Heading into the first round of the NFL Draft on Thursday, the Cowboys faced a simple yet daunting task: rebuilding their defense. Between the Cowboys devastating playoff loss to the Packers on January 15 and the beginning of the draft, seven members of the Cowboys 2016 defense caused gaping holes by leaving the team in free agency.
After largely sitting out free agency — the Cowboys signed cornerback Nolan Carroll from the Eagles, but that was about it — the draft represented the last best chance for the Cowboys to stock up for 2017. With the team's championship window wide open, thanks to precocious superstars Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys' brass needed to get things right.
From the looks of things, they seem to have done just that, drafting a group of players that meets the Cowboys' immediate needs while providing plenty of hope for the future.
During the draft's first three rounds on Thursday and Friday, the Cowboys picked up three guys who can immediately make an impact. Taco Charlton, a defensive end from Michigan, will beef up the Cowboys run defense. Chidobe Awuzie, from Colorado, is capable of contributing across the secondary. Third round pick Jourdan Lewis, a Michigan product, will play immediately, likely covering slot receivers in nickel and dime defensive packages.
While the Cowboys top three picks can all be expected to help the team win in 2017, they each come with flaws. Charlton is big — 6'6" and 277 pounds — and rangy, but lacks the in-game speed usually possessed by elite pass rushers. As a right defensive end, Charlton will line up opposite left tackles — usually the best player on an offensive line — which makes his inconsistent center of gravity a worry. Out of the box, Charlton will improve the Cowboys run defense more than their pass rush, but he has the physical traits to consistently get to quarterbacks, should he develop.
Awuzie will bring needed toughness to a Cowboys secondary that lost its biggest hitter, J.J. Wilcox, and as capable of covering both in the slot and outside the numbers. The former Colorado Buffalo is an excellent blitzer from the slot corner as well, and will give Cowboys' defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli both scheme and personnel flexibility. The only real question about Awuzie is whether he has the ball skills to be a game-breaking NFL player. In 48 games in Boulder, Awuzie only intercepted three passes.
Like Elliott, the biggest questions about Lewis stem from his off-the-field behavior. On the field, he's a prototypical slot corner. He's physical at the line, capable of taking small slot receivers off their routes, and has excellent lateral quickness, an essential trait for cornerbacks working the interior of the field. Lewis might have been a first round pick in a league that now views slot corners as an essential commodity, but he faces misdemeanor domestic violence charges. Lewis' ex-girlfriend claims he dragged her across a room and held her down to the floor by her neck. Lewis admitted that there was physical contact between he and his ex-girlfriend, but said he was merely trying to get her off of him after she started the fight. Lewis' trial is set for July 24.
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After drafting Lewis in the third round, the Cowboys stocked up on the type of high-upside, high-risk players of which the team's front office is found. Ryan Switzer, the Cowboys' fourth-round wide receiver from North Carolina, was one of the five best punt returners available in the draft, but he's small and seems wanting for a place in an offense that already has Cole Beasley. Xavier Woods, a safety from Louisiana Tech, shares Switzer's diminutive stature and played against inferior competition in college, but has elite quickness and ball skills. Woods, if he plays bigger than his size ,is capable of being a star at either safety position despite being drafted in the sixth round. Even the last player chosen by the Cowboys, seventh-rounder Noah Brown, is a 6'2", possession wide receiver with an over-sized catch radius who, if he performs well enough to make the Cowboys in training camp, could be an intriguing red zone counterpart to Dez Bryant.
While the 2015 season again taught Cowboys fans that things can and will fall apart in the NFL, this year's draft leaves a Cowboys roster with more youth, talent and athleticism than the one that closed 2016. As the NFL heads into its summer doldrums, that's all a fan could want.