With the Senior Bowl a month away, ’tis the season to talk NFL draft.
The Dallas Cowboys have proven to be one of the better drafting teams in the NFL, especially in the first round. However, they won’t be dealing from a full deck this draft season, having (rightfully) traded their 2019 first-round pick to the Oakland Raiders for wide receiver Amari Cooper.
While this certainly restricts the Cowboys’ front office a bit, it doesn’t preclude them from finding players who can make an immediate impact and fill needs.
Without further ado, let’s discuss three prospects who may be available after Round 1 of the 2019 draft and fill positions of need for the Cowboys.
Offensive tackle: Cody Ford, Oklahoma
One of the sneakier needs on the roster is at offensive tackle.
Tyron Smith isn’t giving up his spot as starting left tackle anytime soon, but he has shown in recent years that it’s tough for him to stay healthy for 16 games, so Dallas should operate as if he’s going to miss a game or two every season.
La’el Collins is the starting right tackle, but he’s playing at a level that could make Dallas consider bringing in competition for the LSU product.
Cameron Fleming has been inconsistent when filling in for Smith, so the Cowboys would be wise to make an effort to improve the swing tackle position in the offseason.
If Dallas decides it wants to bring in someone who can upgrade the swing tackle position while giving Collins competition at right tackle, it likely will need to pull the trigger in the second or third round. Colts right tackle Braden Smith (2018) and Panthers left tackle Taylor Moton (2017) were both second-round picks who were able to provide their teams with competent play from the get-go.
In the 2019 draft, Oklahoma right tackle Cody Ford is the best candidate to be the Smith or Moton of the draft class.
Listed at 6-foot-4 and 330 pounds, Ford is a giant human being who leverages his size to displace defenders at the point of attack. He’s a nasty finisher who’s dominant on down and angle blocks, as his large frame and deliberate hands make it tough for defenders to cross his face. He leverages his upper-body strength to initially create movement with his strikes, relying on his size and lower-body strength to continue displacing the defender.
When Ford gets his mitts on a defender in pass protection, much like Collins and Smith, it’s over. Ford’s grip strength and movement make it near-impossible for a defender to break his grip in time to generate pressure.
Unlike many offensive tackles his size, Ford actually shows good technique with his anchor against power rushes. Many 330-pound tackles rely on their size to inhibit the forward momentum of a power rusher. However, Ford does well to attain superior hand position while utilizing tight elbows to create the torque necessary to stymie even the more developed rushers.
Ford’s stance and footwork need considerable work, as his upright posture limits his ability to play with leverage and will cause him to struggle in the NFL if not corrected. Moreover, Ford’s footwork in pass protection can often be inconsistent and plodding. Ford’s athletic ability and size cover up a lot of his warts from a footwork perspective that will be exposed by some of the more nuanced edge rushers in the NFL.
Still, Ford is the perfect candidate to compete with Collins for the starting right tackle spot while providing an upgrade at backup swing tackle if Collins or Smith gets injured. Dallas would immediately fix his stance while being patient with the development of his footwork, but he still has the power and movement skills to provide above-average play if called upon as a rookie.
Strong safety: Taylor Rapp, Washington
While everyone focuses on the idea of upgrading the free safety position with Earl Thomas in free agency, the strong safety position is where Dallas could use the biggest upgrade in the secondary.
Xavier Woods has played incredibly well from a coverage perspective in recent weeks while Heath has been up and down. Don’t get it twisted, Heath has been solid this season, but he hasn’t played to a level where Dallas shouldn’t consider bringing in competition for the strong safety spot.
Kavon Frazier had a chance to compete for the job in the offseason, but his struggles in coverage proved to be too much to overcome.
Woods is younger, cheaper and plays the more valuable position, meaning Dallas could opt to find an upgrade over Heath at strong safety instead of paying Thomas big money in free agency (they could conceivably do both).
If Dallas opts to go that route, Washington safety Taylor Rapp would be a great option in Round 2.
Listed at 6-feet and 212 pounds (Heath is listed at 6-1 and 212 pounds), Rapp has the size to survive down in the box.
Rapp is at his best defending the run, showing the vision and awareness to diagnose run concepts that allows him to flow to the ball quickly. Rapp showcases impressive burst to chase ballcarriers down from the back side, and he’s not afraid to take on blocks at the point of attack. Rapp also shows impressive awareness to take the proper angles to the ballcarrier.
On top of that, Rapp is an extremely reliable tackler, having proven to be adept at making tackles in space and tight quarters. Rapp usually comes to balance, in lieu of launching himself at the ballcarrier, before attempting to make a tackle, which gives him the ability to react to any changes in movement patterns from the ballcarrier.
Rapp’s impressive quickness makes him an effective blitzer from outside and inside the box, as he is able to quickly attack any openings in the opponent’s pass protection. He also brings more polish as a pass rusher than most safeties since he was tasked with rushing off the edge on occasion.
In coverage, Rapp tends to struggle more when he has larger areas of the field to account for. He lacks the range to affect passes outside of the hash marks. He lacks the instincts to make “plus-breaks” on the ball from a deep alignment, and he lacks the turn-and-run ability to hang in man coverage with receivers downfield.
Having said that, Rapp is formidable in coverage closer to the line of scrimmage, excelling at playing the short-to-intermediate zones from a box or slot alignment.
Bottom line: Rapp is essentially a plus version of Heath. But Rapp is already a better and more sound tackler than Heath, while providing similar coverage abilities. Rapp’s aggressive play style would be a great addition to Dallas’ defense, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Rapp stole Heath’s starting spot at some point in his rookie year.
Defensive tackle: Jerry Tillery, Notre Dame
The Cowboys have actually gotten much better play from their defensive tackles than expected this season.
Even with David Irving missing most of the season, Antwaun Woods and Maliek Collins have stepped up and played admirably. Tyrone Crawford has been excellent when aligned in the interior, as he’s still somehow the most overpaid but underrated player on the team.
But with Irving becoming a free agent in the offseason, the Cowboys could opt to invest in a talented defensive tackle prospect in the 2019 draft. Who better to replace Irving than someone with similar measurements to the gangly defensive tackle?
Listed at 6-7, 305 pounds, Tillery is blessed with similarly freakish size to Irving. Tillery doesn’t possess the elite athleticism of Irving, however, instead relying on length and strength to batter and bludgeon opposing linemen.
Tillery does possess an excellent get-off but lacks the lateral agility and sustained burst of Irving. Tillery leverages his quick get-off with deliberate hands to create knock-back at the point of attack, allowing him to routinely reset the line of scrimmage against the run.
Tillery doesn’t have the deepest pass rush repertoire, but he is effective with the techniques he uses, showing impressive situational awareness to throw the right move for the situation.
Tillery isn’t the most refined hand-fighter — though he does display an excellent club move — as he loves to play through his opponent’s pads, using a keen understanding of leverage and weight distribution to displace and defeat blocks at a high rate.
Tillery’s best fit in Dallas is at under tackle (3-technique defensive tackle). However, he does possess the length and strength to provide effective snaps at nose tackle (1-technique defensive tackle) as well.
Tillery would provide Dallas with a disruptive talent up front, making the defensive line rotation even more formidable.
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