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NFL Draft

Dallas Cowboys 2021 NFL Draft Class Breakdown

  • The Draft Network
  • May 4, 2021
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Dallas Cowboys Post-Draft Team Guide

When the Dallas Cowboys mercifully saw their 2020 season come to an end, sweeping changes were expected. The offense, bogged down by injuries, hoped to see quarterback Dak Prescott make a triumphant return to the team after going down in the first third of the season. He will indeed be back, as will all of the key cornerstones for Dallas offensively. But Dallas’ 6-10 finish last season was about much more than the loss of a franchise quarterback—this was arguably the worst defensive performance in the history of the franchise. Dallas conceded 473 points on the year, the worst figure the team has ever allowed since 1960. Things were abysmally bad: the Cowboys conceded 34 or more points in five of their first six games to open the season and eclipsed 30 points allowed a total of eight times on the year. 

So Dallas’ investments in the 2021 NFL Draft, predictably, skewed heavily toward the defensive side of the football. The team’s first six picks were defensively slanted, but did they find the right combination to help pull Dallas’ defense out of their misery while being led by new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn? 

Let’s take a look back at their 2021 NFL Draft class:

Round 1: Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State

I like this maneuver for Dallas. Not only did the Cowboys go with arguably the best defensive player on the board after Jaycee Horn and Patrick Surtain II were plucked off the board right in front of them, they managed to do so while trading back two spots with the Philadelphia Eagles. Sometimes it is better to keep your friends close and your enemies closer. 

Parsons should be able to step into a role of some kind up front for Dallas, but his real value is going to come in 2022 when Dallas can hit reset on a linebacker room that has floundered over the last two years after a standout rookie season from Leighton Vander Esch. Injuries are a problem here but between Vander Esch’s durability and Jaylon Smith’s shortcomings as a highly paid, three-down defender, Parsons’ addition is very exciting. Former safety Keanu Neal is penciled in to start at WILL, but I’d be curious if Parsons gobbles those snaps up on the early downs. You can protect him with extra bodies in front when you implement under fronts or you can alternatively put him on the line of scrimmage to the play side as the SAM ‘backer and charge him with playing aggressively. Either role works. 

Round 2: Kelvin Joseph, CB, Kentucky

Tell me you run a Dan Quinn defense without actually telling me you run a Dan Quinn defense:

The Cowboys drafted Kelvin Joseph very early—and with great power comes great responsibility. Joseph is a powerful name on the depth chart due to his draft status and he’ll need to come into form quickly in order to live up to those expectations in the secondary. Here’s the good news: the ball skills are very good and Joseph did well to claim his fair share of wins when charged with playing physical at the line. 

And here’s the bad news: he’s a bit of a roller coaster. Dallas is making a long play with this selection, as Joseph has just nine starts and 20 career appearances at the college level and it shows. Quinn’s staff will be betting they can pull those high-level physical skills out with consistency in the NFL—and they’d better hope for their sake they’re right. Joseph should be expected to start right away when you consider his positional value, his fit as a hand-picked candidate for this system, and his draft stock. 

A little early for my taste? Absolutely. But then again, the scheme fit from my write-up on Joseph describes the defense he’s entering into to a ‘T’: 

“Scheme Fit: C-3 or Quarters coverage frequency in zone. Can play press-man coverage for more aggressive defenses as well.”

I just don’t love the value and admittedly would have pursued other corners before targeting Joseph—including Benjamin St-Juste, Paulson Adebo, and Ifeatu Melifonwu—for the Quinn scheme. 

Round 3: Osa Odighizuwa, DT, UCLA

Each of the three picks taken ahead of Dallas in this spot had to be a little disheartening. Alim McNeill, Milton Williams, and St-Juste all would have been terrific additions for Dallas. But alas, you can’t really control what happens in front of you on the board. But you can control how you react. Odighizuwa projects best as a base end/5-tech alignment in the Quinn system. If you charge him with playing as a penetration 3-tech, I’m not sure you’ll get the best version of him as a player. I’m not overly sold on his ceiling as a penetration player, but if you charge him with playing gap control and stacking up the point of attack, I think you’ll find him capable of taking that role. 

But what else could you have gotten with this pick? Pulling a rotational gap-control defender in the top 75 feels a bit underwhelming and perhaps a knee-jerk reaction to the defensive line run the league was in the middle of by the time Dallas came on the board here. 

Round 3: Chauncey Golston, EDGE, Iowa

Drafting a pass rusher isn’t surprising for Dallas. Drafting one in the top 100 also should be applauded. But regardless of what type of pass rusher the Cowboys were looking for, I inevitably liked other options. If you want long-armed with a dense frame, I personally favored Notre Dame’s Ade Ogundeji and Florida State’s Janarius Robinson more than Golston. But as far as how Golston fits, he’ll likely compete with Odighizuwa for reps as a rookie. 

Golston doesn’t appear to have the athletic profile necessary to step into a more dynamic outside rusher role, so playing with outside protection as a 5-tech feels like the ideal role. 

Round 3: Nahshon Wright, CB, Oregon State

I’d make the “tell me you play a Dan Quinn defense” joke again but that content has already been used. I’ll start with the measurables, which, ironically enough, explain exactly why Wright was a pick for Dallas. He’s 6-foot-4, 183 pounds, and has 33-inch arms—prototypical size for the Quinn system. But Wright’s alarming agilities made his selection on Day 2 a stunner—he was in the 10th percentile for his 3-cone drill (7.19s) and in the 0th percentile (not a typo!) in the short shuttle (4.57s). 

Some notable players to run the same time in the short shuttle: OG Brandon Scherff, OT Jack Conklin, OG David DeCastro, and OT Ja’Wuan James. Tom Brady outpaced that time by two-tenths of a second back in the day. 

At 183 pounds? Not ideal. 

Granted, athletic testing is not the “be all, end all” of player evaluation. But Wright, who was a JUCO transfer that played two years with the Beavers, is another prospect with promising ball skills and a low sample size. Like Joseph, Wright has logged less than two seasons’ worth of starts at the FBS level (18 games, 16 starts). The Cowboys, a team with a head coach entering into a high-pressure year and introducing a new defensive coach, are putting a lot of weight into player development for their cornerbacks despite some questionable long-term security to see it through. 

Round 4: Jabril Cox, LB, LSU

The value here in the fourth round is excellent. Cox figures to complement Parsons’ skill set as a linebacker and potentially help keep the Cowboys well aligned to compete on any given down and distance situation when they’re forced into base personnel. Cox can also be groomed to take the Neal role long-term if injuries continue to be an issue for the former first-round pick at safety. 

In all, this was a marriage of the best player available and adding another body to the rotation as Dallas looks to fortify the defense—this is one of my favorite picks. 

Round 4: Josh Ball, OT, Marshall

If it weren’t for some ugly off-the-field issues, Ball would have been long gone by this point. But those off-the-field issues do exist and the Cowboys organization is going to have to provide mentorship and guidance to help Ball adjust his worldview. He was accused of 11 separate incidences of dating violence throughout one 18-month relationship—a trend that can’t be tolerated. Expect the shortest of leashes possible for Ball. 

On the field, Ball is tall, long, and moves well for a player of his stature. In a perfect world, Dallas grooms him to take over for Tyron Smith in the coming years as Smith continues to age and cost the Cowboys a significant amount against the salary cap. He’s physically ready for the NFL stage but certainly stands to improve with more technical refinement in both his hands and feet. 

Round 5: Simi Fehoko, WR, Stanford

Fehoko is a shot in the dark, but he’s a hell of one to take here in the fifth round. Fehoko’s most probable pathway to the active roster? Pushing Noah Brown out of the picture on the active roster as the big-bodied special teamer. Fehoko is a more dynamic athlete than Brown and has the developmental ceiling to potentially become a quality depth receiver, but he needs time and patience on that front. But Fehoko should have little issue with finding value as a kick coverage threat thanks to his mid-4.4s speed at 6-foot-4.

Round 6: Quinton Bohanna, DT, Kentucky

Bohanna, like Fehoko, has a very clear pathway to making the roster. Unlike Fehoko, Bohanna’s path doesn’t involve special teams. Rather, Bohanna is going to have to showcase consistent anchor skills in the middle to warrant a spot in the rotation as a 2-gapping 1-tech in the Cowboys’ defense. He’s got the size and strength to have success there but he’ll need to continue staying honed in on his pad level and leverage if he’s going to hold ground in camp against Dallas’ interior OL. If he can prove it in camp against the Cowboys’ interior, he’ll likely ensure himself a bottom of the roster spot. 

Round 6: Israel Mukuamu, DB, South Carolina

You’d be hard-pressed to find many defensive backs bigger than Mukuamu. Literally. He’s in the 99th percentile for height, 86th percentile for weight, and 97th percentile for length among defensive backs since 1999. But what makes this pick perhaps the most intriguing of the class for Dallas is that the team plans to try him as a convert to safety. Stephen Jones mentioned in the post-draft press conference that the team envisions him playing in the high post and covering tight ends in man to man coverage. But whether or not that comes to fruition will depend on how fluid Mukuamu and play in space. But at the very least this was a roll of the dice worth taking late in the draft. 

Round 7: Matt Farniok, G, Nebraska

Expectations here should sit close to zero. Farniok is a fine college prospect, but I didn’t see the functional skill set to indicate that he can develop into anything of high value in the pros. The ideal pathway for Farniok is to secure a spot on the practice squad and hope to develop into a utility lineman. 

How did the Cowboys do? 

Say what you will about Dallas’ choices, you can’t blame them for trying to cater their draft to the needs of the roster and the needs of new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s system. The puzzle pieces all make sense, but Dallas must hope for two things for this class to be a success:

-- Success in the draft and develop strategy with their defensive backs

-- Immediate team success to afford them the stability to see the former stipulation through

Would I have gone a different direction in a few different junctures along the way? Yes. I’d have tabbed DL Carlos Basham Jr. in the second round and hoped to still see Adebo or St-Juste available in the third round, which both were when Dallas came on the clock at No. 75. That approach would have still checked the boxes the team did in the draft, but with more pro-ready players and comparable ceilings in my personal opinion. But this is the path the team has chosen. They’ll need to coach quickly and coach effectively for the plan to materialize.

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