Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd
Let the games begin!
No, not football games. I'm talking about the eagerly anticipated NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis which is just underway at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
These games may not include touchdowns, interceptions and other highlights you see during football season. But there will be no shortage of statistics and other data accumulated and digested by Dallas Cowboys owner, general manager and emperor Jerry Jones.
This offseason has already seen plenty of changes to the Dallas coaching staff, especially on the defensive side of things.
But now comes the first look at actual players who are most likely to be selected by America´s Team early in the 2013 NFL draft in April.
There's really no such thing as an accurate draft board for any team right now simply because this weekend's combine has yet to be completed. But by early next week those boards will start to take shape prior to the free-agent signing period in March.
Don't expect glitter and glamor where the Cowboys' top priorities are concerned. This is not the draft for skill position players and, further, Dallas really isn't in the market for this category of player anyway.
This is a look at 10 players most likely to be chosen by the Cowboys whenever they happen to end up on the clock—and I'm still not sold that Dallas will not trade down to accumulate an extra pick or two and still get the difference-making soldier needed for the trenches on one side of the ball or the other.
Positions of need include offensive and defensive linemen and I'd bet money that this is the area we'll see addressed with possibly the first three Cowboy's choices in the player selection meeting in New York.
It's impossible to know either who Dallas will select and also which side of the ball they'll bolster, but one of these 10 players will wear the blue star come next season. These prospects are ranked according to both their importance to the Cowboys as well as their anticipated draft stock prior to the combine.
Margus Hunt of Southern Methodist University stands to be among the biggest ''risers'' in this year's draft class. A native of distant Estonia and a standout track and field athlete, his football experience is limited and his level of competition will also be taken into account. In other words, Conference USA isn't exactly the SEC.
But if we remember that football is the most physically demanding sport in the world, then Hunt should be among the most intriguing if not mysterious prospects on every team's board.
Hunt blocked 17 kicks throughout his college career before ending it in memorable fashion in a 43-10 victory over Fresno State in the Hawaii Bowl. In his final collegiate contest, he sacked Bulldogs quarterback Derek Carr for a safety and also forced two fumbles.
Hunt has an 82-inch wingspan and stands 6'8". At just under 280 pounds, I'm not sure that Hunt can't play either defensive tackle or end—and the Cowboys need both.
The combine will offer a closer look at Hunt's prowess as an athlete and I expect these results to make a lot of eyes pop.
Sticking to the defensive side of the ball, we take a look at John Jenkins out of Georgia. This is easy to do seeing as he's a tough individual to miss given his extreme size.
Unlike Hunt, Jenkins projects as a defensive tackle and Dallas can certainly afford to add some beef up front in their new 4-3 alignment being constructed by new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.
Had the Cowboys still been pushing with the tepid and tired 3-4 alignment which began in 2005, Jenkins would rank even higher as an urgency for the Dallas defensive line as the nose guard that it never bothered acquiring. But in the 4-3 scheme, Jenkins could become a bit more of a luxury than a necessity.
When last we saw Dallas lining up in its historic 4-3, the Cowboys were known as a generally undersized front that utilized speed, quickness and depth to penetrate the opposing backfield for four quarters. This was especially true when the Cowboys were winning Super Bowls in the 1990s.
But we can't assume that Kiffin's version of the 4-3 is the same as that brought to town by former head coach Jimmy Johnson and defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt prior to those glory years.
In fact, Kiffin and new defensive line coach Rod Marinelli won Super Bowl XXXVII with a different skill set at defensive tackle while with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If we think back to the days of 2013 Hall of Fame inductee Warren Sapp and Anthony McFarland, we see much larger tackles than what the Cowboys employed during championship runs beginning a decade prior.
So, is Jenkins too big at around 340 pounds?
This question will be answered soon enough, but the run defense must improve immediately and substantially if Dallas is to, once again, boast a championship-caliber defense.
The play of right tackle Doug Free sent alarm bells ringing loudly at Valley Ranch. Only Super Bowl champion Baltimore and St. Louis averaged more penalties per game than Dallas—and Free can be thanked for that lovely distinction.
I still maintain that despite a poor 2012, the Cowboys could still give Free one more shot to successfully man the very position that made him a multi-millionaire following his surprise performance in 2009.
At the same time, Free will see some competition at right tackle. His primary opponent for that starting job could come in the form of Lane Johnson from the University of Oklahoma.
Johnson has limited experience at tackle having tried both tight end and defensive end with the Sooners. But by his junior season Johnson had moved to right tackle and played well enough there to be moved to the left side last season.
Johnson has the physique and the athleticism to be a solid right tackle in the NFL.
But left tackle might be a bit of a stretch.
Provided he keeps gaining strength and perhaps another 10 pounds or so, he would give Free much-needed incentive to shape up in 2013. He also gives Dallas the flexibility to move Free inside to guard, if this is the direction Jones chooses to go.
Dallas would have to want a right tackle awfully bad to draft Johnson in the first round. And keep in mind 2011 first-round selection Tyron Smith was also drafted as a right tackle and he has since been moved to the left side.
Is right tackle a weakness for the Cowboys?
It certainly seems so, but I'm still not certain that either tackle position is manned as well as they could or should be.
Stay tuned on this.
Johnathan Hankins of Ohio State University decided to skip his final season of collegiate eligibility to enter the NFL draft. Prior to the scouting combine, this appears to be a pretty good decision. He's expected to be among the first three defensive tackles chosen in April, and you can't expect much more than that.
Despite being an underclassman, Hankins has three full years of experience with the Buckeyes and made an impact immediately as a freshman. He's played all over the defensive line and might be the most versatile interior lineman available.
Hankins fits just about any scheme, and while a bit lighter than the previously mentioned Jenkins, he's still one of the most massive lineman about to enter the professional ranks. His level of competition faced will be respected, and he easily carries a first-round grade heading into the combine.
If size is what Kiffin wants on the interior, Hankins projects as a better fit than Jenkins as he'll be a little quicker into the backfield on some plays. He'll still be a very tough player to move, which would immediately help a Dallas run defense that has been far from dominant for at least 10 years.
Ohio State went undefeated last season, only missing a shot at top-ranked Notre Dame in the ''BS'' Championship Game (I fully support college football playoffs) because of the draconian NCAA. Hankins was arguably the Buckeye's best player, and the Cowboys will take a long look at ''Big Hank'' if he is available when they hit the clock.
Having already discussed the issues surrounding starting right tackle Free, the Cowboys have a serious decision to make as they strive for that ''Romo-friendly'' offense we have been hearing about for some time now.
The silly passing circus that finally got head coach Jason Garrett excused of his offensive play-calling duties may have reached its limit—although I am far from certain that this is the case. In re-tooling the offensive line into something that makes fundamental sense in the NFL, Dallas has to decide on probably both tackle positions come next season.
Eric Fisher, left tackle for Central Michigan University the last two seasons, offers the right skill set that Dallas could really covet, at least as long as it wants to keep on playing ''musical tackles'' along the offensive line.
My only concern with this player is that his selection by Dallas means that not only will the Cowboys probably start another rookie at one of their tackle spots in 2013, but also because one or both tackles, in this case, will be playing a new position, yet again.
Fisher is easily the second-ranked left tackle prospect in the draft and his performance at the combine should uphold that ranking. But he is a left tackle, and I'm not sure that drafting a guy just to move him to a new position is the best of ideas at this point.
But what about moving left tackle Smith back to his natural position of right tackle?
I doubt that this happens but I certainly would not rule it out. But does Jones want a rookie protecting quarterback Tony Romo's blind side?
I have more doubts about that idea than anything else.
Depending on what happens with Free, who I just don't think will be released, Fisher could either be a great fit or a questionable one.
But Dallas has to quit moving tackles around as they have done for the past few seasons.
Fisher will need to get a little stronger in an NFL strength and conditioning program, but this will happen. If plugged into the right place, the Cowboys could be in position to play a much better brand of offense next season and beyond.
With the official switch back to the 4-3 defensive alignment, defensive tackle will be a priority for the Cowboys early in the draft. While there isn't necessarily a shortage of defensive linemen on the Dallas roster at this time, it would be wise to look for an interior presence that will not only help stuff the run but also penetrate the opposing backfield to make quarterbacks much more uncomfortable than they have been when playing against Dallas.
Sheldon Richardson of the University of Missouri is the first tackle on this list that I would consider a likely target for Jones in the first round. I don't see any way he reaches Round 2, so I believe he'll have to be taken somewhere in the first round if he does end up with the Cowboys.
Concerns with Richardson include a one-game suspension last November for a violation of team rules and a perceived lack of upper body strength. The latter issue was likely due to offseason shoulder surgery which should have no bearing on his long-term future.
But I think his strengths far outweigh the concerns as he is just too good of a football player. He finished 2012 second on his team in tackles with 75 despite that suspension. His four sacks might not grab your attention, but his 10.5 tackles for a loss during his lone season in the SEC should.
Richardson doesn't have the most experience of the defensive tackle prospects available, but he is as good a fit for Kiffin's defensive line as there is in the coming draft in April.
The Cowboys would send an immediate and powerful message with the selection of University of Alabama offensive tackle D.J. Fluker. While a teammate of his, to be profiled shortly, has more often been linked to Dallas in recent mock drafts, Fluker might be every bit as good, if not better.
If you watched any of the ''BS'' National Championship Game last month, you saw one of the best offensive lines in recent college football memory. The Crimson Tide simply mowed down opposing defensive fronts week in and week out behind the blocking of Fluker.
Fluker is what I call a ''Free-insurance policy'' given his projection and experience at right tackle. In other words, if Free has to be moved inside or released, Fluker starts on the ride side to begin the regular season and get ready for starting running back DeMarco Murray to pass the 1,000-yard barrier for the first time in his career.
But if Free can handle chores at right tackle, which I believe he can, simply moving Fluker inside to right guard would be easy enough as this is where he will most likely play in the NFL.
Understand that Fluker, unlike his upcoming teammate, most closely resembles 2013 Hall of Fame inductee Larry Allen, a mainstay with the Cowboys for over a decade and at one time the strongest man in the NFL. Fluker stands 6'6" and weighs over 330 pounds. If his combine performance, especially his weight-lifting opens eyes, his draft stock will likely skyrocket beyond the reach of Dallas.
Jones has often referred to value when making selections in the annual draft, and I believe that nobody provides more than Fluker should the Cowboys address the offensive line first—and this is almost a guarantee.
Yes, size matters in the NFL, but if you can also get strength and versatility, then you really have described Allen, who played all over the Dallas offensive line and is largely responsible for the fact that another Hall of Fame member, Emmitt Smith, also became the league's all-time leading rusher.
Absolutely watch this player.
Former Dallas Pro Bowl defensive lineman Leon Lett is well-known for his mistakes made during the 1993 calendar year, which included a silly goal-line fumble that should have been a touchdown in Super Bowl XXVII against Buffalo. But Lett should be better known for his incredible ability as a football player, and this might be why he's currently an assistant defensive line coach under Marinelli.
Lett recently told Dallas/Ft. Worth media that the return to the 4-3 defensive alignment means that the defensive tackles will play a different role than in years passed in the 3-4. Rather than simply controlling the line of scrimmage more often than not, interior defensive linemen will pursue and penetrate, much like they did during the parade of the 1990s.
This is precisely why University of Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd is being linked to the Cowboys in a number of mock drafts heading into the combine.
Not exactly undersized by any means, Floyd is a good bit smaller than the other interior defenders on this list, which is fine. Dallas´ lack of size was the kiss of death in the 3-4 year after year, but you can pull of this philosophy in a 4-3 front so long as you have both depth and talent.
Floyd fits this mold better than any interior lineman heading into the April draft.
If Fluker provides the most versatility of any offensive lineman for the Cowboys, Floyd is his defensive line counterpart.
Floyd saw playing time from his freshman year forward, passing on his senior season in Gainesville. He's a natural tackle on the inside of a 4-3 but has also seen time at defensive end. That last fact means that Floyd has explosion that is rare for players that are as heavy as he is.
If you'll recall, Lett also filled in at defensive end occasionally as the back of Charles Haley was essentially giving out from 1995 on and he was arguably just as effective when called upon to move outside. If Floyd has this kind of ability, the Cowboys should pounce.
Keep in mind that Dallas is not exactly settled at defensive end, mainly because of the switch in defensive scheme. Because the next player on this list is almost certain to be gone before the Cowboys go on the clock, Floyd would be better than a consolation prize and also provide a skill set that might not have been as attractive in the previous 3-4 debacle.
A name that was relatively unknown prior to the 2012 football season, Ezekiel Ansah of Brigham Young University might be making more noise heading into the combine than any other player.
Like the earlier mentioned Hunt, Ansah is another foreign talent that brings little experience to the table—but he also brings a ton of athleticism that will no doubt get the attention of all NFL scouts this weekend.
Ansah has the look of a premier defensive end that is also being projected as an outside linebacker in the base 3-4 alignment.
Where the Cowboys are concerned, Ansah would be a left defensive end prospect that might eventually unseat DeMarcus Ware as Dallas' top sack artist. But this idea is just a possibility that is likely years away from happening, if it ever does.
Ansah brings the same kind of speed off the edge that Ware does but also brings more size overall. These attributes are a perfect fit for what the Cowboys are needing following the switch to the 4-3. I don´t see Ansah as a fit at linebacker under any circumstances in Dallas.
Chances are pretty good that Ansah will not be available once Dallas is on the clock in the first round. Despite his inexperience playing football, Ansah's 6'6", 270-pound frame will just about guarantee a selection in the top 10.
But as exciting as these physical qualities are, one has to wonder about a player that has referred to his own body as ''a delicate flower'', this after failing to make the BYU basketball team in both 2009 and 2010. (h/t NFL.com)
Then again, I'm not going to pretend to fully understand exactly what a native of Ghana means by that expression. Also keep in mind that Ansah had yet to even put pads on.
Following a decent week of practice leading up to the Senior Bowl last month, Ansah delivered a strong performance, arguably the best of all defenders. His two sacks and a forced fumble definitely illustrated the potential possessed by this young, relatively unknown prospect.
If you have a franchise quarterback, then you don't take one in the draft. But premium pass-rushers are one of those positions that are hard to find and simply cannot be ignored. The New York Giants have proven this philosophy to be pretty successful in twice beating superior New England Patriots teams in Super Bowls played in the last six seasons.
But the question here is this one: Can Jones and the Cowboys afford to be wrong with this pick?
Well, recent poor decisions by a billionaire from Arkansas suggest absolutely not.
Names such as Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy all have one thing in common, aside from entering the NFL with national championships as running backs from the University of Alabama.
All three ran behind the blocking of offensive guard prospect Chance Warmack.
Warmack has become the ''flavor of the week'' since being projected as the Cowboys' first selection with the 18th pick by ESPN's Mel Kiper, Jr.
Warmack is about as decorated of an interior offensive lineman as we have seen in a number of years. I think his upside is higher than that of last year's top guard David DeCastro out of Stanford. His experience, level of competiton and accomplishments are pretty much unsurpassed.
But here is where I have some questions on this idea.
To start with, I'm not convinced that Warmack is still available at the 18th pick as some might think. I realize his positional value probably fits there, but he is absolutely NFL-ready and the Cowboys are not the only team with questions on the offensive line.
Also, you have to keep in mind that Warmack will only play guard in the NFL, unlike his aforementioned teammate Fluker, who can play either right tackle or either guard spot.
Finally, when you consider that 2012 free-agent acquisitions Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau, both guards, are still on the roster, I don't know that Warmack is the best fit at this time. There is an awful lot of money already dumped into the guard position and this could certainly change if, for example, Bernadeau ends up the starting center—and this could absolutely happen.
Football is a game of dollars and cents like never before and selecting Warmack, or any other guard, at their present spot in the first round might not be the wisest.
But selecting Warmack would certainly make the Cowboys a better team as his best attribute is his strength.
Yes, Warmack's selection would likely indicate a re-commitment to running the football, a thought that has to make Garrett cringe. This is why I have much less interest in North Carolina guard Jonathan Cooper of the University of North Carolina, who's strengths appear to be mobility and pass protection.
I would be looking for as much bang for my buck as possible with that 18th pick and I believe that Fluker brings the most unique upside given his size, strength and versatility, especially if Dallas can trade down to get him and another selection, and the Cowboys absolutely need as many picks as possible.
But if Dallas does end up with Warmack, he'll be the first offensive guard drafted in the first round since John Niland in 1966.
Thank about that.