Cowboys now in must-have mode at cornerback in the draft

FRISCO, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys knew they were taking a chance in 2016 by having Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox, Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne in the last year of their respective contracts. Now they have to replace all four of them.

Church signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Wilcox signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Carr has agreed to a four-year deal with the Baltimore Ravens, and Claiborne is expected to sign with the New York Jets.

That’s 2,679 defensive snaps in 2016 gone from the team.

That’s a lot to replace.

The Cowboys have held to their fiscal sanity during the free-agency period, but will it cost them?

The Cowboys have made it clear that they don’t believe safeties should be paid big (or maybe medium) dollars. Church put up four straight seasons with 100 tackles and was one of their best playmakers and a defensive captain. They could have gotten something done with him last offseason if they truly wanted. Wilcox never developed, so his departure was expected.

The Cowboys had talks with the agents for Carr and Claiborne, but they held firm on their price.

Carr was the Cowboys’ last big-money free agent at five years and $50 million in 2012. He did not live up to the value of the contract -- and took a pay cut to remain with the team last year -- but he played in every game. His biggest asset was availability.

The Cowboys traded up to the No. 6 pick in the draft to get Claiborne in 2012, but he never played to that level. And he never played a full season. He showed glimpses of his potential in 2016, but missed the last nine games of the regular season with a groin injury. He leaves with four interceptions in five seasons.

The Cowboys added Nolan Carroll at cornerback last week and will team him up with Orlando Scandrick and Anthony Brown, but the Cowboys need more at the position. Carroll and Scandrick are 30. Scandrick missed four games last season because of hamstring strains and did not play in 2015 because of a serious knee injury. Carroll started all 16 games for the first time in his career last season, but the Cowboys did not sign him a year ago after he visited the club, in part because of worries over an ankle injury. Brown outperformed the expectations of a sixth-round pick last year, but he is far from a lock to develop into a true starter.

As the roster sits right now, the Cowboys must find a cornerback in the draft, and they must find one early.

The good news? It appears to be a strong year for corners in the draft.

The bad news? The Cowboys have struggled in evaluating cornerbacks.

Between taking Scandrick in the fifth round of the 2008 draft and Brown in the sixth round last year, the Cowboys have drafted seven cornerbacks and none made a large impact: DeAngelo Smith (fifth round, 2009), Mike Mickens (seventh round, 2009), Jamar Wall (sixth round, 2010), Josh Thomas (fifth round, 2011), Claiborne, B.W. Webb (fourth round, 2013) and Terrance Mitchell (seventh round, 2014).

Byron Jones was drafted as a corner in the first round in 2015, but he was moved to safety by the end of his rookie year.

That’s a poor run by any measure, even if most of them were late-round picks. They couldn’t find one to stick?

That’s another reason why their approach to cornerback this offseason appears, to be kind, curious.

It’s one thing to be fiscally responsible. It’s another to ignore a position that takes on even greater importance with a pass rush that has been, to be kind again, lacking since DeMarcus Ware left town.