The Dallas Cowboys have a rare opportunity to add top-of-the-draft talent to a roster that was picked by many to win the NFC East prior to the 2015 season. Injuries derailed those dreams, but now the Cowboys will be compensated with a tremendous opportunity. So, how do they make the most of it?
Below we’ll identify the best-case draft scenario at each pick for the Cowboys, finding an ideal prospect for each of their nine picks in the 2016 draft. We used a combination of the Pro Football Focus draft rankings, Dallas’s biggest team needs – and a little bit of wishful projection for certain players to still be available at certain spots.
Here is the Cowboys’ best-possible 2016 NFL draft haul:
Round 1, No. 4 overall: Jalen Ramsey, CB, Florida State
While some Cowboys fans might be praying for one of the top two QB prospects in this draft – California’s Jared Goff and North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz – to fall to this spot as the eventual successor to Tony Romo, Ramsey is still a fantastic fit for Dallas. Ohio State DE Joey Bosa is the No. 1 prospect on the PFF draft board, having graded out as the No. 1 edge defender in college football two years in a row, and a tempting option at this spot if he is available. But Ramsey isn’t far behind at No. 3 overall, having earned the No. 1 cornerback grade in this draft class based on his all-around game – excelling in coverage, against the run and as a pass-rusher. The Cowboys could give him the same role as 2015 first-rounder Byron Jones as a hybrid cornerback-safety-slot defender. This will not only shorten his adjustment curve to the NFL, but allow the team to move Jones, the team’s highest-graded corner in coverage last year, out wide full time. The Giants passed on 65 percent of plays last year, the Eagles 63 and the Redskins 61 – the Cowboys need to shore up their secondary.
Round 2, No. 34 overall: Emmanuel Ogbah, DE, Oklahoma State
In some ways it is surprising that Ogbah – who possesses a tremendous combination of size and athletic ability – isn’t higher on more draft boards. One possible explanation is his concerning technique on tape, which our PFF analysts have noticed as well. But purely from a production standpoint, Ogbah was superb for Oklahoma State last season. He earned the third-best pass-rush grade among edge defenders in this year’s class, having produced a nation-leading 78 quarterback pressures from his position. He wasn’t nearly as strong against the run, but A) he still earned a positive grade in that area; B) he has the size to improve over time; C) this is a passing league, and any concern over Ogbah’s ability in the run game can be quickly outweighed by his ability to get after the quarterback. In Ogbah, DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, Dallas would have one of the best groups of young edge rushers in the NFL.
Round 3, No. 67 overall: Sheldon Day, DT, Notre Dame
PFF has an early second-round grade on Day, but he is showing up in the late Day 2 and early Day 3 range on most boards. This may be due to his modest measureables and athletic testing results at the combine. But his production was excellent in 2015, earning the second-highest grade among interior defensive linemen (behind only Oregon’s DeForest Buckner, a likely top-10 pick) and performing equally well as a run defender and as a pass-rusher. Day might be limited to a role as a 3-technique defensive tackle in the pros, but that makes him an excellent fit in the Dallas defense. Day can be a disruptive force in the running game and in getting after the quarterback. The combination of Day, Ogbah and Ramsey would provide an immediate upgrade for a defense in need of one.
Round 4, No. 104 overall: Daniel Braverman, WR, Western Michigan
Oklahoma’s Sterling Shepard and Rutgers’s Leonte Carroo are two undervalued wide receivers the Cowboys should target in Rounds 2 and 3 if the above defensive options don’t materialize with those picks. If not, the team should take advantage of the depth at the wide receiver position to find some undervalued prospects on Day 3, and there might not be a more undervalued player in this class than Braverman. He is an ideal weapon out of the slot, working out of that position for 96 percent of his routes and earning the highest yards per route run average from the slot in this year’s class, to go along with the third-best overall receiving grade behind only TCU’s Josh Doctson and Shepard. His elusiveness as a route-runner and after the catch would make him an ideal complement to outside WRs Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams, and potentially a significant upgrade over slot receiver Cole Beasley.
Round 4, No. 135 overall: Paul Perkins, RB, UCLA
DeMarco Murray’s disaster of a 2015 campaign validated Dallas’s decision to let him walk in free agency last offseason, but the Cowboys undoubtedly suffered without having a bona fide lead back. Perkins might not be that for Dallas, given his limitations in pass-protection and as a pass-catcher, but he has proven to be effective on power runs similar to those that Dallas runs, and his ability to make defenders miss might be the best in this year’s draft class. His elusive rating (PFF’s measure of how effective a running back is at generating yards independent of his blocking) ranks No. 1 in this year’s RB class, and his 85 forced missed tackles were second only to Heisman winner Derrick Henry. Perkins would likely need to be used in a platoon in Year 1, but he’s a great Day 3 option.
Round 6, No. 189 overall: Michael Thomas, WR, Southern Mississippi
Thomas joins Braverman as being one of the most underrated receiver prospects in this draft. His 2015 receiving grade ranked tied for 11th in this class with likely first-round pick Laquon Treadwell, and he finished fifth in yards per route run and fourth in deep-ball catch rate at 47 percent. Unlike Braverman, Thomas excelled as an outside receiver, demonstrating an ability to make spectacular catches on several occasions. He would provide tremendous value at this point in the draft.
Round 6, No. 212 overall: Kalan Reed, CB, Southern Mississippi
Thomas is another underrated prospect. His coverage grade ranked third among this class of corners, and while Dallas would love to get a safety here, Reed is too good of a value to pass up. The addition of Ramsey with the No. 4 pick will help a lot, but Reed offers a second option as a potential rookie contributor.
Round 6, No. 216 overall: Jonathan Williams, RB, Arkansas
Razorback booster and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones would do backflips over Williams falling this far, but Williams’s missed 2015 campaign due to injury has him at the tail end of the Day 3 range on most draft boards. Still, many of his 2014 numbers are so good they indicate he’s a potential sleeper in this class. His elusive rating ranked third in all of college football two years ago, and he ranked 12th in PFF rushing grade (a few spots ahead of T.J. Yeldon, the Jaguars’ second-round pick). He is a bit one-dimensional but as a late-round pick, his ability as a power back makes him a great value. His match with Dallas is ideal.
Round 6, No. 217 overall: Matt Johnson, QB, Bowling Green
Yes, the Cowboys could certainly consider taking a successor to Romo earlier than this, but in this class we don’t see much of a difference between the QBs projected to go in the middle rounds than those that could at the end of the draft or become undrafted free agents. Johnson is undersized for the QB position at the NFL level, at roughly 6-feet tall, but he put up outstanding numbers in our college database last season, earning the top overall passing grade in the class and consistently demonstrating an ability to make difficult downfield throws. Other options to consider at this spot or in undrafted free agency: Western Kentucky’s Brandon Doughty (third-best passing grade in the class), TCU’s Trevone Boykin (fourth-best) and Arkansas’ Brandon Allen (fifth-best).
Jeff Dooley is the Editor in Chief of Pro Football Focus and a contributor to The Washington Post’s NFL coverage.