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Film room: Cowboys reload on defense in 7-round mock draft, including the second-best pass rusher in the 2020 class

In this mock draft, Dallas uses its first four selections on the defensive side of the ball.

While many aspects of life were slowed (or brought to a halt) last week because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Dallas Cowboys’ offseason was thrown into overdrive. The team has been busy retaining some of its own players and signing outside free agents while preparing for the 2020 NFL draft.

On Monday, former All-Pro center Travis Frederick announced his retirement from football, dealing a major blow to the Cowboys’ interior offensive line. Because of this, many will expect them to draft a center high in this year’s draft.

In the famous words of Lee Corso: Not so fast, my friend! By re-signing Joe Looney, the Cowboys retained a starting-caliber center who can adequately fill the position if needed. They also drafted the versatile Connor McGovern in the third round of last year’s draft, a move that looks even better one year later despite McGovern missing the entire 2019 season with a pectoral injury. And Adam Redmond is an ascending player who provides great depth.

All of this is to say the Cowboys don’t need to go out of their way to draft a center early, even with Frederick retiring. They have good depth at the position and could use their available resources to fill more pressing needs. But if a center falls into their lap (say, Temple’s Matt Hennessy falls to the third round), the Cowboys shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth -- taking the best player available is often the best strategy although they don’t always adhere to that.

With that in mind, it’s time to dive into a seven-round mock draft for the Cowboys. Let’s get to it:

Note: To keep things as realistic as possible, The Draft Network’s Mock Draft Machine was used to make this mock draft. So if you think a player wouldn’t have been available at the pick he was selected, take it up with them.

Round 1, Pick 17: Zack Baun, EDGE, Wisconsin

Some may lament that taking Wisconsin’s Zack Baun this early is a reach, but they’re wrong -- oh-so wrong. Here’s why.

Listed at 6-2, 238 pounds, Baun is the best pass rusher in this class outside of Ohio State’s Chase Young, displaying great burst, bend, hand technique, footwork and rush IQ.

As a senior in 2019, Baun finished with 75 total tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks. Over the last two years, he had the sixth-highest pressure rate in the 2020 draft class, generating pressure on 16.5% of his pass-rush attempts, according to Pro Football Focus.

But don’t just take my word for it, ask some of the top tackles in college football last year how dangerous Baun can be as a pass rusher.

Oregon left tackle Penei Sewell won the Outland Trophy (awarded to the country’s top interior lineman on offense or defense), is a projected top-five pick in next year’s draft and allowed just seven total pressures last season. Nevertheless, Baun displayed his elevated pass-rush ability against Sewell:

Baun isn’t able to turn this win into a pressure or sack because the ball comes out quickly, but that shouldn’t take away from his masterful rush on this snap. Pay close attention to his hand technique, which reveals his ability to sequence moves together to beat the highest-caliber blockers that college football has to offer.

Baun initiated with a powerful outside chop, but Sewell wisely retracted his outside hand, causing Baun’s initial chop to miss. This would spell disaster for most college pass rushers, but Baun knows Sewell is going to look to latch onto his frame after missed chop, so he immediately sequences into a cross chop with his inside hand to knock down Sewell’s outside hand and capture the corner. From there, Baun displays his balance and fluidity while cornering, maintaining his speed to the quarterback although the ball was out just before he arrived.

Baun used the exact same move to beat Houston’s Josh Jones during one-on-ones at the Senior Bowl (above clip). Jones is a projected first- or early second-round pick in this year’s draft and allowed just four total pressures during his final season at Houston (best in the nation), but he was yet another feather in Baun’s cap.

Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs, who may be the most athletic offensive lineman ever (no exaggeration), is projected by many to be a top-15 pick in this year’s draft and allowed just seven total pressures in 2019 -- Baun had success against him, too. In the above clip, Baun uses speed to set up an electric club-arm over inside move. The ball was out quickly yet again, so he wasn’t able to turn this win into a pressure or sack.

On top of pass-rushing ability, Baun is also a plus run defender who can stack blocks, set a strong edge as a play-side defender and penetrate/pursue runs as a back-side defender. Despite weighing around 240 pounds, he is able to hang with tackles who outweigh him by 60-plus pounds at the point of attack because he attacks blocks with proper leverage (low pad level, hands above eyes) and hand placement.

Baun can also add value in coverage as an effective zone dropper who can match routes down the sideline. He is an intelligent coverage defender who shows great awareness and processing ability in coverage.

The biggest concern regarding Baun is his lack of size -- he’d start off as one of the smaller edge defenders in the NFL. But it’s easier to get him to gain 10-15 pounds than it is to train a bigger edge defender to play with Baun’s technique.

Baun could step into a SAM linebacker role (strong side) when the Cowboys are in a base 4-3 defense and reduce down to defensive end on third downs. These roles would allow Dallas to take advantage of the full totality of his skill set.

Baun would also be an outstanding movable JACK linebacker if the team opts to run any three-man fronts. If the team ever transitions to a 3-4, he would be a perfect fit as the weak-side outside linebacker. The only limit to Baun’s usage would be defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s creativity.

Round 2, Pick 51: Justin Madubuike, DT, Texas A&M

The Cowboys may have signed Gerald McCoy in free agency, but that shouldn’t prevent them from drafting a player of Justin Madubuike’s quality in the second round.

Listed at 6-3, 293 pounds with 33.5-inch arms, Madubuike is an undersized but technically sound, powerful and athletic defensive tackle. He produced at Texas A&M, posting two straight seasons with 5.5 sacks and more than 10 tackles for loss.

Although he wasn’t afforded a ton of one-on-one pass-rush situations at A&M, Madubuike proved to be an effective rusher with traits that should translate to NFL success with further refinement. He displays an effective bull rush that takes advantage of his power and leverage at the point of contact, and his club-arm over is extremely effective, enabling him to generate some quick wins.

Against the run, Madubuike is one of the most fundamentally sound defensive tackles in this class. He processes blocks quickly, which is why his initial footwork consistently puts him in optimal positions to take on and defeat single blocks. Madubuike can stack blocks along the line of scrimmage with ease because he plays with great pad level and leverage in addition to having incredibly heavy hands for a sub-300-pounder. Imagine how heavy those hands will be with another 5-10 pounds added to his frame.

Like Baun, Madubuike’s biggest concerns come from his lack of size, as he does have trouble taking on double-teams at this point in time. He shows good technique when taking on doubles, but he lacks the lower-body strength to strain and hold his point against two 300-plus-pound blockers.

Considering the Cowboys already have McCoy in the fold, Madubuike would have time to put on the necessary bulk before being heavily relied on as a starter. Before stepping into a starting role in Year 2 or 3, Madubuike could provide Dallas with a high-impact rotational piece on the interior defensive line. Think about the interior pressure the Cowboys could produce with McCoy and Madubuike on the field together.

Round 3, Pick 82: Troy Pride Jr., CB, Notre Dame

In a perfect world, the Cowboys would secure a starting-caliber cornerback in the first two rounds (say, Clemson’s A.J. Terrell), but the value just didn’t match up with their selections in this simulation. Luckily, there was some good value available later in Notre Dame’s Troy Pride Jr.

Listed at 5-11, 193 pounds with modest length, Pride was one of the biggest risers coming out of Senior Bowl week, when he proved capable of competing with some of the best receivers this draft has to offer.

Pride is extremely impressive in man coverage, sticking to the receiver’s hip pocket and showing a unique ability to anticipate and mirror their break. Here’s a great example against USC’s Michael Pittman Jr., who should be a Day 2 selection himself:

On this play, Pride is in a soft press alignment across from Pittman. Once the ball is snapped, Pride executed a man turn (hips toward sideline) and maintains high inside leverage, which puts him in position to cut off vertical and in-breaking routes and to run to defend stop or out-breaking routes.

Notice how Pride’s eyes are glued to Pittman’s inside hip -- this is what informs Pride to the comeback route near the sideline. Pride is able to easily anticipate the route break and effortlessly mirror Pittman, putting himself in perfect position to attack the ball and force an incompletion.

Pride remained extremely effective even against smaller, quicker receivers who -- in theory -- would be tougher to mirror in man coverage, evidenced by the above clip of him in coverage against Ohio State’s K.J. Hill near the goal line.

That kind of stickiness in man coverage is exactly what the Cowboys need at cornerback, and when you combine his effectiveness in zone, it’s exactly why Pride has the upside to develop into a starting-caliber player. That would be a boon to Dallas in the third round.

Round 4, Pick 122: Evan Weaver, LB, California

With some uncertainty surrounding Leighton Vander Esch’s neck issues, the Cowboys would be wise to grab a linebacker in the middle rounds to help protect themselves in case he gets injured again.

Enter California’s Evan Weaver. He was one of the nation’s most productive linebackers as a senior in 2019, posting an absurd 181 total tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and three pass breakups on his way to first-team All-America honors.

Listed at 6-2, 237 pounds, Weaver is a smart and physical player who does his best work against the run. Whereas most linebackers these days use their athleticism to try to jump around or speed past blockers, Weaver is a throwback who loves to take on and discard blockers on his way to the ball carrier.

On top of that, he displays great processing ability, as his pursuit is often informed by his ability to quickly key and diagnose what an offense is doing.

For all his skill defending the run, Weaver struggles mightily against the pass and that limits his value in today’s NFL, where passing is king.

Still, his skill set as a run defender does have value, especially for a Cowboys team that struggled mightily against the run for certain stretches. At the scouting combine, he proved to have enough athleticism to contribute on special teams as well, which is why he’s a great value in the fourth round.

Round 5, Pick 156: K.J. Hill, WR, Ohio State

The Cowboys need a slot receiver with Randall Cobb departing for Houston, and Ohio State’s K.J. Hill was the best one available at this pick.

Listed at 6-0, 196 pounds, Hill is a slot receiver who’s “quicker than fast” and can create a great deal of separation with his route running. He is extremely quick in and out of his breaks, which makes him an extremely difficult cover in the short-to-intermediate passing game. Hill also possess reliable hands, as he was charged with just two drops in his last season at Ohio State.

Unfortunately, he will be a slot-only option for the Cowboys, lacking the physicality and deep speed to be effective on the outside.

Round 5, Pick 179: J.R. Reed, S, Georgia

Although the Cowboys re-signed Darian Thompson, they could still use more depth at safety, so Georgia’s J.R. Reed is an enticing option in the fifth round.

Reed is an older prospect (25 years old) who has limited upside but could provide depth at strong safety and be a valuable contributor on special teams.

Reed is an instinctual safety who does his best work from zone coverage, where he’s able to key the quarterback’s eyes, anticipate routes and force incompletions.

He struggles when forced to play in man coverage, having difficulty sticking with effective route runners although he does do a better job against the physical routes from tight ends.

Ultimately, most of Reed’s impact will come on special teams, where his intelligence and physicality should enable him to thrive.

Round 7, Pick 233: Jon Runyan, OT, Michigan

In the seventh round, teams are just looking to grab players who they don’t want to compete for in undrafted free agency. Given than Jon Runyan started 26 games at Michigan while playing against high-caliber competition, it would be wise to pick him here before he makes his way to a more offensive line-needy team in undrafted free agency.

Runyan is a tough tackle who competes hard on every snap. He’s acquitted himself well against some high-caliber competition in the past. In 2019, Runyan did well against Penn State’s Yetur Gross-Matos in protection, preventing the athletic edge defender from making much of an impact when aligned against him.

At the moment, Runyan’s hand technique and footwork need a lot of work, but his athleticism, toughness and football intelligence make him a prospect worth developing.

The icing on top of this pick is that it would be great to force Runyan’s dad, who was a Pro Bowler for the Philadelphia Eagles, to root for the Cowboys.

Find more Cowboys stories from The Dallas Morning News here.

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