The NFL offseason now applies to the entire National Football League upon the conclusion of Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans, but the Dallas Cowboys have been busy with future plans for about a month already. Owner and general manager Jerry Jones has made solid use of that time in making numerous changes to the Dallas coaching staff—essentially blowing up the entire defensive scheme, playbook and coordinator.
In evaluating the Cowboys as they embark on the mission of surpassing mediocrity and disappointment, it’s impossible to pick just one position that Dallas has to upgrade in order to take control of the NFC East again.
This franchise has numerous holes to fill and the strategy heading into the 2013 NFL Draft should be all about selecting the best player available.
Certainly the offensive line needs to be addressed in as many as three positions, depending on what you think of right tackle Doug Free and where he could end up. Quarterback Tony Romo has yet to experience the “Romo-friendly” offense that his GM has been promising for several seasons.
Defensive tackle is going to be a different discussion entirely in new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s 4-3 front. Dallas is not rich in young interior linemen or necessarily the right kind of linemen as the Cowboys will definitely look to add smaller, quicker tackles than the defensive ends they currently have from their 3-4 front.
But I don’t think the Cowboys will go into this draft thinking that they must choose an offensive lineman or a defensive tackle in the first round. Sure doesn’t mean they won’t, but they will definitely be tempted by some intriguing prospects that put heat on opposing quarterbacks.
DeMarcus Ware moves to the defensive line for the first time since his days at Troy. This transition is expected to go well, at least according to former Dallas pass-rush specialist Charles Haley. Ware needs help upfront, especially since Anthony Spencer—a would-be defensive end moving forward with the Cowboys—is probably too small for what Kiffin is looking for to compliment Ware. Spencer is also an unrestricted free agent, so you do the math.
So this means that prototypical, 4-3 defensive ends are going to be looked at and available to Dallas at the 18th selection in the first round.
No, Ware is far from done. But Jones wants the defensive side of the ball to become a strength once again, a difference-maker that creates opportunities for an offense that already has a lot going for it.
Imagine if Romo had anywhere from two to four extra possessions each game, some possibly beginning in their opponent’s territory. There’s much lesser quarterbacks that do and they often play through January.
Last year’s draft was extremely expensive for the Cowboys. In trading up in the first round for a cornerback after having already dumped $50 million into another free agent at the same position, Dallas not only fortified the area least likely to create any real change but also lost a second-round selection that could have been any number of players that could have easily made this roster better—and deeper.
This offseason, Dallas has to address the pass rush because while I still feel that Jay Ratliff can make a huge impact on this roster in 2013, there is no doubt that Jones will looking to add another young stud that can possibly lead this defense in the next few years.
Here’s five pass-rushers that would not only bring the quickest assistance for Ware upfront, but also help pave the way for life after Ware as the Cowboys’ leading sack artist, a title the eight-year veteran has carried since entering the league in 2005.
Texas defensive end Alex Okafor has been a solid, productive defender in a program that hasn’t lived up to expectations over the past few seasons. Last season was made more difficult by the injury to fellow pass-rusher Jackson Jeffcoat, which left Okafor as the primary threat to opposing quarterbacks.
Despite frequent double teams and additional focus from opponents, Okafor has been nothing but productive in four-consecutive seasons in Austin. His height is perfect for the role of outside pass-rusher in a 3-4, but this won’t be needed in Dallas.
The question for the Cowboys is whether or not Okafor can play opposite Ware at left end and make enough contribution to be worth a first-round selection.
Okafor grades as a first round pick, but I still think that Kiffin will want an end that’s even heavier than Okafor, who weighs in at about 260 pounds. This is about what Ware weighs and at some point the Cowboys have to stop playing so small upfront. This is precisely why the 3-4 failed in Dallas early and often and this trend has to stop.
If you knew that Okafor would be just as effective at 270 pounds as he is now, then he would fit the Cowboys right away. Okafor has the frame to add some more weight and he will need to if he is drafted to play end as opposed to outside linebacker.
Overall, Okafor seems like a defensive end that the Cowboys might select if they trade down—or at least it looks this way just a few weeks from the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. It will be interesting to see if his stock rises or falls in the coming weeks.
A player that has helped himself this offseason is UCLA defensive end Datone Jones.
Jones is a hometown product of Compton, California, not far from the UCLA campus. Here is a guy that is taking advantage of the opportunity presented to him—or better put, an opportunity he’s earned.
Jones has played all over the Bruins defensive line and this would partially explain his lack of jaw dropping stats.
But there’s two things you have to like about this particular prospect.
First of all, he’s a hard working player that doesn’t allow ego or personal gratification to surpass his team’s objective. The fact he has played at least three positions upfront speaks to his willingness to face adversity even at his own expense.
Second, but not least, is the fact that Jones might be the perfect fit at left end in the eyes of Kiffin. Yes, size will matter on this side more so than speed and athleticism—qualities already possessed by Ware on the opposite side.
Jones would bring the size to not only help stuff the run but also the bull rush to get after the quarterback on passing downs—and he can do this from inside at tackle as well.
Whether it’s a trade down or a pick at 18, remember this name. Jones will interview well and his physical attributes give him a number of possibilities for positions. He brings the kind of pass-rushing versatility that 4-3 teams are looking for.
This Estonia-native has been turning heads and blocking a lot of kicks for the SMU Mustangs the last few seasons and his upside just keeps going up—and we’re not even to the combine yet!
You’re not going to find many guys as tall as Margus Hunt that are still able to play football. He’s taller than about half of all NBA players, but brings much more weight and strength than your average power forward.
Hunt has a background in track and field and can hurl a discus a mile when needed. His strength is said to be profound and this is why many eyes will be on Hunt as he lifts at the combine, assuming he does—and he will.
Hunt has a work ethic and obviously has a broad cultural diversity that allows him to approach football the way the average American prospect doesn’t. Hunt understands that things aren’t given to you and that you earn them. Having intended to only participate in track at SMU, the men’s track program was dropped just before his arrival in Texas and so Hunt adjusted.
Hunt “tried out” for the football team, made it and took full advantage of the chance to enter a completely different field, literally.
Hunt is a physical beast and still has the frame to get even heavier. He already has the strength—which will also improve some in an NFL weight room—and his 14 blocked kicks should widen the eyes of new Dallas special teams coach Rich Basaccia, hired just days ago.
Hunt will be raw given the level of play he’s been exposed to and this could be okay with the Cowboys. Hunt will still have the strength and height to make an immediate impact on special teams and also stopping the run.
But as his pass-rushing skill develops, Hunt could be an absolute steal even with the 18th pick.
At this point in the pre-draft discussions, there’s probably more visibility going towards LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo. I expect this trend to continue during and following the combine later this month.
But counterpart Sam Washington has also been lined up with the Tigers front four, in many ways a training ground for many of Kiffin’s preferred linemen.
Unlike Mingo—who’s a better prospect at outside linebacker in a 3-4 —Montgomery brings more size to the end position than his teammate. Montgomery can still afford to add about 10 more pounds of muscle in molding himself as a pro, but everything points to a solid pass-rusher here.
Montgomery has done most of his work from the same side Ware has been coming from and this creates an immediate question: Do the Cowboys move Ware or Montgomery to the right side?
My guess would be Montgomery if he was actually chosen by Dallas.
Montgomery has the precise measurable of an NFL defensive end in the 4-3 alignment. His height is plentiful, he’s got longer arms and it looks like he’s got the motor necessary to handle being a three-down player. Mingo could have problems with that early on in his career.
Once you factor in the presence of Ware and any other defensive linemen added through free agency, which is still a ways off, you can see the potential for a quickly rebuilt defensive line that already includes a mostly rebuilt secondary.
Dallas could afford to get Montgomery on the field right away and he would be a more appropriate fit for right end than free-agent Spencer, who played the same position at Purdue. But Montgomery, especially following his rookie season, will easily be a better pass rush specialist than Spencer will ever be—and Spencer isn’t bad at all.
Montgomery reminds me of former Cowboys end Greg Ellis, who at similar dimensions to Montgomery, was still able to make a very late transition to right outside linebacker in then head coach Bill Parcells' new 3-4 scheme. But Ellis was a natural left end for 43 fronts in Dallas and North Carolina during his college days.
Montgomery offers numerous similarities.
The Cowboys will never use Montgomery at linebacker, a position that will no longer lead the roster in sacks and other negative plays made by the defensive front seven.
Moving forward, pressure will generally come from the defensive line and its rotation of either tackles or ends that can rush the passer. In the 1990’s, it was the tackles that couldn’t be worn down by opponents.
It will likely be similar in this 4-3 and Montgomery is a potential centerpiece for the future serving as a new version of Tony Tolbert.
It’s becoming more and more common that we see late bloomers leading up to the draft. At no other position is this phenomenon more common than at defensive end and outside linebacker, both positions that are expected to generate the most pressure on the opposing quarterback.
Next to quarterback, it’s a pretty solid argument that pass-rusher is the most critical element for any team that sustains success over a period of time. With this being in the highest of demand, especially in today’s pass-happy NFL, you must have pressure on the quarterback.
Two years ago it was Jason Pierre-Paul
Last season it was Chandler Jones, brother of UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon “Bones” Jones.
This season it’s likely to be Ezekiel Ansah, a raw but potentially explosive defender from BYU.
We’re talking about players from programs with little visibility compared to those from the SEC or Big 12, for example. These are players who suddenly join the elite prospects at a given position despite coming from a smaller school and sometimes having little experience.
So what makes this attractive?
Athleticism, plain and simple.
Ansah is built much like the aforementioned Montgomery, but coming from BYU, he certainly doesn’t get the coverage or attention. But Ansah is another 10-12 pounds heavier, faster and stronger.
Ansah’s physical attributes will be on full display at the NFL Scouting Combine and I expect the drooling to start right away.
The only knock here, if you can call it that, is inexperience. Just a matter of months ago Ansah couldn’t put equipment on, let alone rush the passer. He tried playing basketball but was twice cut from the Cougars.
Ansah wasn’t even on scholarship!
Yes, this native of distant Ghana looks and sounds like a guy who has the work ethic, the pride, the humility and obviously the physical package to become a star.
As an outside linebacker convert, Ansah will be nothing short of terrifying.
But his work has come primarily at defensive end at BYU and he’ll be coveted by everybody, regardless of scheme.
Stopping today’s passers is paramount in fielding a defense that can contend—obviously something Dallas hasn’t been able to do in many seasons now.
Ansah represents the future and would also be completely comfortable rushing from the left side, allowing Ware to remain on the same side he’s been on.
Either way, he’s worth the shot and he’s a better prospect than any offensive lineman Dallas could possibly choose at the 18th pick in the first round—unless his last name is Joeckel.