the draft, as Damien Wilson also rejoined the active roster. Wilson was a 2015 draft pick for Dallas who spent four seasons with the team before moving on to the Chiefs, Jaguars, and Panthers. Wilson was more of a special teams player for Carolina last year, but his ability to play both has only helped him throughout his career, now providing depth for both Zimmer at LB and John Fassel on STs going into his ninth pro season.

The Cowboys also started free agency by eventually signing Eric Kendricks to rejoin Zimmer as a veteran option, hopefully doing enough with Wilson, Liufau, Damone Clark and banking on DeMarvion Overshown coming off injury to keep Kendricks in a rotational role.

Overall, the Cowboys have done well with the draft now behind them to at least get new faces on the depth chart at positions of need. Expecting too much too soon from their 2024 class is a mistake the Cowboys made last year, not taking the step forward as a team needed without many notable rookie contributions at all. Top-100 picks like Guyton, Kneeland, Beebe, Liufau all have a path to playing time, and what they may do with it remains to be seen.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 28 Pop-Tarts Bowl - NC State vs Kansas State

The Cowboys have talked to Cooper Beebe about making the transition from guard to center for them.
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By becoming the first ever team to lose to a seven seed in the NFL’s new playoff format last year, the Cowboys had a very long time to sit and watch the remainder of the playoffs, seeing what they missed out on along the way to the Chiefs second straight Super Bowl. Other than the winning team having the most irreplaceable QB of this generation, a position the Cowboys are heavily evaluating with every current QB being in a contract season, the teams that advanced deeper in the playoffs played a different game along the line of scrimmage that Dallas is now seriously coveting.

More Help on the Way?

Not only did the timing of these draft picks make sense with the Cowboys exodus in the trenches in free agency, but they’ve shown before that their best work of improving at the skill positions may still be to come. Wide receiver is not a position the Cowboys have let remain a glaring weakness into the season, trading for Brandin Cooks last offseason and Amari Cooper mid-season in 2018 to help a group that was severely lacking. The Cowboys have been in the position they are now, and with far less intriguing options further down the depth chart that will likely get the first chance to play increased snaps.

Dallas Cowboys v Washington Commanders

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Behind Lamb and Cooks, the Cowboys are hoping for big leaps from both Jalen Tolbert and Jalen Brooks this season. Tolbert came on strong last year playing over Michael Gallup on occasions, who is now with the Raiders on a one-year deal. His understanding of where he fits in McCarthy’s route concepts grew with each rep and some of the fluidity and speed with the ball in his hands showed up. In lesser playing time as a seventh-round rookie, Brooks gave the Cowboys a different element as a big-bodied receiver that presented a big target to Prescott underneath when going through his progressions. Dallas tried to establish tight end Luke Schoonmaker in this part of the short to intermediate passing game as well, but saw the meteoric rise of Jake Ferguson make it hard for the rookie tight end to get established. A real dual threat at TE paired with either one of Tolbert or Brooks playing a strong third to Lamb and Cooks as the 1-2 punch is not a bad place for the Cowboys to be on offense.

Kick/punt returner KaVontae Turpin may also see a larger role in the offense, with his value on special teams increasing significantly this offseason thanks to the new kickoff rules allowing for more returns. Turpin will have a chance to be dangerous with the ball in his hands, and success in the return game could lead to more touches on offense – where he lined up as a receiver and out of the backfield last year.

McCarthy’s offense may not have always worked as scripted at times in 2023, with the emphasis on getting the ball out of Prescott’s hands morphing into Prescott holding it more to take deep shots that helped the Cowboys bury teams with points in bunches (particularly in home games). These deep shots won’t be going anywhere with Lamb as WR1, but keeping Prescott upright with a new left tackle and center while he also looks to spread the ball around and sustain drives in a way that rests the defense could be the next step for the offense under McCarthy in 2024.

Dallas Cowboys v New Orleans Saints

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The Cowboys continue to follow their plan and march to the beat of their own drum, as it remains hard/impossible to say if anything they’ve done so far this offseason can bring them the highly-elusive playoff success they need to not be starting over at multiple positions across the roster and coaching staff next year. This should be even more motivation for Dallas to add to Prescott’s supporting cast in a contract year if needed, should the likes of Schoonmaker, Tolbert, Brooks, and Flournoy show they’re not ready to keep this team near the top of the conference.


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