No matter what happens over the next three days, the Dallas Cowboys 2017 NFL Draft will not be better than the team's 2016 draft. Last year, the Cowboys picked up a game-breaking running back in the first round (Ezekiel Elliott), a franchise quarterback (Dak Prescott) in the fourth round and a functional cornerback (Anthony Brown) in round six. Already, after just one season, it's one of the best draft's in franchise history. If Jaylon Smith, the injured Notre Dame linebacker the Cowboys selected in the second round, completes a successful recovery from nerve damage in his left knee, Dallas' 2016 draft could go down as one of the best in NFL history.
While trying to predict the draft with any sort of certainty is a fool's errand, let's take a look at five guys the Cowboys might select in the first round. Each of the players on this list fulfills one of the team's biggest needs and visited with the Cowboys coaching staff before the draft.
1. Derek Barnett: Defensive End, Tennessee – Barnett will likely be off the board before the Cowboys are on the clock, thanks to their winning season. At Tennessee, he recorded 33 sacks in just three seasons, breaking Hall of Famer Reggie White's career sack record at the school. If Barnett's measurable physical traits matched his production playing in college football's toughest conference, the SEC, he'd be a no-brainer top-10 choice. They don't though. Barnett is significantly slower than Myles Garrett, the Texas A&M defensive end expected to be drafted first overall, and relies on his strong hands to get past defenders, rather than his speed. While it is unlikely that he will maintain his strength advantage in the NFL, Barnett is the type of polished player who will be immediately productive, even if he lacks Garrett's super-star ceiling.
2. Malik McDowell, Defensive Tackle, Michigan State – There's a lot to like about Malik McDowell. He's a mountain, at 6-foot-6 and 295 pounds, is extremely quick for someone his size and has freakish athleticism for an interior line player. The only reason he won't get picked in the top 5 Thursday night is the narrative that's built up around him as the draft has approached. McDowell, according to scouts, is lazy.
"He has a chance to be a dominant player in our league. I mean dominant. It hasn't turned on for him all the way yet, but if it does, he could be like Mario Williams. He's just a little lazy, and I worry about whether he is going to be a self-starter," an anonymous scout told NFL.com.
The Cowboys, from Dez Bryant to Randy Gregory, love to take chances on talented players with character issues, real or imagined, so McDowell sticks out as someone they might take a risk on at 28. McDowell is capable of stopping the run and collapsing the pocket inside as well as rushing from the edge in passing situations. He could be a perfect fit.
3. Kevin King, Cornerback, Washington – The only real knock on King is that he's bigger that the prototypical cornerback at 6-foot-3. He runs a sub-4.5 second 40-yard dash, has good ball skills and is capable of contributing on special teams. If he fulfills his potential, King could be a near-clone of Seahawks superstar Richard Sherman – just the guy to shore up the back end of the Cowboys defense for the next decade.
4. Takkarist McKinley, Defensive End, UCLA – McKinley's biggest attribute is his motor. He never takes a play off, in stark contrast to players like McDowell, and never stops buzzing around the field, regardless of the game situation. He's short for a defensive end, and lacks the hand-fighting technique that makes Barnett so productive, but is a strong prospect to grow under the tutelage of Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. McKinley is also a better run stopper than Barnett, if not a better prospect overall.
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5. Charles Harris, Defensive End, Missouri – Despite not playing organized football until his junior year of high school, Harris made the all-SEC team in each of his two years as a starter at Mizzou. Harris is raw, but can adeptly rush the passer out of both two and three-point stances. He'll need to learn to play better against the run if he wants to be an every down player in the NFL, however.
Ten more names worth watching over the drafts first two days —
T.J. Watt, Defensive End, Wisconsin
David Njoku, Tight End, Miami
Obi Melifonwu, Safety, Connecticut
Jabrill Peppers, Linebacker/Safety, Michigan
Teez Tabor, Cornerback, Florida
Jake Butt, Tight End, Michigan
Fabian Moreau, Cornerback, UCLA
Jourdan Lewis, Cornerback, Michigan
Chidobe Awuzie, Cornerback, Colorado
Taco Charlton, Defensive End, Michigan