Any hopes they have of improving their 13-3 record of a year ago and advancing deeper in the playoffs leading up to a possible Super Bowl berth for the first time since 1995 hinges largely on what they do with their seven picks, starting with the 28th pick of the first round.
The Cowboys made it that way based on how they approached free agency, letting a host of players walk and replacing them with bargain-basement signees.
But let owner Jerry Jones tell it, the Cowboys have already improved from a year ago.
The return of last year’s top picks in running back Ezekiel Elliott and quarterback Dak Prescott as well as the addition in two redshirt picks from a year ago in linebacker Jaylon Smith and defensive end Charles Tapper combined with what the Cowboys hope to acquire in the draft puts them over the top and on their way in his mind.
“We lost significant numbers of players. But we were selective on what we lost,” Jones said during the team’s annual pre-draft news conference Monday. “So it’s important that these players play that we’re going to be drafting, and they need to play. The ones that we drafted last year really need to play.
“I wouldn’t dare project the record of what we can do, but I think we’ve got a team that right now is better — because of the prospects of this draft — that is better than the one we ended out the year with. I think it’s really got the chance to be better the right way, which is to be younger.”
The basis for much of the Cowboys’ optimism is already set on offense, led by Elliott and Prescott, picked in the first and fourth rounds of 2016, and the league’s best offensive line, led by three first-round picks in tackle Tyron Smith (2011), center Travis Frederick (2013) and guard Zack Martin (2014).
To take the next step, the Cowboys know they need to get better on defense. They to plan to make that happen in the draft, while also getting younger.
They calculated as much when they let cornerbacks Morris Claiborne (New York Giants) and Brandon Carr (Baltimore Ravens), safeties Barry Church (Jacksonville Jaguars) and J.J. Wilcox (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and defensive tackle Terrell McClain (Washington Redskins) and defensive end Jack Crawford (Atlanta Falcons) leave via free agency.
It’s no secret the Cowboys’ biggest needs are on defense, especially at defensive end and at cornerback and safety.
That this draft is deep in those positions is not a surprise to the Cowboys as they considered those factors at the start of free agency, Jones said.
“Well the numbers, if you add both of those positions up, look good,” Jones said. “There are a lot of players that make that spot, the 28th spot, there are a lot of players at those positions that give us some options and we’ve got some position flex within our own roster that give us some options there, so you can throw safety in there too and it still give us some good things to improve our team with.
“There are players there, players that we need, players I think can help us immediately. That will rule the day.”
The draft is so deep the Cowboys believe they can fill their needs and still stick to the best player available philosophy.
They won’t be able to target a player with the 28th pick because they will be at the mercy of what’s left on the board, but they will also not have to reach for a certain player or position.
“I do think the draft sets up good for us,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “I don’t think we’ll be having to stretch, reach, take people who there’s a big discrepancy between who the best player on our board is and a position of need.”
2017 NFL Draft
1st round, 7 p.m. Thursday,
ESPN, NFL Network