In recent weeks, several important members of the Dallas Cowboys draft brain trust, primarily, Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones, and Jason Garrett, have all made reference to the organizations desire to get better on defense by adding playmakers in two positions: on the defensive line, and in the secondary.
“We are not going to get any better on defense if we just keep paying the guys we got. What we have to do better on defense is we have to get pressure on the passer. And we have to make plays on the ball. We have to do that better… Obviously we haven’t been doing that with the guys we got. So how do you get better if you keep paying the guys you got who aren’t making plays on the ball a lot of money?”
“People say our biggest issue and the thing that keeps us from winning a championship is the lack of (defense). We didn’t have the players to be a great defense… Hopefully we can address that (in the draft). Now I am not going to say we are going to sit here and pick for need. But I will say before we started free agency we took a snapshot of the draft and knew that it was deep in the defensive line, deep in the secondary. We knew that was the ability to really improve ourselves there.”
– Stephen Jones at March Owners’ meetings
Additionally, Garrett specifically mentioned the fact that they view the 2017 draft as one that has high quality players at both the defensive line and the defensive backfield.
So as we approach the draft, we should be looking for two kinds of players: edge-rushers, meaning "quarterback hunters'' and playmakers in the secondary, meaning "ball hawks.''
The first two rounds of the draft are where you typically find playmakers and early contributors so as we name names here, we’ll focus our attention on three pas- rushers, and three ball-hawking defensive backs the team could have their eyes on in the NFL draft.
T.J. Watt, Wisconsin – The younger brother of three-time NFL defensive player of the year, J.J. Watt, T.J. spent only two years on the defensive side of the ball, after making the transition from the tight end position in the spring of 2015 after recovering from a 2014 ACL injury. The positional learning curve, combined with a linebacker room full of NFL prospects kept Watt from becoming a full time player on defense in 2015, but in his junior season of 2016, he played full time at outside linebacker in the Badgers 3-4 defense and put up 11.5 sacks in a role that called him to drop in coverage on almost 30% of opponent’s passing plays. He is an up and coming rusher who has a very high ceiling.
Charles Harris, Missouri – Charles Harris is the next in the line of highly productive Tiger defensive ends to join the NFL ranks. From Aldon Smith, to Kony Ealy, Michael Sam, Markus Golden, and Shane Ray, the Mizzou program has proven their ability to send pass rushers to the league. After a redshirt season in 2013, Harris joined the Tigers’ rotation in 2014 and registered 2 sacks as a part time player, by 2015 he was a full-time starter who registered 7 sacks. His defensive line coach left for the University of Miami after 2015, and a new approach to defensive line play limited his production early in the year, but he was unleashed again mid-way through the year and registered 9 sacks as a redshirt Junior. He has his troubles playing the run, but as a pass rusher he has the ability to rush with speed to the edge and counter to the inside, making him very interesting for the Cowboys.
Tyus Bowser, Houston – Bowser played the outside linebacker spot in the Cougars’ defense, and was often asked to drop into zone coverage as either an underneath zone player or a man coverage player on slot receivers or tight ends, but still managed to register 22.5 career sacks in his time in Houston. He fits the Cowboys’ preferred physical profile for right defensive ends, and is a slippery rusher who doesn’t stay blocked for long. He is likely to go in the second round inside the top-50, but if the Cowboys go a different direction in the first round, he could be a target for a trade up in the second round, ala DeMarcus Lawrence in 2015.
Kevin King, Washington – King spent much of his career at Washington in the shadow of fellow 2017 draft prospects Sidney Jones and Budda Baker in the Huskies secondary. But the 6’ 3” 200 lb corner made a name for himself when he ran a 4.43 second 40 yard dash, with 6.56 second three-cone, and 3.89 second 20-yard short shuttle, at the NFL combine in Indianapolis. But King is more than a workout warrior. In his career at Washington, King had 28 combined interceptions and pass break ups. This number that matches the pace of corners like Marshon Lattimore, Marlon Humphrey, and Gareon Conley, all guys who should go in the top-20 or 25 picks in the draft. King is expected to go in the back end of the first or the second round.
Quincy Wilson, Florida – Wilson is another corner who played behind a more well-known name in the 2017 draft. While his teammate Teez Tabor received the recognition, all Wilson did was make plays. In three years, he got his hands on 20 Interceptions/Pass deflections, returning one for a touchdown, along with a sack and 4.5 tackles for loss. His combination of size, athleticism and ball skills will make him a player the Cowboys will look very intently at drafting at the end of the first or second round.
Marcus Williams, Utah – As a safety at the University of Utah, Willams played in the deep part of the field and displayed the kind of athleticism, and playmaking ability the Cowboys covet at the safety position. His range and attacking mentality when playing the ball in the air, netted him 11 interceptions and 9 passes defensed in three years at Utah, including back to back seasons with five interceptions. Pairing him at safety with Byron Jones would give the Cowboys two players with the size and athleticism to play deep in coverage or match up with opposing tight ends or slot receivers, making their defense extremely dynamic and flexible.
There are other names to pay attention to early in the draft of course, but these are names to watch to give the Cowboys the jolt of playmaking they want to bring to the defensive side of the ball as they attempt to round out the roster. (A connection can also be made when we scan the list of Cowboys 30 pre-draft Visits, here.)
You want "hunters'' and "hawks'' to offer immediate help? The Cowboys need 'em. This NFL Draft features 'em.