Draft Central | 2022

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Spagnola: Navigating Through The Great Unknown

Spagnola--Navigating-Through-The-Great-Unknown-hero

FRISCO, Texas – With apologies to Rod Serling, and not to be Twilight Zone dramatic, but these Cowboys "are about to enter another dimension."

The unknown.

Heading into next Thursday's NFL Draft, an unknown entity in itself, the Cowboys have made so many roster decisions based on projections and assumptions that batting nearly a thousand on the results becomes imperative for 2022 success.

They traded away Amari Cooper.

They made La'el Collins a June 1 release.

They decided free agent Cedrick Wilson's open market price was too rich for their salary cap blood.

They stuck to their guns on their contract structure for free agent Randy Gregory, the defensive end instead choosing to go play a Mile High with the Denver Broncos.

They allowed 2018 second round draft choice and 51-game starter over these past four seasons Connor Williams to walk away in free agency without much of a fuss, again feeling performance and cost not matching up.

They released kicker Greg Zuerlein, with hopes of re-signing him to a lesser deal after a so-so season, only for the Jets to intercept with a better offer.

They apparently are passing on bringing back 15-game starter Damontae Kazee.

And in most of these cases, they are operating without a safety net, counting on a few free-agent signings, most no more than one- or two-year placeholders, several backups to step up and their ability to continue hitting the ball out of the park during the upcoming draft to prevent roster deterioration. Yet with high hopes of improving on their 2021 season accomplishments of going 12-5 and winning the NFC East title.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has said many a times he doesn't mind operating under a cloak of ambiguity. Well, if he relishes "ambiguity," here is some uptown ambiguity.

The Cowboys could have done what the Cleveland Browns did after trading for Cooper, restructuring his $20 million base salary by paying him an $18.8 million restructure signing bonus and kicking that prorated money down the road to reduce his 2022 salary cap hit to just $4.896 million. But the Cowboys chose not to, figuring they were not getting enough bang for Cooper's bucks to push money into the future.

So, they are counting on CeeDee Lamb, with more opportunity, to ascend to that No. 1 receiver mantle and at a reduced cost. They are counting on the re-signed Michael Gallup to successfully recover from ACL surgery and return good as new, though likely not until after the first month of the season at the earliest. They are counting on free-agent signee James Washington for receiver depth, along with the possibility of snagging another free-agent wide receiver, and there is a bunch of them still going to be unemployed come May 1, meaning a potential price break.

And then there is the draft, a high possibility a receiver is taken in one of those first three rounds.

This position becoming a poster child for the unknown.

The Cowboys also made a parallel decision in Collins' release. They even admitted the much-improved 2021 performance of undrafted second-year tackle Terrence Steele played into the move, figuring he can give them at least as much as Collins' deteriorating performance in 2021, if not more, for far less cap-eating space.

Again, they must be right, since the only viable roster alternative at this point at tackle is last year's fourth-round pick Josh Ball, who remained on IR the entire season. And then there is the draft, but as with wide receiver, and sitting at only No. 24 in each of the first three rounds, they are at the mercy of the 23 teams selecting ahead of them for what's left.

Same at the vacant left guard spot. The only viable roster alternative at this point would be their 2019 third-round draft choice Connor McGovern, his last chance to produce or be gone in the final year of his rookie contract after disappointing during that four-game starting stretch in place of Williams last season. And then there is the draft, and why so many of these mockers are projecting the Cowboys to take a guard in the first round, something they have only done twice in their 61-year draft history.

See what I mean about ambiguity?

Let's continue to defensive end. The Cowboys stubbornly stuck to their contract wording, but in the end, my thoughts are Gregory's agent got in his ear about heading to Denver. So now they are counting on fifth-year backup Dorance Armstrong possibly elevating into starting status after re-signing him to a two-year contract with $6 million guaranteed. Fine, but Armstrong has only started eight games in his career, five of those this past season. They are counting on him to blossom as Lamb with ungraded opportunity.

Now, they have hedged their bet here by signing eighth-year veteran Dante Fowler Jr., a 2015 Jacksonville first-round pick, but to just a one-year deal, while also hoping the likes of 2021 third-round pick Chauncey Golston develops into more than last season's 36-percent snap player.

Once again, there is the draft, and remember the Cowboys only have one pick in each of the first four rounds. Probably aren't going to find four walk-in starters in one draft.

Oh, and kicker. Chris Naggar is the only one on the current roster. He's raw. But an undrafted rookie last year in Cleveland, Naggar made his only field-goal attempt and was one of two on extra points. That's it. As for signing a veteran free agent, the current market is desert dry. Maybe use a fifth-round pick on one. Or maybe they have something else up their sleeve with an unknown commodity.

At this point, total position ambiguity.

And let's not rule out the need for a linebacker. Sure, Micah Parsons is the guy, but they only re-signed Leighton Vander Esch to a one-year deal and say they are counting on last year's fourth-rounder, Jabril Cox, to step into that Keanu Neal spot in the rotation, a veteran they didn't feel the need to re-sign. But remember, Cox is coming off ACL surgery and only played nine defensive snaps his rookie season.

Somewhat of another leap of faith.

Safety? The Cowboys did re-sign Jayron Kearse, but only for two years, and Malik Hooker, but only for one. And Donovan Wilson, a 13-game starter over his first three years, is entering his last season under contract. Plus, at this point Israel Mukuamu, a sixth-round pick in 2021, has only played 20 defensive snaps. So come on, you just don't know, especially long term.

Cornerback? Thanks to Kelvin Joseph's potential legal and NFL status problems, cornerback at this point less than a week from the draft is unsettled after the top three guys – Trevon Diggs, Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis. And this is Brown's last year of a three-year deal. You say Nahshon Wright. Well, last year's third-round pick has all of 91 NFL snaps of experience, 74 of those in the final regular-season game.

See what I'm talking about heading into the draft? A lot of ifs and hopes. And you can say the very same when it comes to the draft, too, especially when you are sitting at the 24th spot. It becomes an exercise in if this and this and this happens. You at best hope you can do that.

There will be a premium on Cowboys' draft homework and reconnaissance, not only knowing what you want to do next Thursday-Saturday, but also projecting what other teams drafting in front of you might do.

You say maneuver around in the draft by trading? Great, but takes two to tango I'm told. No guarantees there, either.

Bottom line: The Cowboys must be right. Right about the cap-related personnel decisions. Right about their talent projections, like Lamb becoming a No. 1 receiver. Steele becoming a capable starting right tackle. Armstrong and/or Fowler, too, at D-end. Getting production from Hooker, Washington and a healthy Gallup in time.

And right about a bunch of these draft choices over the past three years, guys such as Trysten Hill, McGovern, Wilson, Tyler Biadasz, Neville Gallimore, Wright, Cox, Ball, Simi Fehoko, Mukuamu, Osa Odighizuwa and Quinton Bohanna. Oh, and a few previous rookie free agents, too, like tight end Sean McKeon and linebackers Luke Gifford and Francis Bernard.

And not to forget a kicker to be named soon, you'd think.

"Sometimes you let a player move on and it allows other players to step up in even a bigger role, whether that's a CeeDee Lamb or a Michael Gallup," Cowboys COO Stephen Jones said on a recent radio interview. "I know Amari was a great player for us, but it certainly might allow CeeDee and Michael to step up and play an even bigger role, and who knows what their upside might be.

"Same thing with Dorance Armstrong. We hated to lose Randy. We went down to the wire with him, but at the same time, you look at production, you look at what Dorance Armstrong's done, you know. He's right there from a production standpoint with Randy.

"So, I just feel good where our football team is. I think we'll be a better team, and I think we'll take the next step."

One while navigating into the dimension of the great unknown.

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