There were some key losses felt by the Dallas Cowboys in the frenzy of 2020 NFL free agency, but they bounced back nicely to put themselves in position to have one of the least complicated big boards entering the draft. Seeing defensive end Robert Quinn take a five-year, $70 million deal with the Chicago Bears left a gaping hole at the right edge, considering his 11.5 sacks were a team-high tally in 2019. The rebuttal was to beef up the defensive interior and EDGE simultaneously with a three-year deal on All-Pro Gerald McCoy -- who can flex multiple positions -- followed by a two-year deal being awarded to another All-Pro in Dontari Poe.
They weren't done there though, rolling the dice on Aldon Smith -- expecting both he and Randy Gregory will be reinstated by commissioner Roger Goodell this offseason. That was just the beginning of what's become an impressive free agency wherein newly-signed head coach Mike McCarthy's imprint was felt early and often. The next big test for McCarthy's regime will be how they approach and navigate the 2020 NFL Draft, as the team attempts to finally turn the corner this season.
And with that, let's take a look at how the Cowboys can win the offseason Super Bowl.
Step 1: Procure a replacement for Byron Jones
Defensively, the Cowboys have done a masterful job of adding barrels of gunpowder to their defensive front, but they did nothing to fill the glaring hole at CB1 -- created by Byron Jones taking his talents to South Beach on a record-setting deal. The good news is they finally unleashed Jourdan Lewis in Year 3, but that was balanced by former second-round pick Chidobe Awuzie regressing last season. Absent Jones or a replacement, the need to grab a future impact player at cornerback is dire, and the Cowboys failed attempt at landing someone like Desmond Trufant in free agency puts them in position to spend a premium pick on one in the draft.
Their top target is currently C.J. Henderson, but they've also had virtual meetings with Trevon Diggs, Jeff Gladney, A.J. Terrell and Kristian Fulton, which indicates they're not naive about what they need to do in April. They'd likely have to move up and jump the Atlanta Falcons to grab Henderson, but that's contingent upon if the Falcons themselves move up to prevent being jumped by the Cowboys.
The addition of Maurice Canady adds a special teams body and some semblance of depth, but if they truly want their defense to hit a new level, they better be able to cover in nickel, dime and quarter packages. That, and get more takeaways, because Lewis can't be the only corner gathering extra possessions for the offense. Plus, quiet as its kept, Lewis is an unrestricted free agent in 2021, and it's time to at least plan for the possibility of seeing him go.
Translation: See top CB in draft, select top CB in draft.
Step 2: Add even more firepower to DE
As mentioned above, the Cowboys went to work shoring up their defensive line after losing Robert Quinn and also Maliek Collins in free agency, but I'd be remiss if I didn't note the obvious. While both Smith and Gregory have the potential to be game wreckers, the former hasn't played since 2015 and both are at the mercy of Goodell on any given day. Tyrone Crawford is returning from injury and ready for an increased role at RDE and that helps, but it feels like the Cowboys can do more in 2020 to guarantee they won't have issues at the position this coming season.
That "more" needs to happen in the draft, and that's why they're currently working up a later over a player like K'Lavon Chaisson, also meeting virtually with Yetur Gross-Matos as they worked through their due diligence. Pulling the trigger on Chaisson, as one example, instantly supplies the club with a dependable option opposite DeMarcus Lawrence, and a youthful one who they can lean on for at least the next four or five years. Gregory assured to CBS Sports he'll be back "for good this time", and that's never appeared to be more true than now. Smith is a chiseled 287 pounds and prepped to be a "testimony", and Crawford is champing at the bit to again prove he's more valuable than fans give him credit for.
All of that is as honorable as it is possible, but none of it would justify not adding to that rotation in the draft.
Step 3: Grab a dynamic third WR option
With Randall Cobb taking more money to play for the Houston Texans, locating the next man up is key. It's certainly not the worst position to be in if you're the Cowboys, though. After all, Michael Gallup is coming off of a breakout 1,000-yard season and Amari Cooper just inked a five-year, $100 million deal to stay put in Dallas, and despite being offered more by the rival Washington Redskins in free agency. From the macro standpoint regarding their passing attack, the multi-year deal on tight end Blake Jarwin elevates him to the starting role and an impactful target that could also be viewed as a third receiver, and then there's running back Tony Pollard -- who isn't shy about doing random duty in the slot or as a receiver out of the backfield along with Ezekiel Elliott.
That's a fairly potent setup, but it's still imperfect.
The depth of the wide receiver pool works out wonderfully for a team like the Cowboys, who have a need at the position but not one so pressing that it would force them to use a first- or second-round pick to resolve it. Don't expect anyone like Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb or Henry Ruggs III to entice them by being available when Dallas goes on the clock, but their virtual meetings with Jalen Reagor and Denzel Mims show their heart and board are in the right place.
Could they be open to instead trading for a veteran receiver like Christian Kirk? At the moment, I wouldn't say the window is open as much as it is cracked to see how it smells outside, and it's still unconfirmed the Cardinals are even cooking something.
Step 4: Double down on free agency by adding another safety
Signing Ha Ha Clinton-Dix might prove quite fruitful for the Cowboys, with the veteran rejoining Mike McCarthy in 2020, the coach who drafted him in Green Bay and helped lift him to the best years of his NFL career. He's only on a one-year, prove it deal though, and knows he must take advantage of what he calls the "opportunity of a lifetime". What this does, at minimum, is provide the Cowboys needed stopgap measure after waving goodbye to Jeff Heath in free agency, but it doesn't guarantee Clinton-Dix will regain form and land a new deal in 2021. And even if he does, there's also the matter of Xavier Woods entering his contract season, which opens the risk of losing one or both players a year from now.
That means the Cowboys still have work to do at safety, even if only to protect against future potential losses. They have eyes on Grant Delpit and Xavier McKinney, among others, and it's wise that they do. They need to see more from promising second-year talent Donovan Wilson and they like what a re-signed Darian Thompson brings to the table, but the same team that tried incessantly to land Earl Thomas and then attempted to trade for Jamal Adams knows what the reality is.
They're not out on trying again for Adams, but if the Jets continue to demand a king's ransom, the deal won't happen -- leaving the Cowboys to go after a top safety prospect.
Step 5: Don't ignore looming depth issues at LB
Bravo to the Cowboys for retaining a resurgent Sean Lee as well as key depth in Joe Thomas. They, combined with Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, combine to keep the core in place at linebacker, but for how long? Lee flirted with retirement in 2018 before recommitting to the cause, a reminder he doesn't have another four years in him. Thomas is younger than Lee but doesn't carry the same NFL pedigree, and while Vander Esch is on track for a full recovery from the neck stinger that landed him on injured reserve in 2019 -- it's not his first brush with neck issues.
The Cowboys have no concerns at all about his future, and that's great, but assuming LVE remains healthy and Smith takes a step forward due in 2020 doesn't change the fact Lee will soon time out. There is great promise in a talent like Luke Gifford, but he battled injury in his rookie season and enters his sophomore effort with durability concerns.
As such, they've done homework and met with Kenneth Murray, but not a lot of their energy is being spent on figuring out a list of other prospects at the position. This makes sense, considering the re-signings were designed to alleviate pressure for them to use a top pick at linebacker in 2020, but they're not safe from a need to select a prospect altogether. A late April grab would be the right medicine, assuming they've already stitched the four wounds I mentioned above.
Sidebar: Why not select a center?
The loss of Travis Frederick to an early retirement can not be quantified, but the Cowboys were prepared for it to happen. The test drive of Joe Looney in 2018 went exceedingly well, and that's why he's back on a new deal in 2020. Looney is now a proven starter in the league and buys Dallas at least one year before they're pressed to locate Frederick's potential successor, but they also know that player might already be on the roster. His name is Connor McGovern, the former third-round pick who was forced to sit out his rookie season with a torn pectoral muscle suffered in the offseason.
McGovern was a dominant interior lineman who logged 14 starts at center for Penn State before the Cowboys gleefully selected him a year ago -- shocked he was still on the board for them to do so.
The plan now appears to be grooming McGovern to succeed Looney who'll temporarily succeed Frederick. Yes, a player like Cesar Ruiz justifiably has their eye ahead of the draft, but with bodies in place already and far more pressing needs elsewhere on the roster, they'd do well to get the defense in order and let Looney snap the ball until McGovern is brought up to speed.