FRISCO, Texas – The war room out here at The Star has become a beehive of activity with the NLF Draft but a week away, April 27.
And everywhere you go, people want to know, who are the Cowboys going to take at number 26 in the first round?
They will tell you right now, without a doubt, exactly what I always say: You tell me what teams did with the first 25 picks, then I'll tell you what the Cowboys are going to do, or at least close to it.
Some want to say a tight end. Fine, but if the Cowboys did that, what position players of higher draft priority are they skipping over?
Same at wide receiver or defensive end or cornerback or linebacker or even offensive tackle. At 26, the choice does not come down to a position of need, which most mock draft picks are based on, but the most talented player.
Give me a position and I can qualify the Cowboys taking a player at that position, short of a first-round quarterback.
As COO Stephen Jones said the other day on flagship radio station 105.3 The Fan – and program alert, he'll be on again Friday – "Feel like we're in a great place going into the draft," pointing out this is a "pure" draft for the Cowboys, "not being pressed to take a certain position."
He's right, thanks to trading for cornerback Stephon Gilmore and wide receiver Brandin Cooks and getting many of their own players re-signed like safety Donovan Wilson, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, backup quarterback Cooper Rush and defensive end Takk McKinley, while having also franchised Tony Pollard and tendered restricted free agent offensive tackle Terence Steele.
So let's throw down a few nuggets, er, shots, gleaned over the past week.
- Lamb's Fifth: As in the Cowboys picking up wide receiver CeeDee Lamb's fifth-year option, the deadline to do so May 1, the first Monday after the draft. For Lamb, his guaranteed fifth-year option is worth $17.99 million. But since he's going into his fourth season, Lamb is eligible to negotiate an extension, which the Cowboys likely will attempt to do so they can lower his 2024 salary cap hit by paying him a signing bonus that is prorated over the life of the contract. Jones also addressed that item on their to-do list, saying, "As we move forward that will become a bigger priority here as we move past the draft. We have historically signed a lot of guys during that training camp period to extensions, but guys like CeeDee Lamb and [Trevon] Diggs are certainly on our radar in terms of guys we'd love to have around here for another five-six years, whatever that turns out to be." Undoubtedly, the Cowboys will pick up that option prior to the deadline but continue to negotiate a long-term deal.
- Big Board: Once the Cowboys complete their position-by-position analysis for the draft, they will put their own Big Board together, giving out round grades for players. Jones said, and previously has pointed out, that normally they have like 15-18 players each draft with first-round grades. The Cowboys also then put grades on players who likely have second-round grades they'd make exceptions on to still draft in the first round. So you can see that, at 26, unless someone they like maybe teams ahead of them did not tumbles down to 26, the likelihood of a player with a first-round grade falling to them at 26 isn't so good. "We'll see where we end up here," Jones said of how many first-round grades they dish out for the 2023 draft.
- Tight Spot: There is this assumption that because the Cowboys didn't re-sign Dalton Schultz, though he had a burr in his saddle after the Cowboys franchised him in 2022 instead of signing him to a long-term deal complete with a lucrative signing bonus, that one of their bigger needs is drafting a tight end, possibly as high as the first round. But let's remember the rookie seasons of Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot. The Cowboys do for sure – and what made Schultz somewhat expendable for what he was asking for on a long-term deal – with Ferguson being more of a complete tight end and Hendershot more of a downfield threat. Said Jones, "We feel good about that position, but certainly, you know, you'd like to think the draft is heavy there, and there are quite a few players in those top three or four rounds we think can be like a Ferguson, a Hendershot, and come in and really help us." And when asked about particular traits the Cowboys would be looking for, Jones mentioned Ferguson, "Looking for a guy who can do both," meaning be an inline blocker and receiving threat. To me, the Cowboys need to improve their blocking ability at the position, and those guys these days are hard to find coming out of college.
- More Radar: Yes, the Cowboys franchised Pollard, who did sign his tender at a guaranteed $10.1 million. So when the possibility of drafting a running back high came up, which certainly Jones would not rule out, he did say, "Certainly, we think the world of Tony and at some point we'd like to hope we can get him signed to a long-term deal, but all those are things that are on our radar."
- Star Treatment: Ferris State defensive end Caleb Murphy, winner of the ninth annual Cliff Harris Award, going to the top small school defensive player (Division II, III, NAIA), was taken on possibly the tour of his lifetime here Tuesday after receiving his award during a short ceremony. Not only did he receive the A-tour of The Star and Ford Center, but along the way he bumps into and talks with not only Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn but also Stephen Jones, coming out of the war room after a draft meeting break. Murphy, who led Ferris State to a second consecutive Division II national championship with a nation leading 25.5 sacks and 39 tackles for losses, found out along the way that the Cowboys actually had just discussed him in their meeting while going over available defensive ends in the draft. That will make your day.
- Cliff Too: As for Harris, he might well be a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Cowboys Ring of Honor, but the Cowboys safety accompanying Murphy on the tour said he previously had never been through The Star complex or Ford Center. In fact, he was pleasantly surprised walking down the hallway where the Cowboys honor their Pro Bowl members to see his name headlining the safety plaque, honoring his six Pro Bowls (1974-79), one more than Mel Renfro, Darren Woodson and Roy Williams. And he was shocked when seeing the team meeting room, resembling a movie theater more so than the small room at the old Forest and Abrams facility during his days equipped with those small elementary school desks from back in the 1960s you entered from the side with a writing table to the other side. Left-handers out of luck.
- Little Bites: The Cowboys began some well-attended "voluntary" conditioning sessions officially starting on Monday around the league … Cowboys owner and GM Jerry Jones finished 10th on the NFL Network's list of the top general managers in the NFL, the ranking pointing out how Jerry leans on Stephen Jones and vice president of player personnel Will McClay for assistance … Interesting turnaround by Rams GM Les Snead, selling out in 2021 to win a Super Bowl by spending extravagantly for talent, but getting the Rams in cap hell for 2022, unable to afford keeping some key players, which caused Los Angeles to tumble to 5-12. And now Snead is quoted as saying that there's "definitely been intent to engineer a healthier, more sustainable cap situation so that when we do get to a moment when we think, 'OK, let's press the gas again,' you have the capability to do that," knowing the Rams have 11 picks in the upcoming draft, including three in the top 100, where last year their first pick wasn't until No. 104.
This week's last word, as you might expect, continues to go to Stephen Jones, when asked earlier in the week about the contract Philadelphia signed quarterback Jalen Hurts to, and how some of these QB deals might affect future extension talks with Dak Prescott. As we know, the Eagles signed Hurts to a five-year extension for a grand total of $255 million, including $179.3 million guaranteed, with another potential $15 million in incentives and a no-trade clause.
"Absolutely," Stephen said of tracking deals that get signed around the league. "That's true at any position. You're always very cognizant, you know, of what people are being paid in our league. Especially at the top, when you have guys not only like Dak, but you have players like CeeDee Lamb and Diggs.
"Certainly, we were going through that situation with Donovan Wilson as a safety when we were trying to get him signed. You really want to keep up with what guys are getting paid out there. Certainly, in a salary cap era, you know where those numbers are and you've got to make those types of decisions."
And with a Hurts deal like that, might also make Stephen sort of cringe a bit at the thought of what Dak's people will be asking for in the near future.