Five takeaways from Dallas Cowboys pre-draft press conference

FRISCO, Texas — Just two days prior to the 2022 NFL draft, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, executive vice president Stephen Jones and head coach Mike McCarthy held a news conference Tuesday afternoon.

If fans who tuned in for only portions of the 45-plus-minute conversation derived conflicting messages, forgive them: The traditional draft-week filibustering was in full force.

But through the votes for and against unconventionality and the voices with both concern and encouragement about this draft class’s available talent, the Cowboys shed some light on how they view their current roster and what that might mean for their nine draft picks, beginning with the 24th overall selection Thursday night. Here are USA TODAY Sports’ five key takeaways from the session:

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ADVICE: What should Cowboys do to maximize picks?

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Where is wildcatter Jerry?

The Cowboys owner, who serves as a general manager as well, asserted that winning in a league of parity demands creativity.

“We will be unconventional if we think it will help our team,” Jones said.

Yet later, as he preached accountability’s eternal importance, the 79-year-old weighed in on where his philosophies have shifted since his 1989 purchase of the Cowboys.

“There’s probably less risk-taking in me today than it probably was around 30-something years ago,” he said.

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, shown in 2020, weighs in ahead of the 2022 NFL draft.

Upon first listen, the two mindsets seem incongruent. But Jones further that he’s less likely to pay top dollar or draft premium for players whose availability and immediate readiness he can’t rely on. Jones cited that availability concern in defending why the Cowboys lost pass rusher Randy Gregory to the Broncos in free agency, and he reasoned 2021 second-round cornerback Kelvin Joseph’s history of red flags by saying “we thought he was one of the top, talent- wise,” adding that Joseph “got docked” on off-field concerns. Jones affirmed that rookies must be ready to contribute on a team strapped by payouts like quarterback Dak Prescott’s $40 million-per-year average rate, hoping the Cowboys will find impact first- and second-rounders like 2020 picks CeeDee Lamb and Trevon Diggs, as well as 2021 first-round linebacker Micah Parsons.

“We need those players to play immediately,” Jones said. “Maybe a little more conservative about (drafting) players on the come that have some developing to do, need to get some strength – because I feel like we need to use them now.”

Cowboys’ top positions of need in draft

Fans, scouts and even active roster members have voiced the need for the Cowboys to upgrade at key positions. Receiver, offensive line and pass rusher arguably top the list, tight end a middle- to late-round likelihood while cornerback became a more plausible move after police linked Joseph to the scene of a fatal shooting. The Cowboys consider this a deep draft at receiver, which could reassure them they need not spend their 24th pick on a pass catcher if an elite player isn’t there. McCarthy said offensive line versatility and positional flexibility are valued even more highly with the NFL’s expansion to 17 regular-season games.

And yet, the Cowboys insist their roster will enable them to honestly consider the best players available. They won’t say aloud how dire a receiver pick is despite trading four-time Pro Bowler Amari Cooper to the Browns and knowing that re-signed Michael Gallup is expected to miss two to three games ACL tear recovery. The Cowboys did not concede Tuesday that their offensive line was a weak link in 2021 even before they cut starting right tackle La’el Collins and allowed starting left guard Connor Williams to sign with the Dolphins in free agency. And certainly, they did not confirm the hurt of losing Gregory, instead sticking to their party line that the combination of re-signing Dorance Armstrong and adding Dante Fowler Jr. will offer superior benefit to Gregory’s solo availability and ability.

The Cowboys dismissed any notion of positional urgency.

“I don’t think we have any ‘musts’ going into the draft,” Stephen Jones said. “Obviously you’d like to look up nine picks later and hope that you really helped yourself across the board in terms of not only improving yourself with front-line players but also depth and things of that nature. (But) I wouldn’t say we have any ‘musts.’”

New chapter for NFL draft after COVID-19 restrictions

The NFL has eliminated the strict COVID-19 protocols that shifted the evaluation and draft process in McCarthy’s first two drafts as Cowboys head coach. Now, scouts, front-office members and coaches are meeting all together in person to simulate draft scenarios. The scouting combine and its in-person interviews returned, as did pro days and the Cowboys’ Dallas Day hosting local prospects for a group workout for the first time since 2019. And yet, the Cowboys are still availing themselves of virtual resources, be it players tuning in for virtually for offseason meetings to allow for 100% combined player attendance or Zooming with draft prospects when further information was sought. McCarthy believes the process has allowed the team to understand not just player talent but also player fit with scheme and coaching vision better than in previous years.

“Fit is a big part of a lot of our conversations,” McCarthy said. “It makes us stronger as a group, the decision-making process is tighter. This is year three. Year one, we were virtual. Last year was more holistic. And this is really the first full year that we’ve had as a staff. Our scouts are in-house, so this has clearly been the best process of my time here because of the interaction, whether it’s on the road, getting out and seeing these players in their pro days and also interacting with your scouts on the road. Just so much more collaboration, interaction, and I think with that it definitely improves your decision-making process.”

Who will make the decisions?

Jerry Jones addressed both seriously and in jest who will ultimately make decisions and how when the clock begins to tick. Jones emphasized how he has the final say but incorporates input from multiple personnel and coaching colleagues before pulling the trigger. Stephen Jones argued Tuesday that Jerry Jones’ dual role as owner and general manager gives the team an advantage should they decide to eschew an obvious selection or otherwise move aggressively.

“Having Jerry as the owner and general manager, we can make quick decisions, can make hard decisions quickly,” Stephen Jones said. “So I think that gives us an advantage in terms of if we decide to do something that’s on the real aggressive side, then we can do it.”

Trading the 10th overall pick to the division-rival Eagles last year, and selecting Parsons at 12 was one example of that strategic wheeling and dealing. At the time, questions abounded about why the Cowboys eschewed their needs for depth at a seemingly solid roster position, and all the more so selecting a player 16 months removed from his last college performance. The result: Parsons dominated from both coverage linebacker and pass-rusher packages, riding a 13-sack, 84-tackle, three-forced-fumble campaign to an unanimous Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.

“We had no idea Micah Parsons was going to be there,” Jerry Jones said. “We all had our eye on corners. The bad thing would have been to have not been flexible or willing to do something that you really hadn’t gone to bed the night before thinking (possible). Flexibility, we have it here.”

Jerry Jones jested about how much better that pick fared than the Cowboys’ 2017 first-round selection of Taco Charlton, whom Dallas cut after two years. Charlton has since been signed by the Dolphins, Chiefs and Steelers, averaging two starts per year.

“There is a lot of talk in this business about who makes the call,” Jerry Jones equipped. “Taco was Stephen’s call. Parsons was my call.”

Would the Cowboys consider a trade and why?

Jerry Jones said last week he would consider trading up. He reinforced Tuesday his willingness to entertain deals up and down while indicating his philosophy emphasizes discussing said moves more than acting on wild schemes.

“There is nothing dangerous about thinking crazy things,” Jerry Jones said. “What is dangerous is when you get out there and make a decision.”

The Cowboys do not seek to emulate the defending Super Bowl champion Rams’ blueprint of mortgaging draft picks in bold trades for veterans. Dallas instead doubled down on its belief the team build its roster through the draft. Fans may look at the postseason sputters, and 26-year championship drought, as indications that Dallas’ front office is falling short. But the Cowboys have drafted 16 Pro Bowlers since 2019, the most in the NFL through that span (the Chiefs and Vikings rank second at 15 each). Between the rookie class that looms, expectations Prescott plays his healthiest season in three years and continued reliance on defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s knack for maximizing talent, Jerry Jones says he believes his team can be as talented as last year’s 12-5, NFC East champion group that lost in the wild-card round.

“I think we can very easily be where we were last year talent-wise or be able to play at that kind of talent level,” Jones said. “I’m not willing to concede at all that by the time we get to the playoffs this coming year that we won’t be every bit the team that we had going into the playoffs last year.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dallas Cowboys: 5 takeaways from team’s pre-NFL draft press conference

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