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Offseason | 2023

Spagnola: Looking For Starters At Right Positions


FRISCO, Texas – Heard this the other day that for the Cowboys to have a successful draft their first two picks must be immediate starters.

Caused me to go, hmmmm.

Sure, you would love that to happen. But is that realistic? Not so much from a pie-in-the-sky goal, but what about from an opportunity standpoint for those two draft choices to become walk-in starters.

So began to rummage through the roster, position by position trying to figure out where those two possibilities best exist but also considering the positions the Cowboys traditionally place high draft round priority on over the years.

Like, remember the Cowboys have not drafted a quarterback in the first round since Troy Aikman in 1989 and Steve Walsh in that year's supplemental draft with the first in 1990 that would have been the No. 1 selection overall.

Why they had not drafted a guard since John Niland in 1966 until selecting Zack Martin in 2014.

Like Roy Williams in 2002 was the first true safety they ever had drafted with a first-round pick since Mel Renfro in 1964.

And not until grabbing Tyron Smith with a first-round pick in 2011 had the Cowboys selected not only an offensive tackle in the first round since Howard Richards in 1981, but also any offensive lineman, period.

Times change, sure. So do staffs and philosophies in that war room.

So, let's surmise what positions might be susceptible to a rookie walk-in starter. And for a team that's gone 12-5 in consecutive seasons for double-digit victories for the first time since 1995-96 and qualified for the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2006-07 you might be surprised by the limited number of walk-in starting vacancies.

But let's remember, the draft is not all about 2023.

Let's begin.

Quarterback? Next.

Running back? Good chance. While most consider Tony Pollard, their franchised running back, to be a sure-fire starter, let's first factor in these two things. Will he be the same Tony Pollard after suffering that leg/ankle injury in the San Francisco playoff loss and ready for fulltime duty. Then remember while putting up career numbers in 2022, Pollard only touched the ball 232 times, 193 runs and 39 receptions. Someone has to absorb Ezekiel Elliott's 231 carries and 17 more receptions. Plus, after his breakout year, Pollard only started four of the 16 games he played. There is room here.

Wide Receiver? Debatable. Figure CeeDee Lamb and Brandin Cooks starters. Certainly, the Cowboys are counting on the return of the real Michael Gallup, now further removed from his ACL repair that ended his 2021 season and slowed him in 2022. That's three. A first-round wide receiver would have to jump either Cooks or Gallup to be considered in the Top 3. Quality to accomplish that might be dimished by 26.

Tight End? Maybe. But consider this caveat. In their now 62-year draft history (1961-2022), the Cowboys have only twice used a first-round pick on a tight end, most recently in 1997 on David LaFleur and the only other time in 1973 on Billy Joe DuPree. Now some of that has to do with the 16-year career of Jason Witten (2003-17, 19), but a third-round selection, but haven't minded using a second on a tight end, doing so five times, most recently Gavin Escobar in 2013. With the rookie development of Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot and the free-agent loss of Dalton Schultz, there is room for a highly draft tight end. But at 26, will one be good enough to immediately leapfrog those two guys?

Offensive Tackle? Meaning qualifying two in back-to-back seasons? Just took one. Just placed a second-round restricted free agent tender on another. And there is the dilemma of Tyron Smith. Where does he fit in? Now a tackle also capable of playing guard could possibly win a starting job, but that too depends on how the Cowboys sort out the offensive line conundrum. So not a sure thing by any means.

Guard? See above. If so, better be able to eventually play center.

Center? See above. Better be able to play guard, too. There already is a Pro Bowler in place.

Defensive End? Better have a top 15 grade to be good enough to do a whole lot of leapfroggin' when considering already there DeMarcus Lawrence, Dorance Armstrong, Dante Fowler Jr. and Sam Williams, a prominent rotation player as a rookie who likely will challenge for a starting job. No sure walk-in here.

Defensive Tackle? Now we're talkin'. But remember not since Russell Maryland in 1991 have the Cowboys drafted a true defensive tackle in the first round, and only three others in their history, starting with Bob Lilly (1991), then Randy White (1975) and also Danny Noonan (1987). (If you see a Kelvin Pritchett in 1991, that was a pre-arranged draft day pick/trade with Detroit, the Cowboys selecting Pritchett for the Lions and receiving three draft choices in return.) Now there is room here. We'd consider Osa Odighizuwa a sure starter. Maybe veteran Johnathan Hankins, but a likely two-down guy. Then there are Neville Gallimore, Quinton Bohanna and Chauncey Golston there, too. A stud could edge his way into the lineup for the season opener only if the Cowboys place a higher priority than usual on this position since other than the aforementioned first-rounders, only once in their history have the Cowboys even used a second-round pick on a defensive tackle, that being, uh, Trysten Hill in 2019. That's it. What are the chances they go high here.

Linebacker? Slim chance. Got to figure Leighton Vander Esch was re-signed for a reason, the team's second-leading tackler last year. Rookie Damone Clark might have carved out a starting spot during his 10-game appearances as a rookie last year. Micah is Micah and depending on how Dan Quinn plans to mostly utilize him. Maybe a second-rounder, but walk-in depends on how they use Parsons and if Jabril Cox ever takes off.

Cornerback? Hardly. Trevon Diggs. Stephon Gilmore. Jourdan Lewis or DaRon Bland. This would be more of a value pick for depth and the future than to become an immediate starter since not sure exactly where Nahshon Wright and Kelvin Joseph will fit in going forward.

Safety? Slim. See way above on draft position priority. And as for using a second on a true safety, not since 2001 with Tony Dixon and 1992 with Darren Woodson. Top three here once the offseason begins are Donovan Wilson, Jayron Kearse and Malik Hooker. They like Marquese Bell and Israel Mukuamu. Opportunity might not knock hard enough here.

There you go.

Now it's impossible to project injury creating opportunity down the road. Also hard at 26 and 58 to project position availability in the draft. But if you consider obvious paths vs. position value priority, not many walk-in starting spots available.

The other walk-in starting problem is this: Not a bad team. Weaknesses are limited, meaning so are starting opportunities. And where there might be, the Cowboys have never considered those positions providing enough bang for their draft capital buck.

Now drafting that low, 26 and 58, might minimize position value. Heck, that's nearly like picking in the second and third rounds, one of the reasons back in 2013 the Cowboys qualified taking a center (Travis Fredrick) in technically the first round, but at 31. Frederick wouldn't have been there in the second.

In fact, since 1976 when the NFL went to a 28-team draft, then eventually increasing to 32 in 2002, the Cowboys have drafted no lower than 26th eight times. Just eight. Those picks netted them Taco Charlton (28), Byron Jones (27), Frederick (31), Anthony Spencer (26), Richards (26), Robert Shaw (27), Larry Bethea (28) and Aaron Kyle (27).

Obviously, Spencer and Frederick are the cream of that crop.

Point being, don't be throwing out hasty expectations about walk-in starters. History is history. Opportunities are opportunities. Can't argue with either.

Now you tell me, with what we know now with the draft 13 days away, a player at which position of value has the best opportunity to start Day 1?

And bet you go hmmmm, too.

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