This is going to be a very important draft for the Dallas Cowboys.
Of course, saying a draft for any NFL team is very important is sort of like saying that NFL owners like money. It should be something everyone already understands on an instinctual level. The draft is the primary way that all teams should build the roster, especially with the rookie pay scale currently in effect.
Undeniably, though, the Cowboys have myriad positions of need to address in the draft. Some positions that are on the list: defensive tackle, offensive tackle, defensive end, safety, defensive line, offensive guard, defensive line, wide receiver, defensive line, quarterback, defensive line, defensive line, linebacker, defensive line, defensive line, defensive line, cornerback, defensive line, Spam, and defensive line. Oh, did I mention defensive line?
At the moment, Dallas has eight draft picks (three of them in the seventh round) and is awaiting the awarding of compensatory picks, which is expected to add up to three more selections, most likely also in the seventh. With the modest haul so far in free agency, where the Cowboys have only found three players to sign, and then promptly threw one back into the free agent pond, the draft is of even greater importance to the Cowboys than to most teams. Many fans are hoping they "carpet bomb" the defensive line positions in the draft and find several starters.
There is one problem with that theory. Unless you have loaded up on draft picks in the first and second round, the chances of finding multiple rookie starters are really, really poor. Generally, you expect first-round picks to be able to step in and start or at least play right away. After that, it is a lot less likely that players can do so. Second-round picks sometimes, third-rounders occasionally, and any later round or UDFA players who can start are very rare. If you get two immediate and successful starters out of a draft, you have done remarkably well. If you get three, put that draft in a vault, because it is pure, 24K drafting gold.
For most rookies in the NFL, the plan is that they become backups, see some playing time in relief, and use the first year to hone their skills and grow into the NFL game. If you find yourself having to lean on too many of your rookies, things are not likely to go well. Just look at what happened to Dallas last year.
Fredbeard, of course, was everything we hoped for and a bit more at center. Escobar, despite all the people who still want their money back for his pick, actually had a season like you would expect from a second-rounder. Practiced, learned, got one chance to start. The team didn't lean on him, and now we can really hope to see more from him in his sophomore season.
Terrance Williams was clearly a win. He came in, and when Miles Austin hit a light crosswind and was injured, Williams made him expendable. He still needs to improve his game, of course, but that is what OTAs and camp are about.
Wilcox was not a win. It is obvious he was thrust into a role he was not ready for. He was certainly not ready to start five games. But this does not mean he was a bad pick. As a late third-rounder, and the fourth player taken by Dallas, he should not have been expected to handle a starting job well, especially after he missed two weeks of camp due to the sad loss of his mother. Hopefully he will come back stronger this year, which is the hope you have for all your second-year players.
Webb was another player who had what could be considered an expected rookie year. He saw the field, where his weaknesses were exposed, and now he can try to improve and keep his roster spot.
Randle also had a somewhat normal situation. Running back is one of the positions in which it is not at all unusual to see a rookie, even a third-day selection, come in and play well. He kept things afloat while DeMarco Murray missed a couple of games, but fortunately Murray had his best season as a pro and Randle wasn't needed more.
Holloman also did well, but this should be seen as a very pleasant surprise. Sixth-round picks are not even considered highly likely to make the team, much less start contributing significantly in their first year. How good is he? There is speculation that he may be considered to take over the Mike position and move Sean Lee to the Will linebacker to try and keep Lee healthy. If not, he is going to be competing with Bruce Carter as a Will or Kyle Wilber as a Sam to become a starter. Should he not win a starting job, he is still pretty much a roster lock as a primary backup, likely at more than one position.
And that brings us to Heath, who was beaten up on the field, in social media, and in the comment threads here. A kid from a small school who made the roster against all expectations, and then got thrown into starting as a safety on an already beaten-up defense for over half his rookie year. What else would you expect other than being overwhelmed. The jury has to still be out on whether he will turn into a good player, because he simply did not have a fair chance.
Eight rookies, who accumulated 43 starts. Even if you take out Frederick's 16, the resulting 27 is still a lot of starts to get from players who should not be expected to be NFL starting material right out of the gate.
Dallas will likely have 11 picks this draft, pending any trades, with six of those picks likely in the seventh round. People are hoping for two or three starters. Those seventh-rounders are all going to be a lot more like Jeff Heath than Travis Frederick or Terrance Williams. Be ready for it.
Frankly, if half the seventh-round picks wind up making the roster this year, Dallas will be doing better than the odds say they should. They are not going to find starters there, unless they just get incredibly lucky. You can't even say that finding a starter with a seventh-round pick was great scouting, because if he is an NFL starter as a rookie, why did the team not pick him earlier?
No, the Cowboys want a starter in the first round, and then they are just looking for depth or, at best, rotational players. This is why free agency is still very much a time the team needs to find help for the problems it has. (Did I mention the defensive line?)
You build a team through the draft but a roster is not built in three days in Radio City Music Hall. That is just how you get the raw materials. Some players are ready when they hit the ground, but others will take months or even years to start paying back on the investment of a draft pick, and some will never cut it, especially those late round flyers.
Don't get your hopes up for the draft to instantly fix things. It is not going to happen. It needs to help, but you need to keep your feet on the ground, your eyes on the objective, and your Spam out of the dirt.