The Cowboys took the easy way out Thursday night. Rather than trading up, trading down or surprising fans and pundits with their first-round selection, Jerry and Stephen Jones stayed at No. 19 and picked the player they wanted all along. Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch wasn't a shock selection, but he fills a hole for the Cowboys at middle linebacker, solidifying the second level of the defense.
Most important, his selection also allowed the front office to keep the flexibility it needs headed into Friday's second and third rounds.
The first couple of hours of the first round Thursday unwound pretty much as pretty much as predicted. Quarterbacks dominated the top 15 picks — although Cleveland's selection of Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield as the first pick was a surprise — leaving most of the Cowboys' targets on the board as the team got ready to make its selection. The only real shock was that Florida State safety Derwin James stayed on the board much longer than expected, falling all the way to the Chargers at No. 17.
The Cowboys need a safety. With 10 picks — now nine — available this year, they could've easily moved up a couple of spots to get James without decimating their draft. Instead, the team saved its ammunition, opening the door for a couple of potential transactions Friday.
After passing on James, it's a distinct possibility that the Cowboys could leverage one or more of four picks in rounds 2-4 to acquire Seattle free safety Earl Thomas. At 30, Thomas remains one of the best back-end defenders in the NFL. He wants out of Seattle and has expressed interest in coming to Dallas. The Seahawks, after missing out on trading him for the first-round pick they wanted Thursday, could be ready to deal.
More likely, the Cowboys will continue to play things mostly straight, either staying put in the second round at No. 50 or moving up a couple of spots to take a wide receiver. The team needs depth on the outside after the departure of Dez Bryant, and Southern Methodist University's Courtland Sutton, Memphis' Anthony Miller and Oklahoma State's James Washington, among others, all remain on the board. The longer Sutton remains available Friday night, the bigger the chance the Cowboys make a move to get the local product.
Vander Esch is largely unproven but has the physical traits and athletic ability to be a key player immediately in Arlington. Despite his tremendous size — he's 6-foot-4 and checked in at 256 pounds at the NFL scouting combine — he's capable of playing all three downs, thanks to his ability to cover tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. He's a risky pick, however, because 2017 was his only year as a starter in Boise. It took him a couple of years to prepare for the 11-man game after playing eight-man football at his high school in Riggins, Idaho.
If Vander Esch can cut it after stepping up in competition again, he'll allow Jaylon Smith to move to the strong side of the defense in 2018, a role to which Smith is much better suited than middle linebacker, where he played last season.
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