FRISCO, Texas – Since we got draft-related DallasCowboys.com Mailbag questions in the middle of a franchise-record tying 13-win regular season, we know it's never too early to talk about that captivating spring weekend.
Anticipation always starts building when the calendar turns to February, 85 days until first-round opening night, with January's Senior Bowl in the rearview mirror and the late February/early March NFL Scouting Combine just ahead.
The only problem: it's tough to truly shape the Cowboys' needs this early in this particular offseason with roughly 20 free-agents-to-be accounting for nearly 40 percent of the 2016 roster.
The best way to do this, in my opinion, is to group them in tiers. Here are four:
Always A Strong Consideration
Defensive Line/Pass Rush: Executive vice president Stephen Jones called it their No. 1 priority last week in Mobile, and given the franchise's hesitancy to overspend in free agency, the draft is probably the best course. The Cowboys' pass rush improved steadily as the season wore on, and their 36 sacks ranked in the top half of the league (13th). But Jones best summed up the importance of more pressure: "We're big believers that it can certainly change your dynamic of your defense and therefore your football team."
Cornerback: Same line of thinking here. In today's pass-happy NFL, defenses essentially have three starting cornerbacks to counter multiple-receiver sets. Factor in the impending free agency for Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, and finding another quality cover guy might become a bigger focus by April. The Cowboys have drafted a corner every year since 2007, including 2015 when first-round pick Byron Jones started four games there.
Linebacker: It's a high-impact position that requires three starters (though not all three-down players) and it's also a primary source of special teams contributors. The Cowboys have selected at least one linebacker in every draft since Jerry Jones became owner/general manager in 1989 with two exceptions: 2002 and 2004. This year, Justin Durant, who split reps at middle linebacker, is a free agent. The hope is last year's second-round pick Jaylon Smith can help after his redshirt rookie season.
Worth A Look This Year
Tight End:Jason Witten is under contract through 2018 and still a vital part of the offense at age 34, but the depth has some questions. Geoff Swaim and James Hanna are coming off season-ending surgery, and Gavin Escobar is set for unrestricted free agency.
Wide Receiver: Much depends on the future of Terrance Williams and Brice Butler, both impending free agents. Even so, Pro Bowler Dez Bryant missed three games in 2016 and it can't hurt to look for another developmental player who can help in case their star misses any more time going forward.
Ask Me After Free Agency
Safety:Defensive captain and starting strong safety Barry Church is scheduled to be a free agent. So is J.J. Wilcox, who made four starts while Church recovered from an arm injury. The Cowboys do have some pieces still in place. Byron Jones has settled in at free safety, Jeff Heath thrived in the rotation, and Kavon Frazier will look to build on his rookie season.
Offensive Line: Ronald Leary had an outstanding season at left guard and could have a nice free agent market. The Cowboys are fortunate to have their Week 1 starter, La'el Collins, returning from in-season toe surgery. One question: can Chaz Green get past the injury bug from his first two seasons and settle in as the swing tackle/future starter prospect?
Running Back: The Cowboys took Darius Jackson in the sixth round last year despite adding Ezekiel Elliott to a backfield that already included veterans Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris. So you can't rule out running back as a possible draft focus no matter what happens with McFadden's impending free agency.
Not As Pressing
Quarterback: The Cowboys haven't drafted a quarterback in consecutive seasons since Scott Secules in 1988, followed by Troy Aikman and Steve Walsh (supplemental draft) in 1989. Last week, Jerry Jones acknowledged backup quarterback doesn't have the same emphasis as last offseason with Dak Prescott's rise as the new starter. Aside from the incessant speculation about Tony Romo's future in Dallas, it's worth noting that backups Kellen Moore and Mark Sanchez are set to be free agents. Stranger things have happened (see: Prescott's surprise jump up the depth chart due to injury last fall) but it's hard to imagine a 2017 draft pick entering the season in the No. 2 spot.
Specialist: The kicking operation of Dan Bailey, L.P. Ladouceur and Chris Jones is stable and efficient, though a draft pick with a return experience could add competition on special teams. On Tuesday the Cowboys signed Quincy McDuffie, the CFL's leading kickoff returner last season, to a Reserve/Future deal.