Is Jerry Jones selling hope again? Cowboys improve with draft, but need to keep building

After seemingly doing as little as possible in free agency, the Dallas Cowboys made moves to improve their roster with nine picks the NFL Draft this past weekend.

The Cowboys remade the offensive line with two starters — left tackle Tyler Guyton in the first round and projected center Cooper Beebe in the third.

They also added much needed size and depth to the defense, led by defensive end Marcus Kneeland in the second round, linebacker Marist Liufau in the third, cornerback Caelen Carson in the fifth and nose tackle Justin Rodgers in the seventh.

And the Cowboys got developmental projects at receiver and offensive guard with Ryan Flournoy in the sixth and Nathan Thomas in the seventh.

Give the Cowboys credit for executing a perfect game plan when they traded back five spots back in the first round with the Detroit Lions, allowing them to pick up an extra third round pick, resulting in Beebe.

But who are we kidding.

Nothing the Cowboys do is in a vacuum.

It’s judged by a now 28-year gap since their last Super Bowl title in 1996.

After following three consecutive 12-5 seasons with early playoff exits under head coach Mike McCarthy, what they have done in the draft and free agency is going to be judged by their ability to end the title drought in 2024, or at least make it to the NFC Championship game.

With McCarthy heading into the final year of his contract with no safety net of an extension promised or in place, that is the dark that hangs every move the Cowboys have made since the unconscionable and still inexplicable 48-32 loss to the Green Bay Packers in the wildcard playoffs last January.

And while he remains sensitive and defensive about the criticism of the team’s moves in free agency, “all-in” owner Jerry Jones knows as much.

Jones, who has acknowledged the salary-cap strapped Cowboys and quarterback Dak Prescott will have to play with a diminished supporting cast, was back selling hope to his team’s disillusioned fan base after the draft.

“I think that we have given ourselves a chance to be better at the end of next year than we were at the end of this year,” Jones said. “I’m figuring in now some of the young guys that last year didn’t play as much as they’re going to be playing this year. But I’ll also include this draft. I strongly believe that by the time that we get to the end of the year, we will have success that could match in the regular season last year, and that we will be in as good or better shape to compete in the playoffs. That’s what all this is about.

“We are in a situation where these young players. . .got started carrying mail for the Cowboys.”

Heading that list, as much as anyone, including Guyton, Kneeland an Beebe from this year, is 2023 first-round pick Mazi Smith, who was a huge disappointment as rookie.

Drafted to have an instant impact on the Cowboys defense as a big-body, run-stuffing nose tackle, Smith saw limited action in 2023.

Smith curiously lost more than 30 pounds during the season, compromising his strength and effectiveness. He played just four snaps in the 48-32 loss to the Green Bay Packers when the Cowboys got run over and run through. He played just 28% of the plays on defense in 17 games in 2023 and recorded only 13 tackles.

The Cowboys believe Smith will be much better in his second year.

“Mazi’s got to do a lot better than he did last year, and I think he certainly will,” Jones said.

McCarthy: “We’re all counting Mazi on taking that next step. Most importantly, he believes it. He’s doing the things necessary right now to get himself ready. He’s going through a rehab process. We see big things for Mazi.”

There is no question that Guyton is the most important pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. He has task of replacing eight-time Pro Bowler Tyron Smith protecting Prescott’s backside, making him also the most scrutinized of the selections.

But the best pick was Beebe, not only in the savvy way the Cowboys acquired him but mainly because of the player they got.

It was a home-run selection at a position of need, due to the departure of Tyler Baidasz to the Washington Commanders in free agency.

No pick was more accomplished as Beebe during his college career at Kansas State, where he made first-time All-America honors and was named Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the year.

Beebe allowed just two sacks on 1,259 pass blocking snaps in his career.

He will make the move from guard to center, where McCarthy says he projects to be natural fit.

What they like most about Beebe is his play style and nasty demeanor. He admittedly likes “to dirt” opponents.

“This guy is one hell of an interior football player,” McCarthy said. “The contact balance and his footwork. I don’t recall another lineman in a draft that have dropped as many defenders on the ground as Cooper (Beebe). I just love his play style. Everybody we talked to thinks it’s a no-brainer for him to go in there at center and play full time. I just think he’s an excellent fit ...that’s where it starts and we can’t have enough of those types of players on our team.”

Running back was the only position of need the Cowboys didn’t address in the draft, as expected.

They will partly address the position in the coming days with the addition of former two-time NFL rushing champion Ezekiel Elliott, a 2016 first-round pick of the Cowboys who was cut following the 2022 season because of a decline in production didn’t match his high salary.

Elliott spent last season in a part-time role with the New England Patriots and is more accepting of the Cowboys contract offer to make the reunion work.

Jones said Elliott would be a potential positive influence in the Cowboys locker room.

“He’s a positive influence at all times,” Jones said. “Not one time, even in maybe some critical times, has he been anything but a positive and a winning influence as a teammate and member of the Dallas Cowboys. That’s a big plus that he has. So anytime…he’s outstanding in that area.”

“Listen, I don’t want to get into that because I’m not sure what all we’re touching on here in terms of the rules. The bottom line is that he’s a positive. He’s a positive. I think he can be positive for this team.”

Jones said the Cowboys are not done in trying to improve the team. They plan to be active in post-draft free agency and possibly the trade market.

“I’ve seen teams win the Super Bowl with running backs that they traded for mid-season,” Jones said smugly. “The point is that this thing is a long way from being over when you have to line up next fall.”

Step right up, Cowboys fans.

If the ever-positive Jones is talking, he is selling hope.

Are you buying?