The Dallas Cowboys will apparently not be making any significant changes to a coaching staff that still has much to prove.
The Cowboys will focus on improving a growing legacy of mediocrity through offseason player acquisitions. Since free agency won’t play a key role given the Cowboys’ salary cap situation, the 2013 NFL Draft is going to be where improvements are found, if they’re found at all.
Each draft is a bit of a guessing game that has gotten less intimidating to league owners because they no longer half to pay a college kid close to 10 percent of their franchises value just because they decide to try their hand at pro football.
With the 18th selection on April 25, the Cowboys will spend the next few months honing in on at least one difference-making player in the first round. Sure, the entire draft is important but that first selection often sets the tone for future seasons.
One of the following 20 players will end up playing pro football for the Cowboys as a rookie in 2013, especially as long as two or three quarterbacks are chosen ahead of Dallas, which is likely but not a certainty this year.
Remember that this is a Dallas draft board, which means that the Cowboys will draw up their board based on their own perspective, system and needs—every team does.
These players are not based on need or availability and I will include underclassmen that have declared for the draft. I’m only choosing players that are likely to be coveted by the Cowboys—and a quarterback isn’t among them seeing as how Tony Romo will be extended and there is no quarterback that projects as a better starter 2013.
No, there’s nobody like Andrew Luck in this draft and even if there was, the Cowboys aren’t getting near him.
So let’s get rolling …
Starting off in the land of make believe, I had to start off with a touch of humor.
Can’t see this pick here but there’s no doubt that North Carolina tailback Giovani Bernard is the only running back with a first round grade and certainly the best available.
Handing Dallas head coach Jason Garrett a running back that could carry 20 times out of the backfield each game is like handing a surgical scalpel to a fast food employee. You could do this and they might find a use, but why?
Well, since Emmitt Smith left Dallas following the 2002 regular season after 13 seasons and the NFL all-time rushing title, all attempts to replace anything resembling that kind of productivity have been futile.
The names have come and gone.
Only current starting back DeMarco Murray has shown some long term potential. But Murray has missed time in each of his first two seasons due to injury and he’s yet to rush for a thousand yards.
With first round bust Felix Jones, a horrible pick in the first place, finally holds an expired contract and will almost certainly play elsewhere next season.
So long as Murray stays healthy, things are good in Dallas but this hasn’t been too frequent.
And it’s not like owner and general manager Jerry Jones hasn’t chosen a running back that really wasn’t necessary in the first round.
Bernard scored a touchdown in each game he played this season and last time I checked, the Cowboys were really struggling inside the red zone.
As any true Dallas fan knows, Jerry Jones has a real weakness when it comes to the skill position players. Jones has always wanted to make a splash when it comes to his franchise and the draft has been a recent playground to that end.
Sure, wide receiver Dez Bryant was just chosen two years ago as the future of this position. Then again, this was only necessary because of the Roy Williams trade of 2008 which not only didn’t pan out at all but also cost the Cowboys another blue-chip prospect.
Factor in the price tag, injuries and dropped passes from the vastly over-rated Miles Austin and there’s at least a formula in which the Cowboys could have an interest. I have a feeling that Austin could be moved for just about anything at this point.
Tennessee wide out Justin Hunter is a highly ranked junior that has declared early for the NFL Draft.
The volume of work here isn’t extensive as Hunter really only played one season with the Volunteers after a transfer from junior college.
Nonetheless, Hunter is tall, fast and young.
Hunter’s previous knee injury will scare nobody as he is the prototypical primary target available.
Again, this is not necessarily a need for Dallas but you can never ignore a good pass catcher that sells tickets to Cowboys Stadium.
If Austin is dealt somehow, which I doubt, then Hunter could fall immediately into place on the other side of Bryant to create a potent duo of weapons for the passing game.
The Cowboys have weapons, but there’s an argument that you can’t have too many of those—unless you have no blocking and then it doesn’t matter.
Heading into the draft, I expect Dallas to look closely at their defensive and offensive lines in order to fill as many holes with as many good players as possible.
Defensive end is not an area of huge need given the numbers on the roster but interior pass rushers are always in demand.
With players such as Marcus Spears, Jason Hatcher and Sean Lissemore all signed through at least next season, this part of the depth chart could get even deeper if nose guard Jay Ratliff is ever moved back to his natural end position.
Even if Ratliff is moved and young Tyrone Crawford continues to push for more playing time, another gifted end could be desired by Jerry Jones—but hopefully not because he is trying to make up for the J.J.Watt thing a couple of seasons ago.
Short is built to play either defensive tackle in a 4-3 alignment or end in a 3-4. He’s not quite as tall as you might prefer, but he weighs well over 300 pounds and this is much of what enables him to beat opposing offensive guards with relative ease.
Unlike the 4-3 thing where ends are generally the source of the most pressure on the quarterback, it’s often different in the 3-4. Ends here are generally capable of controlling the line of scrimmage so the “all-star” linebackers can attack.
But 3-4 ends that get pressure are rare and if there is one then you take him unless you already are loaded with pass rushers.
The Cowboys obviously are not.
If there’s one thing that Dallas has shown year after year following the 2005 switch to the 3-4 scheme under then-head coach Bill Parcells, it’s that it has absolutely no interest or understanding of the nose guard position.
It was one thing when Jason Ferguson went down for the year in the 2007 season opener and his spot unexpectedly had to be filled. But from 2008 to the present, there’s just no excuse for not addressing this issue.
To the Cowboys' credit, recently indicted Josh Brent, a much bigger and better nose guard than Ratliff just based on his mass, was looking like the future at the nose until he decided to hop in car plastered and then you know the rest.
Ratliff missed virtually the entire season with nagging injuries and perhaps it is clear that his skill set, or what’s left of it, belongs at end. This was never a question at all.
So nose tackle John Jenkins of Georgia would have to be on Dallas’ radar, which is not hard to do.
Jenkins is easily among the largest linemen coming out of college and it would be to Dallas’ benefit to finally quit giving up too many rushing yards to get the number of pass rushing opportunities it wants. But those sacks aren’t generally going to come from a nose guard. That’s what you have outside linebackers and ends for.
The run has to be stopped and if a nose guard still doesn’t make it to the top of the priority list, the Cowboys really should just go back to the 4-3. Every player on the defensive depth chart played a 4-3 in college and all coordinators know it, even if they prefer the 3-4.
Dallas has not.
Jenkins would start to fix that in a big, big way.
The direction taken into the entire Dallas offseason depends on what happens with outside linebacker Anthony Spencer. The former first rounder has made his case to make quite a bit more money in 2013 than he did this season.
Now, if somehow the Cowboys let Spencer walk in free agency, defense probably becomes the focal point of the first round, a scenario to be avoided at all costs.
Spencer finished just a half sack behind perennial team leader DeMarcus Ware in a contract year. Spencer easily set a career high in this category and it’s about to make the former Boilermaker a lot of money.
Whether Spencer stays or goes, Dallas has to be looking closely at Dion Jordan, a defensive end from Oregon nicknamed “The Praying Mantis.”
Jordan is a bit of a raw prospect that hasn’t exactly played the best that college competition has to offer, but this guy merits a look, especially if Spencer is gone and all coming players on this board are gone.
Dallas should take a lesson from the New York Giants.
Despite having rushers like Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka already on the roster, the G-men went ahead and selected the best pass rushing prospect available in Jason Pierre-Paul in 2010. They took Pierre-Paul in the first round just three slots ahead of where Dallas chooses this year.
Dallas needs to keep its eyes open
New York won the Super Bowl XLVI two years later.
Point made and you can review Pierre-Paul’s numbers for yourself.
No, Jordan doesn’t rank like Pierre-Paul did heading into the 2010 draft, but his 6'7" frame and light weight can’t be ignored. Jordan will need a year or two in an NFL weight room to bulk up but once this happens, he could be something special.
After dumping a ton in the way of resources into the defensive backfield last offseason, it would be a shock to see the Cowboys choose another cornerback in the first round. If so, it would be the third time in six drafts Dallas has gone after this position with a mere playoff win to show for it.
About the only way the Cowboys could possibly justify drafting DeMarcus Milliner of Alabama is if former first round pick Mike Jenkins is allowed to walk as a free agent.
Chances seem slim that Jenkins returns to Dallas with a lack of numbers this season and a depth chart that is somewhat clogged at cornerback.
In other words, unless the Cowboys feel that Jenkins is going to start over Morris Claiborne, last year’s first round pick, or Brandon Carr, then there’s no reason to invest money in Jenkins that Dallas doesn’t even have to spend.
And this is why we have to keep an eye on Milliner, a junior with the Crimson Tide who will be in action during the BCS National Championship game against top-ranked Notre Dame next Monday in Miami, Florida.
Milliner is a productive player that has all the qualities you want but also a relatively steep learning curve in trying to cover today’s wide receivers in the NFL.
Many feel that Milliner is the best overall cornerback prospect available, but I prefer the next corner on the list coming up.
Milliner does not project as high as Claiborne did a year ago.
In the college ranks, only LSU has rivaled the number professional prospects being cranked out annually by Alabama. So if you’re looking for a pass rusher, there’s probably one on the Tigers' roster that you’d love to have if he’s available.
Like the aforementioned Dion Jordan, defensive end Barkevious Mingo has the height you definitely want in a 4-3 end or 3-4 outside linebacker.
Mingo does not have the weight.
I am not sure that Mingo slides to the Cowboys but if so they might have to pounce.
Mingo is explosive and quick and fits in well with the cascade of talent surrounding him. In the NFL, he will need at least 15-20 pounds in order to maximize his potential.
Mingo becomes an urgent temptation is he’s available and Anthony Spencer is gone. It would be surprising to see Dallas choose Mingo along with Spencer still on the roster.
One thing is for sure: Mingo has a lot of upside and could be a huge bargain for a team that selects him should he slide. Mingo has played against top competition and beyond weight, should bring some natural benefits immediately.
Again, the upside is all there but it could take some time with Mingo.
Since the Dallas cornerback situation has been discussed already, let’s look at a prospect that has slid a little bit and, as a result, has fallen into late first round projections.
Value is one thing but there is still not a burning need to take a corner again in the first round. Still, there’s a lot to like about Johnthan Banks of Mississippi State.
Slightly taller than the widely accepted top corner available in DeMarcus Milliner, Banks has a little more height and weight to work with when learning to cover the tall, fast wide receivers in the NFL.
In the pass happy NFL, cornerbacks are really a premium and Banks brings as much potential as anyone else at the top of the draft.
The difference between Banks and Milliner isn’t the level of competition with players coming out of the SEC. But Banks had much less talent surrounding him than Milliner and this is always a question when grading out a position that is as individual as cornerback.
Without a knee injury that certainly slowed Banks down during the second half of the season, it’s quite possible that he might be rated as the top cornerback.
A player whose stock could really go up once the NFL Scouting Combine gets going in February is Sheldon Richardson, a defensive tackle for Missouri.
As discussed earlier, the defensive end position isn’t generally a high sack position. Still, this doesn’t mean that pressure can’t come from this location and the trick is to find guys who can both hold the line of scrimmage and penetrate into the backfield.
Richardson could play in either defensive scheme, but in Dallas he would likely join a relatively deep rotation at defensive end. He has surprising quickness for a man his size and is known for having a very high motor.
This is the skill set that got Jay Ratliff drafted as a defensive tackle out of Auburn.
Richardson does not qualify as the massive run stuffer that a true nose guard needs to be, but at end he’s going to be a player.
The bigger the player, the less likely he’ll be to have stamina, something the Cowboys have been knocked for in recent seasons. Richardson would take another step towards eliminating that label should he fall into the hands of Dallas.
Like his teammate Barkevious Mingo at LSU, defensive end Sam Montgomery could find himself going just about anywhere in the first round of the draft and he could certainly be headed there well within the first 10 selections.
Unlike Mingo, Montgomery is closer to being NFL ready as he is a few inches taller and a good 20 pounds heavier.
I have previously discussed Montgomery’s potential with the Cowboys, especially in the event Anthony Spencer ends up signing elsewhere for next season.
Montgomery would be a player that would bring some pressure but also wouldn’t be a liability against the run. This has always been a strong quality in Spencer that has to remain intact regardless of who is playing opposite DeMarcus Ware next year.
I don’t like to compare college players to professionals because they have done nothing yet. I will say this though: Ware can be counted on for a few more years as Dallas’ top pass rusher.
So why not start looking for a potential replacement that would be a seasoned veteran by the time Ware might decide to retire?
Filling Ware’s shoes is not what Montgomery would be needed for, even if he could. But if it is possible and there is no Spencer, Jerry Jones might have to grab Montgomery over any offensive linemen still around.
This could be the right call.
While my preference for a nose guard in this year’s draft would be the earlier profiled John Jenkins, there is a lot to like about Johnathan Hankins of Ohio State.
The Buckeyes turned in a perfect season and only the NCAA can sell the idea that they shouldn’t be competing for a national championship against top-ranked Notre Dame next week.
Hankins played a major role and has declared for the 2013 NFL Draft.
Hankins isn’t quite as heavy as Jenkins and this means a little more athleticism—if you can apply that word to guys who weigh as much as some golf carts.
Hankins will not have the same kind of motor that some smaller defensive linemen might have, but even as a two down player in some systems his value is undeniable. At close to 330 pounds, Hankins is larger than the now unavailable Josh Brent and has the power to eat up and even re-direct double teams.
When a guy as big as Hankins wants to go somewhere, there are only two questions.
First off, how long will it take him to get there?
Second, how many other guys will it take to stop him?
This physique has been missing from the Dallas defensive line since the switch to the 3-4 and it has to stop if the rest of this defensive unit is going to improve significantly next year.
In case you have yet to have the opportunity, check out Notre Dame inside linebacker Manti Te’o when the Fighting Irish line up against Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game next Monday night.
Heisman Trophy finalist?
If there’s an NFL wish list for qualities possessed by a starting inside linebacker, Te’o has to offer just about everything on it.
I didn’t realize that Te’o plays at 255 pounds, a weight that just seems heavy for him when you see him on television—and they say that TV adds weight!
The problem here is that Te’o plays a position that is about as well stocked as any other on the Dallas roster.
The Cowboys are young and very, very talented at both inside linebacker spots with Sean Lee and Bruce Carter, both injured during the season never to return for the push towards the playoffs.
Obviously Dallas would have to pass on such a fine prospect if he were available.
Te’o will be long gone and you’ll still know that the Cowboys have a bright future at the same position.
Bjoern Werner of Florida State is among the top outside linebacker prospects coming out of college and he could stand to move up or down draft boards based on the NFL Scouting Combine next month.
What Werner brings to the table may not be the finesse and athletic prowess that other pass rushing prospects have. But it would be a mistake to look simply at a 40-yard dash time or vertical leap in summarizing Werner.
Werner is a native of Berlin, Germany and if you can survive the winter up there, you have some toughness for sure.
Werner has power, a high motor and a lot of aggression at the point of attack.
Werner has all things Anthony Spencer, prior to this season’s sack explosion in a contract year.
Werner is expected to be chosen in the top 10, but don’t be surprised if he falls in range of Dallas because of a few combine stats that might push him down some.
Only way I can see Werner in Dallas is if Spencer obviously leaves.
If it’s up to me, though, I’m keeping Spencer and looking to target some serious offensive line help which is coming up on the board.
It is no secret that Dallas had some mighty struggles on the offensive line in 2012, especially early on. While this improved steadily in the second half of the season, injuries and other factors have forced the Cowboys to seriously look at the porous wall standing in front of Tony Romo.
Dallas doesn’t pass protect well or run block with enough imposition on opponents to offer anything resembling a balanced offense—a repeated failure that should have gotten Jason Garrett ousted as offensive coordinator long before any incredible discussion of a head coaching gig.
Nonetheless, offensive line needs to be a top priority in this year’s player selection meeting in New York and Barrett Jones of Alabama is among them.
I like the idea of Jones playing center but really nowhere else. And I don’t see center being a first round selection for Jerry Jones.
So long as snaps keep going to Romo as opposed to over his head in the silly Garrett spread “attack”, this is a step in the right direction.
It’s said that Jones offers value at all positions on the offensive line but I have to say no thanks to Jones at guard. The Cowboys need more power upfront than this.
But let’s say that right tackle Doug Free ends up moved inside to right guard.
Could Jones provide an answer at right tackle?
That looks much more interesting as far as Jones coming to Dallas to not just fill a hole but make a position better.
Just for a goof, I asked myself if I could make this list without back-to-back players from either LSU or Alabama.
Well, I couldn’t do it.
Staying in Tuscaloosa, a better option for the Cowboys is a player who would elevate things on the interior of the offensive line.
Chance Warmack is that guy.
Few teams run the ball like Alabama and it’s not because hoard all the best running backs. The Crimson Tide has several top offensive linemen every year but this year is a real surplus.
Warmack would be the best interior lineman since Larry Allen to grace the Dallas offensive line.
Jerry Jones has made a habit of signing declining and expensive free agents like Kyle Kosier and Marco Rivera over the last several seasons.
The results and the value just aren’t there with that strategy.
Warmack is young, powerful and has obviously has played the best of the best in college football.
Sure, Alabama has a great deal of highly recruited skill players just like other programs in the past that were dominant. But those players aren’t going to matter much without victory after victory in the trenches.
Warmack will win those battles much more often than he doesn’t. And this would go far in helping the “Romo Friendly” approach we’ve heard about for a couple of seasons now with Garrett as he continues to try his hand at coaching in the NFL.
Any other year, being an offensive tackle prospect projected to be chosen in the top 10 selections would pretty much indicate that you’re at least the best tackle on your team.
Not true for Texas A&M right tackle Jake Matthews, son of former Houston Oilers tackle Bruce Matthews.
We’ll reach the other guy at college station making waves these days, but let’s focus on how Matthews could fit in Dallas.
To start with, Doug Free has to move inside to right guard. I don’t see Free being released seeing as how he’s paid for through 2016, albeit at a ridiculous price.
Can you see the Cowboys paying a guard not named Larry Allen $8 million for the next three years?
I could see Free restructuring his contract or even being released once Dallas thinks it can sustain the cap hit, which I don’t think they want to do this year.
Matthews would pretty much end all concerns about protecting Tony Romo’s right side.
When it’s in the genes, it’s in the genes and Matthews could be pro lineman for a very long time.
You can argue that right tackle is among the top two or three priorities heading into the offseason and if somehow Matthews were to fall all the way to No. 18, I cannot see Jerry Jones not pulling the trigger on him.
Options are good and this draft offers a few of those for offensive lines around the league.
But Dallas needs more youth and skill on the offensive line that can be added to former first round pick and starting left tackle Tyron Smith.
I often seen Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones listed as the top linebacker prospect available and I just don’t know about that.
There is no disputing that Jones is an incredibly active football player and he should be a quick study at the next level.
But even if Anthony Spencer is gone, there is really no way that Jones falls all the way to the 18th selection.
Jones will fit just about anywhere in the NFL, regardless of the scheme or personnel. Jones is extremely quick but might be a little undersized against the run on some teams. However, this is not a significant concern.
Still, we can already see that Jones can elevate a team with his play and also take advantage of the talent surrounding him on the Bulldogs' defense. Jones is a tackling machine and the kind of guy that is literally always around the ball.
Only one pass rushing prospect ranks ahead of Jones on this board based simply on physique and upside.
The Cowboys are small enough upfront and they are in the market for more strength upfront, not more quickness.
Between Jones and the No. 2 player on this list, it’s a coin flip if you’re most NFL general managers trying to make the best selection possible.
I just don’t see Jerry Jones holding any coin to flip here, but he will be watching anyway.
Heading into last year’s draft, I was a huge fan of Dontari Poe of Memphis. I could go into why but I hope that might be obvious by now.
I also stated that the Cowboys would not pick a cornerback either on the basis that the secondary, while needing improvement, certainly wasn’t what cost Dallas a trip to the playoffs.
Well, not only did Dallas take a corner but they actually traded away a second round pick to do so.
Compare last year’s record to this year’s and you can clearly see that there was no gain whatsoever after spending boatloads of money on cornerbacks. It’s been suggested that Dallas was very close to making a move to get Poe but if this is true, something went horribly wrong in the war room.
So let’s try it one more time.
Jerry Jones is going to have to let go of some of his infatuation with receivers and cornerbacks, players that could very well not even touch the ball once in a game.
Yes. Have good corners, but have a pass rush that can feed them some bad throws too.
Star Lotulelei is almost as big as some stars in the Milky Way. He doesn’t have the quite the mass that Poe did a year ago a clearly the most active and athletic big man in the draft.
But Lotulelei brings plenty to the table for whoever chooses him.
When you have the opportunity to grab a player like this for the middle of your defensive line, the rewards happen immediately even if they don’t show up on the stat sheet.
It’s not likely this Star heads to Dallas, but it needs to another big one somewhere.
Lotulelei will make an impact right away, possibly as a top five selection.
Okay, let’s assume that Anthony Spencer does, in fact, re-sign with the team that drafted him back in 2007. While I expect this to go down, I also wonder what exactly Jerry Jones would do if, for just about any reason, Damontre Moore of Texas A&M were to fall.
Consider some numbers from this season just ended:
20 tackles for a loss.
One blocked kick.
You get that last one?
80 tackles from your leading sack artist?
I like Moore over Georgia’s Jarvis Jones because he brings a little more size, height and versatility.
Moore can actually play defensive end or outside linebacker depending on the scheme. I think he’s the only player who could challenge Spencer as a rookie and still earn playing time even if he didn’t just take the starting job outright as a rookie.
I wouldn’t expect this to happen in reality any more than I expect to see Moore in Dallas.
But difference-maker is written all over Moore’s face and he will not last long.
Remember that we ran across Texas A&M right tackle Jake Matthews a few players back and we now arrive at why he was back there.
For as good as Matthews is going to be, it appears right now that Aggies left tackle Luke Joeckel is easily the best player available in the entire 2013 NFL Draft.
When we talk about best player, in this case, I mean NFL ready, and this is defined being able to come in and start as a rookie because you’re better than all others on the roster at that position.
We don’t see this very often in pro football, but Joeckel has the ability to do this.
Joeckel has shut down every premier college pass rusher he’s dealt with this year and he just keeps coming. There’s a player or two on this list that got spanked by Joeckel which is why they are down there and he is right here at the top spot.
Consider this: Aggies true freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy last month, the first freshman to do so—ever.
Joeckel starts day one and in fantasy-land, Joeckel could push Tyron Smith right back over to his right tackle spot, a position where Smith is just better.
Cross your fingers, hold your breath, whatever.
Joeckel would be a great addition to any NFL offense and I can guarantee that Joeckel is either at the top of Dallas’ draft board or somewhere in the top two or three.