FRISCO, Texas — NFL mock drafts can be a fun exercise to dissect at this time of year, but only if your team has a first-round pick. They are mostly just guesswork, especially if you are a fan of the Dallas Cowboys, who do not have a pick until No. 58 overall.
With the NFL draft (April 25-27, on ESPN and the ESPN app) approaching, it’s worth looking into possible players at positions of need for the Cowboys, particularly those who visited The Star and who could be available late in the second round.
What the Cowboys want: They want speed at every position on defense. If you hear folks talk about the Cowboys playing a Tampa-2 style of defense, don’t pay attention to them anymore. They play much more single-high safety, using the extra safety in the box to help with the run rather than splitting their safeties deep in coverage.
Dallas believes Woods will be a cornerstone defensive player for years to come. Heath, Iloka, Frazier and Thompson are set to be free agents after the 2019 season. Woods is a free safety, but he has a willingness to hit. Heath played in the box more last season and the coaches like what he can do. Iloka has more experience playing deep but has the skills to play close to the line.
Rapp did not run the fastest 40-yard dash, which might scare off some teams, but he plays fast, which is more important. He was active around the line (seven total sacks the past two seasons) and can play multiple spots, which is an important trait with the way offenses are going.
Taylor Rapp is a defensive back who earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors in his sophomore and junior seasons at Washington.
Thornhill has Byron Jones-like traits and might be viewed more as a corner than a safety. He is gifted athletically and can play multiple spots as well. He had six interceptions last season at Virginia. The Cowboys have not had a defensive back with that many INTs in a season since Anthony Henry had six in 2007.
Abram is the hitter of the group. He is a see-ball, hit-ball type. That can get him into trouble at times because he can be too aggressive, but he can also set a tone. Gardner-Johnson is aggressive to a fault at times as well, but he can find the ball.
What the Cowboys want: Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli wants interior players who are built to get up the field rather than to hold down gaps. He has never put a premium on size since coming to the Cowboys, and the personnel staff has not tried to force a big body on him. He has made it work well enough at nose tackle with guys such as Nick Hayden, Terrell McClain and Antwaun Woods. At the under-tackle spot, pass-rush productivity is a must.
Crawford is the most versatile lineman the Cowboys have because he can play all four spots. Collins has battled injuries the past two years but can play either interior spot. Woods was a steal after getting cut by the Tennessee Titans. Free-agent pickups Covington and Hyder provide the Cowboys some depth, so they don’t have to get a defensive tackle in this draft.
Potential second-round visitor: Gerald Willis
It might be a little early to take Willis at No. 58 overall, but in Mel Kiper Jr.’s most recent mock draft, he had the Cowboys taking the Miami product. Teams visit with players for all sorts of reasons, not just football-related. Willis had off-field issues at Miami, including a fight over a pair of cleats, but was a captain last season, his only year as a full-time starter. He plays fast but undisciplined at times and will check out on his run-game responsibilities. Marinelli’s track record shows he can help anybody succeed if the player is willing to put in the work.
What the Cowboys want: Maybe it’s best to say what they don’t want: a niche back. They want a back who can handle the load if something were to happen to Ezekiel Elliott. As much as they lean on Elliott, the Cowboys want to make sure the drop-off isn’t too steep when they do rest their Pro Bowl runner.
Jackson and Chunn spent most of last season on the practice squad and did not have a carry. Rod Smith, last season’s backup, remains unsigned. Fullback Jamize Olawale can carry the ball if needed, but only in emergency situations.
Potential second-round visitor: Damien Harris
In a perfect world, the Cowboys would spell Elliott more than they did a year ago, when he led the team in rushing and receptions. But do they want to spend a second-round asset on a player who could play fewer than 30 percent of the snaps? They also want to keep Elliott on a long-term deal, which pushes the need down even more.
Harris did lead Alabama in rushing for three straight seasons. He did not have to carry the load because of the number of quality backs with the Crimson Tide, but he has good vision and strength. He will not wiggle away from defenders with his quickness, but he can pick up the dirty yards.
What the Cowboys want: A playmaker. They need to get more chunk plays out of the passing game than they have the past two years. They need the easy play, and that’s why they traded for Amari Cooper. Michael Gallup had moments as a rookie, too. They just need more consistency.
Deebo Samuel is a receiver out of South Carolina who was the Gamecocks’ leading pass-catcher during his final season.
With the top six receivers set, it would seem unwise to go with a receiver this early, but Cooper, Cobb, Austin and Hurns are on the last year of their deals. The expectation, however, is that Cooper will get a long-term deal sometime this offseason. Cobb has value as Cole Beasley‘s replacement. Any rookie brought into the mix will not have to be the man right away, which is a good thing.
Potential second-round visitor: Deebo Samuel
He has scored receiving, rushing and return touchdowns, and he even threw two touchdown passes. Samuel can line up all over the formation and has the strength to make one tackler miss and make a big play. He has return skills, but that part of the game has been mitigated by rule changes, so it is more important to evaluate his receiver skills. He looks like he could be part of a creative offense that coordinator Kellen Moore wants to develop.