FRISCO, Texas – If you think you can predict the Cowboys' draft -- jotting down needs and possible selections in a tidy little list like your March Madness bracket -- you probably picked Duke in a landslide.
Not even the Cowboys know what will unfold on Day 2 and 3 of draft weekend, provided they stay put until the 58th pick on that Friday night. It's particularly unpredictable without a first-round selection. More than ever, they're at the mercy of the board.
Truth is, they're OK with that. It's why they attempt to cover their bases in free agency so, as head coach Jason Garrett says annually, they can "draft as purely as possible."
If you want clues, the 30 allotted pre-draft visits usually provide some insight with regard to positions of interest, at the very least.
And, based on recent history, the Cowboys still look to the draft for depth at spots they've already addressed in free agency on cap-friendly deals. Again, moves in March don't preclude moves in April.
For some perspective, let's take a quick look back at free agency decisions and ensuing draft picks from the last five years:
Free Agency Recap: The Cowboys parted ways with all-time franchise sack leader DeMarcus Ware and lost starting defensive lineman Jason Hatcher to Washington on a $28 million deal. They signed two veteran defensive linemen, Jeremy Mincey and Henry Melton, to help the rotation.
Draft Results: Dallas wasn't done on the D-Line, though. After taking guard Zack Martin in the first round, they traded up 13 spots for defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence in exchange for their original second-rounder and third-rounder. Lawrence missed half the year with a foot injury but played a factor in the team's run to the divisional round.
Free Agency Recap: More retooling on the D-Line. The Cowboys chose not to bring back former Pro Bowler Anthony Spencer or George Selvie and signed soon-to-be-suspended pass rusher Greg Hardy to a one-year deal. The most significant loss was running back DeMarco Murray's defection to Philadelphia. They signed Darren McFadden in his place.
Draft Results: The Cowboys didn't address running back here, sticking with a McFadden-Joseph Randle rotation instead. But pass rush remained a priority: They quickly drafted Randy Gregory at No. 60 after off-the-field concerns dropped him out of the first round. And, with questions about Brandon Carr's contract and Mo Claiborne's knee, they added insurance in the secondary by taking Byron Jones at No. 27.
Free Agency Recap: Seeking a cost-effective replacement for Randle, the Cowboys signed former Pro Bowl running back Alfred Morris after the first wave. They also added defensive end Benson Mayowa and defensive tackle Cedric Thornton as potential starters.
Draft Results: Signing Morris didn't stop Dallas from taking star running back Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick. And they continued to beef up the D-Line by drafting Maliek Collins and Charles Tapper back-to-back in the third and fourth rounds. Elliott and Collins became starters in Year One, with Elliott taking the NFL rushing title.
Free Agency Recap: Big changes in the secondary. Barry Church, Claiborne, J.J. Wilcox and Brandon Carr (arguably their last "splash" free agent signing) all signed elsewhere. The Cowboys signed veteran DBs Nolan Carroll and Robert Blanton, signed guard Jonathan Cooper to replace former starter Ronald Leary and added two defensive linemen, Damontre' Moore and Stephen Paea, to offset departures by Terrell McClain and Jack Crawford.
Draft Results: First-round pick Taco Charlton added more competition on the D-Line and the Cowboys focused heavily on a deep DBs class, drafting Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Xavier Woods and Marquez White with four of their first six picks. Carroll and Blanton did not make the team in preseason, and the rookies had a vital role down the stretch that season.
Free Agency Recap: A major shift at receiver with Dez Bryant and Brice Butler moving on. The Cowboys signed Deonte Thompson and Allen Hurns for wideout depth and linebacker Joe Thomas to ease departures by Anthony Hitchens and Kyle Wilber. Guard Marcus Martin signed a one-year deal for depth after starter Jonathan Cooper left for San Francisco.
Draft Results: Linebacker, guard and receiver remained top priorities -- the Cowboys spent their first three picks on , Connor Williams and Michael Gallup. All became starters and key contributors to a late-season run toward the division title.
Free Agency Recap: Signing Randall Cobb and re-signing Tavon Austin will fill Cole Beasley's previous spot in the slot. Trading for Robert Quinn gives Dallas a quality edge rusher with Randy Gregory facing another suspension. (Getting Lawrence's new deal done helps, too.) Kerry Hyder and Christian Covington add D-Line depth. George Iloka does the same thing for the safety position. And, of course, tight end Jason Witten's return offsets Geoff Swaim signing with Jacksonville.
Draft Results: ???
Here's what we know: Cobb and Quinn are arguably the most accomplished newcomers to Dallas in the last five years. They certainly make receiver and defensive end less glaring needs. But you can't rule out those two spots, or safety, or defensive tackle, or even tight end. A backup for Elliott is also a likely target.
For the most part, the Cowboys have set themselves up to nicely for a "pure" draft. We'll know for sure in three weeks' time.