With the NFC Scouting Combine still a few weeks away and the NFL postseason heating up, mock drafts are already popping up and draft speculation is full speed ahead.
Having missed the playoffs for a third consecutive season, things got pretty interesting for the Dallas Cowboys following last week’s personnel changes on the coaching staff. Most notable was the firing of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan followed by the hiring of his replacement in Monte Kiffin.
This is not simply moving in another body to try to improve the status quo. This is why former head coach Wade Phillips was hired following the departure of Bill Parcells, the founder of the 3-4 in Dallas. Phillips was a 3-4 guy, and then Rob Ryan was a 3-4 guy.
Kiffin will install his well known 4-3 playbook and will utilize most of the personnel the Cowboys already have.
But while most, like myself, figure that Dallas needs to draft an offensive lineman in the first round of the draft come April, this certainly doesn’t mean that the Cowboys will—or should for that matter.
No longer is there a need for a massive, run-stuffing nose guard, the likes of which never appeared at Valley Ranch during the 3-4 nightmare.
Also, outside linebacker Anthony Spencer went from being an offseason priority for the Cowboys, as an unrestricted free agent, to just a really wealthy guy who’s about to put a house up for sale.
If there is a difference-making player, especially of the pass rushing variety, then the offensive line might have to wait. Keep in mind that the Cowboys strategy in free agency is likely different as well since Spencer isn’t likely to eat up most of the money Dallas does have to spend. There will be contracts re-structured, possibly a release or two or perhaps even a trade, each as a means of creating cap room.
And remember that the Cowboys can do anything with owner and general manager Jerry Jones in charge of the war room.
So here’s a look at 10 defensive players that could temp the Cowboys to hold off on adding a blue-chip blocker for quarterback Tony Romo and an offense that could also see big chances right away.
This is a major change on the defensive side of the ball and there are personnel questions that will have to be answered. These players would not only answer questions but would be chosen based on a different philosophy regarding stature and skill set.
The following players are projected on likely availability to the Cowboys with the 18th overall selection in the 2013 NFL Draft.
Any defensive player who’s nicknamed “The Praying Mantis” deserves a pretty close look.
Dion Jordan is going to get a closer look for sure.
Jordan is one of those defensive players that could come on really strong following his performance at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis next month. Standing at 6’7”, Jordan brings a wingspan seldom seen to the defensive end position.
But Jordan also projects, and perhaps more favorably, as a 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL.
I say let Monte Kiffin figure it out.
The thing that makes Jordan so interesting is that he doesn’t have to play defensive end, a position he didn’t get much experience playing at Oregon. His weight certainly suggests an outside linebacker and I think this presents opportunity to the Cowboys.
Jordan can drop into coverage and he can also rush the passer. At that point, it doesn’t matter what scheme your running.
Jordan could be used much like Mathias Kiwanuka of the New York Giants, provided that he adds another 15-20 pounds or so.
One thing is for sure: Jordan will have to bulk up and this means that he’ll be a bit of a project. But all good things to those who wait—and sometimes for not very long either.
Jordan could contribute on special teams immediately and his height could help in the kick blocking department.
The Cowboys need good football players and Jordan could end up a major steal for someone who’s got some patience and also a good supply of talent already on the roster—just like the Cowboys.
Yes, Alabama won a national championship for the third time in four seasons earlier this month. But it should not be ignored that there was another undefeated program, in addition to Notre Dame, that wasn’t even eligible for the BCS National Championship Game.
The Ohio State Buckeyes suffered from NCAA sanctions and have nothing to show for their 12-0 record during their 123rd season.
But they did have defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins.
Hard to miss when lined up on the line of scrimmage, Hankins is an immediate threat to walk right into the backfield. His size and weight make double teaming a necessity and he’s probably a better fit for the nose guard position in the same 3-4 alignment that the Cowboys have just left.
Still, Dallas is not well stocked with defensive linemen for any scheme and if Hankins were to somehow fall, I could easily see the Cowboys jumping on the opportunity to add both size and youth to the area in most drastic need of change on the roster.
Remember that Jay Ratliff is not going to be Warren Sapp.
Johnathan Hankins might be.
Before the switch back to the 4-3, a player like C.J. Mosley would not have meant much of anything to the Cowboys. Mosley does not project as a better linebacker than current Dallas starters Sean Lee and Bruce Carter.
But remember that outside linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, last year’s sack leaders, are likely playing in different positions or possibly cities next fall. The Cowboys definitely lose Ware to the defensive line—or so it would seem—and Spencer is likely too small to play defensive end and also too heavy to play an outside linebacker spot.
The 4-3 scheme utilizes smaller, quicker linebackers, much like what we saw in the 1990s with interchangeable players like Ken Norton Jr., Darren Smith, Vincent Jones, Godfrey Miles, Dexter Coakley and Dat Nguyen. The switch to the 3-4 scheme killed those last two as needed players in Dallas.
C.J. Mosley is about as productive as it gets as a play-making linebacker. Built more like Carter, Mosley specializes in coverage and this will be a premium in the new scheme. The combination of Mosley and Carter would allow the Cowboys to match up quite favorably with opposing offenses that, more and more, are featuring two tight end sets.
Mosley would not be a need at all, but he would fit immediately into a corps of linebackers that would be the best in football, period. Some still are not sold on Carter but as soon as he stays healthy, then minds will change. Lee already displays Pro Bowl talent and leadership.
The volume of work speaks for itself and the alternative might be veteran Ernie Sims, signed off the street last season just to bring in a qualified NFL linebacker. Sims fits the 4-3 scheme much better than the 3-4 but the question might be who is better—or cheaper.
Quickness and speed are the attractions to Mosley and Dallas would not be wrong in taking him.
Former NFL head coach Tony Dungy has offered some perspective on Dallas’ hiring of Monte Kiffin and also on what will be required to make the transition work best. Among three specific things cited during comments recently made to the media, Dungy stressed the need to have a capable and versatile safety in the deep secondary.
He is right about this.
Cowboys starting safeties Gerald Sensabaugh and Barry Church are both signed for seasons to come. I don’t know that there is a safety that carries a clear first round grade for the Cowboys but this is still a position to watch on draft day.
I believe Church is the starting strong safety who will be expected to help in run support and perhaps blitz once in awhile. But with both safeties taking on a greater responsibility in pass coverage now, drafting an upgrade over Sensabaugh would make sense.
Matt Elam would be that upgrade.
Elam reminds me of a smaller, more compact version of Roy Williams, the former Oklahoma Sooners safety. It’s very clear that Elam loves to play safety and he likes to go get the ball carrier. Elam seems to have that nose for the ball that’s often mentioned.
If you’re expecting the pass rush to improve in Dallas, you might as well keep helping the bulls up front. The Cowboys need a player who can take the ball away and also offer a little intimidation when going across the deep middle.
There is something about the combination of Elam and Church playing safety that sounds pretty exciting.
Many feel that the top college football player in the country is Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones. Likely a top three pick come next April, his teammate Alec Ogletree has been a bit overshadowed by Jones’ high expectations and visibility as a pass rusher.
But there is a story with Ogletree as well.
If risk is what owner and general manager Jones wants, Ogletree might be the best candidate.
Following numerous suspensions at Georgia for incidents ranging from a stolen scooter helmet to a failed drug test, Ogletree put together a solid junior season. Beyond his off-the-field concerns, Ogletree is an incredible player.
Where exactly Ogletree would play would be up to Kiffin. Adding Ogletree would give the Cowboys unlimited versatility at linebacker, which could be something that Kiffin covets in creating pressure on opposing passers.
We’ll hear a lot about the tendencies of the secondary in Kiffin’s philosophy but the players upfront will be the key. If Dallas doesn’t see what it wants as a future pass rusher, then adding a superior athlete to an already deep position can still make sense.
Ogletree might actually translate better to either the “Will” or “Sam” linebacker positions just based on his speed and range.
It would be a dramatic departure from the last time Dallas ran the 4-3 defense. Linebackers were needed and good ones were found, but they weren’t generally the focal point of the attack as the defensive line rotation and defensive end Charles Haley was.
Ogletree upgrades anything once he hits the field and the only real question is where.
It’s doubtful that Jones would take on a player with character issues like Ogletree has, but the talent is there to justify creating an army of play-making linebackers behind the best rotation of linemen possible.
Right now the name Margus Hunt might not seem like much. It might not even be familiar, but this could change in the coming weeks.
Hunt has made a career out of blocking kicks of all kinds at SMU while standing 6’8”. He would be a perfect fit at left end in the Dallas defensive line.
Hunt comes from northern Europe (Republic of Estonia) and will likely interview quite well given his intelligence and education. His strength is going to turn heads and his 280 pound frame offers additional room for yet more bulk to stop the run.
Remember Ed “Too Tall” Jones?
Well, Hunt would translate as a modern day version of the same type of player. With his height you can certainly imagine some batted passes throughout the season—those matter and they add up too.
Hunt will be a bit raw and still has a little room to get even bigger. Already taller than most offensive right tackles, Hunt could be an awesome mismatch for opposing offenses and a nice bridge to the future as DeMarcus Ware enters the latter stages of his career.
Sometimes a guy just brings a skill set that is unique and natural and it’s usually a good idea to take advantage if the opportunity to add those attributes presents itself.
Hunt will very likely be available once Dallas goes on the clock in the first round.
If you happen to be looking for a big man that has the motor to both stop the run and rush the quarterback, then you have come to the right place.
Kawann Short could be the missing link that will likely determine how quickly the new Dallas 4-3 alignment takes off.
Kiffin’s last roller coaster ride in the NFL was in 2002 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. As defensive coordinator on a team loaded with talent on that side of the ball, names like defensive tackle Warren Sapp, defensive end Simeon Rice and linebacker Derrick Brooks are still remembered well.
Ratliff is not going to be assumed the role of Sapp.
Ratliff is getting old and likely won’t start next season. I think there is still a role for Ratliff in the rotation, but we’re a couple of seasons beyond the peak years of Ratliff.
Another volatile threat needs to emerge upfront and this is essential in order to combat the constant double teams that Ware faces.
Short lines up all over the line of scrimmage and he penetrates often. This is necessary not just when defending the pass but also in blowing up run plays in the backfield. Since 2005, you seldom saw a defensive play in the backfield unless it was Ware sacking a quarterback.
Short changes the dynamic quite a bit.
The 4-3, like any other defensive scheme, will only be as good as the players running it. Short would add instant punch upfront while helping to possibly extend the careers of Ware and Ratliff, the latter of which is my early pick for "Comeback Player of the Year" next season.
But Short could be the centerpiece for a new core that needs to be brought in.
Dallas has numerous defensive linemen but several are getting older and most are not tailored for the 4-3 to begin with.
If there is a prototypical 4-3 defensive end in the 2013 NFL Draft, it might be Sam Montgomery.
Montgomery might not lead in any particular category but he fits almost everything very well. His 6’5” inch frame gives him the height you’re looking for from an edge rusher and he’s also got the wingspan.
Montgomery has also played against top competition having seen plenty of talent rolling through the SEC over the last several seasons.
In Dallas’ case, Montgomery would be a steal in that he would have fallen all the way to the 18th selection despite being the type of player who can lead his teams’ pass rush upfront. Montgomery projects as either a 4-3 end or a 3-4 outside linebacker, and so the pressure to perform will likely be high wherever he ends up.
But with the Cowboys, Montgomery would have some cushion with other talent surrounding him. This would buy a little time for Montgomery to adjust and to also add a little bulk.
Montgomery may not be like Ware or Haley or Jevon Kearse—that unblockable freak athlete that demands exclusive double teams. But as the secondary option, like Tony Tolbert once was, Montgomery looks like a perfect fit as a counterpart to Ware at left defensive end.
Good pass rushers are just as vital as quarterbacks--but there's one big difference: You never pass on a good pass rusher just because you already have one.
Montgomery, Ware and Ratliff upfront have the potential to elevate the standard of defense with the Cowboys again.
Montgomery also has some pride, and the Cowboys can use some of that.
Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson has the best combination of size, speed and power of all defensive line prospects available this spring.
The switch to the 4-3 scheme means that the Cowboys have access to a whole new class of athlete at a couple of different positions. Defensive tackle is definitely one of them.
Dallas no longer needs that 330-pound nose tackle that they never bothered to get. Now it’s about penetration and immediate disruption for the guys up front.
Richardson fits this profile perfectly.
If you think back to the skill set of Leon Lett, you basically have a slightly bigger version of him but also a stronger version as well. Richardson isn’t going to be pushed around by opposing guards as his 295 pound weight makes him both big enough and athletic enough to create mismatches in different ways.
Russell Maryland might be a better example of how Richardson would fit the new Dallas front seven.
Should Dallas decide to go defensive with its first selection, then only one other player would prompt the Cowboys to wait one more round to start developing some protection and running game for Romo.
Expect to see this player’s name more and more and soon as the Super Bowl is passed.
Ezekiel Ansah is expected to have an impressive combine next month in Indianapolis and from there the Cowboys probably never really get a shot at drafting him. But stranger things have happened and it would not be hard to envision the Cowboys jumping at the opportunity to select this native of Ghana, Africa.
Each year it seems that at least one player steals headlines from the combine simply on the basis that he jumped a certain height or ran a certain speed. Workout warriors are great at working out, but then comes the million dollar question for an NFL owner: Can he play football?
Three years ago Jason Pierre-Paul, then with University of South Florida, got the attention of everybody with his athleticism and speed given his larger build. A man who weighs 280 pounds should not be able to do a back flip, you know?
But Pierre-Paul lasted until the 15th overall selection in the 2010 NFL Draft and this young lineman already has a Super Bowl ring.
There is little chance that Ansah is still on the board by the time Dallas gets on the clock for its first selection. Too many teams want pass rushers and there just isn’t enough of them to go around.
But Jones has been known to trade up, trade down, trade players and who knows what else as he wheels and deals on draft day. There is any number of story lines that will come into play over the weeks ahead, but Ansah will probably become a very worn out name by April.
The Cowboys have to have another pass rusher to help Ware. The 4-3 scheme, by itself, is not going to fix Dallas’ fortunes. Ratliff will give what he’s got but at his age this is likely to be less and less.
I would not fault the Cowboys for grabbing the future at pass rusher if the organization thinks they have the player.
They were right with Ware at a time when other options, like Shawn Merriman, were also available.
Jones got that one right.
If Ansah makes it within the Cowboys reach then they have to grab on.
But then they really have to be right—again.