Cowboys continue to carry Dak-friendly approach to offseason

Second-rounder Connor Williams joins a line that's long on talent and intent on protecting Dak Prescott. AP Photo/Eric Gay

FRISCO, Texas -- Two years ago, quarterback Dak Prescott was a fourth-round hopeful for the Dallas Cowboys.

The Cowboys were glad to get him but had no expectations, with Tony Romo returning from an injury-filled 2015.

Two years later, the Cowboys are Prescott's team. Early in the offseason, owner and general manager Jerry Jones said the team’s approach would be to make everything Dak-friendly.

It started in free agency with the additions of receivers Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson, as well as offensive lineman Cameron Fleming; it continued with the release of Dez Bryant; and it was carried through the three-day draft that called AT&T Stadium home.

The potential retirement of Jason Witten would not be Dak-friendly, considering how much the young quarterback has relied on the veteran tight end in his first two seasons, but it would strengthen Prescott's position on the roster, as he would ascend to the top of the leadership tree with linebacker Sean Lee.

While that is contingent on what Witten may or may not do in the next few days, there's little doubt that what the Cowboys did over draft weekend was designed to help the quarterback.

From linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, the Cowboys' top pick, to Bo Scarbrough, their last, just about every selection is in some way Dak-friendly. And then there was the addition of receiver Tavon Austin from the Los Angeles Rams in a trade.

In taking Vander Esch at No. 19, Jones had visions of Rolando McClain, who had a great 2014 season as a run and pass defender.

"I am going to steal something from [vice president of player personnel] Will McClay since he is not here," Jones said. "Will said several times this week, 'This guy will get us some turnovers.' He’s got those kinds of instincts and that kind of range. He can get the ball back."

The more possessions for the offense, the better it is for Prescott.

Second-round pick Connor Williams could be the starting left guard by the time the Cowboys open the season at the Carolina Panthers. If so, the Cowboys would have three first-rounders (Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin), a first-round talent in La'el Collins and a second-rounder protecting Prescott.

"We decided to cure what happened at Atlanta as best we could," Jones said, alluding to the loss to the Atlanta Falcons in which Prescott was sacked eight times, clouding the remainder of the Cowboys' 2017 season.

In the third round, the Cowboys found their receiver -- if not a replacement for Bryant -- in Michael Gallup. He caught 100 passes for 1,413 yards and seven touchdowns in 2017 at Colorado State. He had 60 catches of at least 10 yards.

Bryant was a central part of the Cowboys' offense for eight seasons and is the franchise leader in touchdown catches with 73. The Cowboys won't replace Bryant with one receiver. They will do it with many players like Gallup.

"There's a lot to like about him," coach Jason Garrett said. "He's big, he's athletic, he plays the game the right way. He's been a productive player for them, doing a lot of different kinds of things. We feel like he has a real upside, too. A lot of qualities that you want in a young receiver, in a developmental receiver. But a lot of production, too."

The arrival of Austin opens up creative possibilities for coordinator Scott Linehan. The eighth overall pick in the 2013 draft, Austin has touchdowns as a receiver (12), runner (nine) and returner (three). The Cowboys view him as a space player with ability to create mismatches as a runner and receiver, which could open up room for Ezekiel Elliott and Prescott. And they got him for a sixth-round pick.

"What you try to do is, try to get the ball in his hands a number of different ways," Garrett said. "When we played the Rams this year, they lined him up as a running back. They tried to hand it to him and throw it to him throughout the year. That's what people tried to do throughout his career. He certainly is a dynamic guy. We just felt like for the value, he could come into our football team and help us add some explosiveness to our offense."

On Day 3 of the draft, the Cowboys drafted four more offensive players, including tight end Dalton Schultz (fourth), quarterback Mike White (fifth), wide receiver Cedrick Wilson (sixth) and Scarbrough in the seventh.

"Obviously when you lose a player like Dez and what he's brought to the field throughout his career, we are remaking our receiving room, if you will, including the coach [Sanjay Lal]," executive vice president Stephen Jones said. "There was obviously some focus there, and as we've said from day one, we wanted to create a competitive situation there.

"I do think we wanted to do things as Jerry has said and Jason has said that are Dak-friendly. We want to surround him with good players in a competitive situation so we can have the success that we think we can have. We think in terms of being able to loosen up the defense and keeping them honest so that we can have the running game there that people do respect. We don't want them to be able to overplay that part of our game. I do think helping our offense out was important."