PHOENIX – Jerry Jones expects the Cowboys will be an improved team in 2017 – and he thinks they can make further improvements through the upcoming draft.
There's a big difference, of course, in drafting 28th overall (and subsequently near the end of each round thereafter) than picking fourth overall, as the franchise did last April. That's the byproduct of winning a franchise-record tying 13 games in 2016.
Yet the Cowboys like the depth of this year's draft, particularly on defense where they've lost seven players to free agency, including four starters.
In all, nine free agents have signed with new teams since the March 9 start of new league year. Losing players creates the task of replacing them, but the Cowboys' owner/general manager believes "we certainly have created more options in my mind than we've lost."
At this stage of the offseason, the draft is the most likely avenue for finding potential impact players.
"There is opportunity there for us," Jones said Tuesday from the NFL Annual Meeting in Phoenix. "There's no question."
Asked his expectations for how many rookies could conceivably become starters or immediate contributors on this current roster, Jones said, "Near the bottom of the first (round), moving toward the top, this sets up for a little potential trade action to try to gain some value or try to hit an opportunity. So I've never looked at where we were when we started a draft and thought we're not going to get a very good player right there, the assumption being that's where you are going to be when you have to make a decision. All of that plays out as it unrolls. But there are some opportunities."
Jones indicated, however, that the Cowboys would be less inclined to spend a premium pick on an injured player.
The Cowboys are optimistic about linebacker Jaylon Smith's recovery from the serious knee injury that dropped him to the second round last April and sidelined him all of last season. But the team's free-agent losses on defense might create a bit more urgency this year for a rookie who can play right way.
"Drafting a player this year that is going to be redshirted high (in the draft), with some of our needs, that gets problematic a little bit, doing a Jaylon (type of pick) this year when we probably are going to get a chance to get a player that's got a chance to play. It's causing us to do generally, from our draft class last year, as well as what we anticipate this year, we've got to play young."[embeddedad0]
Last year's draft picks Ezekiel Elliott, Dak Prescott, Maliek Collins and Anthony Brown helped the Cowboys win the NFC East. Jones recognizes their division rivals have upgraded talent this offseason to challenge Dallas.
"It's not a surprise; it was expected that we would be dealing with improving teams in our division," Jones said. "But I feel – and this isn't just arm waving or blind optimism – I feel at the end of the day when we get to training camp that we will be an improved team from where were last year."