Scenes from the Cowboys draft party at AT&T Stadium
The Cowboys have long had a problem getting to the quarterback. The issue was exacerbated in the divisional playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers when they couldn’t get to Aaron Rodgers when it mattered most.
It marked the end of the 21st season since the Cowboys reached the Super Bowl in 1995, the most recent of their three Super Bowl titles during a dominating run that didn’t take off until the team traded for pass rusher Charles Haley.
Now, like then, the Cowboys believe they have the offense in place to contend for a Super Bowl, thanks to the new triplets in quarterback Dak Prescott, running Ezekiel Elliott and receiver Dez Bryant to go along with the league’s best offensive line.
They just need a play-making linchpin or three on defense to help put them over top.
So defense will be the primary focus for the Cowboys in the 2017 NFL Draft, which begins Thursday with the first round and runs through Saturday.
The Cowboys have seven picks in the draft, including the 28th overall selection, and it would come as no surprise if a great majority of them, if not all, are defensive players.
The Cowboys’ dream scenario is for Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett, a possible top-10 pick, to slip a little in the draft, allowing them to move up and get the war daddy pass rusher they covet so much, according to a source.
Short of that, the Cowboys plan to sit at the 28th pick and hopefully choose among the prospects of Missouri defensive end Charles Harris, UCLA defensive end Takkarist McKinley, Michigan defensive end Taco Charlton, Washington cornerback Kevin King, Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey, Florida cornerback Quincy Wilson and USC cornerback Adoree Jackson.
The Cowboys will not be able to target a player at No. 28 and will have to choose from what’s left on the draft board.
The good news is that the draft is deep at defensive end and at cornerback and the Cowboys have major needs at both positions, as well as safety.
Jones said the Cowboys are counting on the picks in the first two or three rounds to come in and play immediately if not be walk-in starters.
“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 still give us some good things to improve our team with. That will rule the day.”
That’s how crucial the situation is on defense after last season’s disappointing finish.
It became even more acute when the Cowboys let several starters and major contributors from a year ago — cornerbacks Morris Claiborne (New York Jets) 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.
The Cowboys have long targeted the draft as an opportunity to not only replace what they’ve lost, but also upgrade the talent to get back on the Super Bowl track.
To gain an insight into the team’s defensive focus heading into the draft, consider that of the 29 pre-draft visitors, 27 were defensive players. That includes nine defensive ends, one defensive tackle, 12 cornerbacks and five safeties.
It’s likely the Cowboys will double up at a position.
The bottom line is the Cowboys believe they are in a good position to make significant improvements, starting Thursday night.
“I do think the draft sets up good for us,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said.
Clarence Hill: 817-390-7760, @clarencehilljr
82nd NFL Draft
Thursday through Saturday
Museum of Art, Philadelphia
Selections: Round 1, 7 p.m. Thursday; Rounds 2-3, 6 p.m. Friday; and Rounds 4-7, 11 a.m. Saturday
TV: ESPN/ESPN2 and NFL Network
Round 1 (pick 28), Round 2 (pick 60), Round 3 (pick 92), Round 4 (pick 133), Round 6 (pick 211), Round 7 (pick 228), Round 7 (pick 246).