At this point it's one of the easier drafts to predict. With no seventh-round selection in the 2013 NFL draft next April, it appears that the Dallas Cowboys will take nobody in the final round of the annual player selection meeting in New York City.
With no seventh-round pick allocated at this time, Dallas has to hit big and hit often with the minimal resources that it has available.
Despite the presently limited selections, this is easily the biggest draft ever for owner and general manager Jerry Jones. I can't think of a time previously when his seat as GM has been hotter. Further, never before has his alleged gut feeling about players, coaches and the overall direction of the franchise been so highly questioned.
Interestingly, Jones has the unenviable task of trying to avoid missing the NFL postseason for a fourth consecutive year for the first time under his ownership.
A bit of Cowboys history:
Dallas' longest stretch without postseason play was following its inception as an expansion team in 1960. Counting that first winless season, which included one tie, the Cowboys would wait six seasons before qualifying for the NFL playoffs for the first time.
The next-longest stretch was a five-season drought from 1986 through 1990.
Now, we can't charge that particular fruitless run in the late 1980s to Jones. He actually bought the team in 1989 and quickly re-directed the franchise thanks to hard-nosed former head coach Jimmy Johnson and, above all else, the monstrous Herschel Walker trade during his first year at the controls.
But Jones would suffer through his first three-season run with no postseason appearances beginning in 2000, essentially the end of the "Aikman-era."
As of right now, Jones sits in a similar position, having not seen a playoff game since early 2010. If this trend continues for another season, which certainly looks possible given this offseason's "uncomfortable" changes, the billionaire from Arkansas will have set a personal low with four consecutive years as an observer of the postseason following an NFL regular season.
To avoid this pitfall, Dallas has to have a much better draft than, for example, the 2009 NFL draft which, as of now, features exactly one player from that draft class—unrestricted free-agent linebacker Victor Butler is expected to be gone soon.
This mock draft is not a prediction of what will happen but rather a prediction of what could happen given where the Cowboys sit this offseason.
I'm projecting a seventh selection to Dallas on the basis that I believe the Cowboys will make an aggressive move in order to gain at least one additional selection, in this case a second third-round pick. With precious little in the way of free-agent cash to spend, I don't see how Jones has any other choice.
Whether the extra selection comes via traded player, such as Anthony Spencer, or by simply trading down in the first round, I think the Cowboys are going to pursue any and all angles with which to add as much talent as possible. Further, with no contract extension seeming eminent for quarterback Tony Romo, the Cowboys need every pick they can get since free agency probably won't provide any shortcuts this year.
As hard as I try, I just can't mock an offensive lineman to the Cowboys in the first round. It's just not their style, historically speaking, and it's hard to get beyond last year's expenditure of offensive guards Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau, regardless of how they played in 2012.
Since no elite offensive tackle prospects are likely to be sitting there at Dallas' current 18th pick, that idea is probably out the window as well. Further, right tackle Doug Free's status seems to be rather secure for the moment and I'm not at all sure that he is not the opening-day starter once again.
The most significant changes brought forth by Jones following another near-miss at the postseason in Washington during Dallas' final regular-season game is on defense.
The hiring of defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and also defensive line coach Rod Marinelli has signalled the end of the horrible era of the 3-4 scheme. These two coaches clearly have decades combined in the 4-3 defensive scheme and this is where I think the biggest impact will be made on draft day.
This idea becomes even more likely in the wake of this week's release of eight-year veteran Marcus Spears, a true 4-3 defensive tackle out of LSU who was pretty much neutralized in Dallas' original 3-4 scheme brought forth by former head coach Bill Parcells.
Johnathan Hankins of Ohio State likely represents the top defensive tackle available to the Cowboys should they trade down from the 18th pick into the mid or late 20s.
When you consider that the Cowboys appear to be planning on having a pair of smaller defensive ends in DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, assuming the latter is not traded, it only makes sense that Dallas finds a young stud to enter Kiffin's expected rotation of linemen and pass-rushers.
Hankins is a big dude. He stands 6'3'' and weighs 320 pounds and was unquestionably the best player on a Buckeyes team that went undefeated in 2012, only missing the BCS National Championship Game against Notre Dame due to sanctions brought forth by the draconian NCAA.
Sacking the quarterback isn't going to be his gig in Dallas, although Hankins has the ability to beat double teams and apply frequent pressure. Hankins could be asked to play a similar role that Anthony McFarland did under Kiffin and Marinelli some 10 years ago when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fielded the best defense, talent-wise, for several seasons.
Or perhaps ''Big Hank'' is the next Warren Sapp.
Hankins is easily worth trading down for so long as Dallas can acquire additional selections in the upper portion of the draft.
It's pretty hard to find a more productive player than Rutgers outside linebacker Khaseem Greene.
Here's a football player who played his first two seasons of college football as a free safety while chalking up four interceptions, four forced fumbles and two sacks—this is as a safety, remember.
By 2011, as a junior, Greene made eyes pop with a staggering 141 tackles to go along with 14.5 tackles for a loss—as an outside linebacker!
Following his first year at linebacker, Greene broke his ankle last spring but rehabbed in time to enjoy what some considered a statistical drop-off in 2012. His 136 tackles, 12 tackles for a loss and six forced fumbles don't represent much of a drop-off in my book.
Now include six sacks to close out his career with the Scarlet Knights.
The Cowboys are off to a great start at linebacker already with Sean Lee and Bruce Carter. Both of these young linebackers clearly had first-round talent coming out of Penn State and North Carolina, respectively, but only fell into the second round due to injury concerns.
Adding a player like Greene likely gives the Cowboys the best corps of linebackers in the NFL, regardless of the system.
Another consideration is that right now there isn't much in the way of true, strongside linebacker candidates to add to Lee, a middle linebacker, and Carter, most likely weakside the linebacker.
I don't like second-year veteran Alex Albright as a SAM in Dallas, mainly due to his build which is much better suited for 3-4 outside linebacker—or maybe even 4-3 defensive end.
With last year's free-agent acquisition Dan Connor released this week, only rookie Kyle Wilber remains as a serious candidate to join the Dallas linebackers already in place.
But Greene is a vast upgrade over Wilber and at 24 years of age already, he would be able to step right in and challenge for a starting job day one of training camp later this summer.
Greene may not be a dire need, but he could easily be the best player available for the Cowboys in the second round.
The Cowboys should be so lucky to land a player like Barrett Jones of Alabama in the third round of the draft.
While many mock drafts continue to project Jones' teammates D.J. Fluker or Chance Warmack to Dallas, I just can't see the Cowboys drafting a guard in the first round for the first time since John Niland in 1966. I've already covered the issues surrounding dollars and sense already spent at this position on Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau recently.
With an offensive line which features more questions than Pro Bowl talent, Jones would probably start immediately over the tired and tepid Phil Costa—and don't let Costa's recent contract extension fool you. This move was about creating cap space rather than anointing this player a starting job for the long term.
Regardless of what you think of Costa, or any other Dallas linemen, Barrett is a smart player with a lot of experience from a program that has become the envy of the college football world due to it's beyond-dominant offensive line.
Barrett has played all over the offensive line and as a value pick he would offer insurance at center, guard or tackle, although I'm not real crazy about him anywhere other than center.
Years of watching former center Andre Gurode snap balls over the head of Romo and then watching as Costa either can't stay healthy or keep defenders in front of him has to make any Dallas fan pretty tired of being sick and tired.
Every good offensive line needs a good center and Jones looked remarkably smooth in his first year at the position last season with the Crimson Tide.
And what if Livings or Bernadeau flame out?
What if Doug Free looks no better in 2013 than he did in 2012?
The Cowboys had better have a plan in place which includes better football players.
Dallas has been just horrible drafting offensive linemen for over a decade, a big reason why Romo can't stay healthy and also why the Cowboys are cap-strapped now. Only 2011 first-round draft selection Tyron Smith has changed that trend and I'm not even sure he's the left tackle of the future—remember he was a right tackle at USC.
At some point the mess has to be fixed and Jones would offer at least the second young, blue-chip prospect to land on the Dallas offensive line in the last few seasons.
Linebacker Anthony Spencer has signed his franchise tender for the second straight year. It's assumed that he'll move up to the defensive line to play left defensive end opposite DeMarcus Ware in Kiffin's version of the 4-3 alignment.
I've recently discussed why this might not be the greatest idea moving forward and I also have a suspicion that Spencer might actually be the reason that Dallas ends up with an additional pick, such as this one, in the third round.
One thing is for certain: the Cowboys have to have some additional size up front on the defensive line. We've seen how a Dallas defense that for so many years was known as a strength can simply melt, long-term, by being too small at the wrong places up front.
Also well illustrated by NFC East rival New York Giants is the fact that numerous pass-rushers in numerous places can take mediocrity all the way to a world championship—twice in the last six seasons, in fact.
Malliciah Goodman of Clemson would offer both an insurance policy for Spencer should the run defense suffer, as I expect it could, and also an additional weapon on obvious passing downs.
Goodman's physique is nearly perfect for a 4-3 defensive end, although he needs a broader repertoire of pass-rush moves. At 6'4'' and just under 280 pounds, Goodman could also shift to the inside as a pass-rushing defensive tackle if Kiffin so chooses.
The best aspect of Goodwin's experience with the Tigers is the fact he actually played left defensive end. This means that he would immediately enter the depth chart at a position he's accustomed to and also within a system in which he has played.
His stats won't knock you're socks off but game tape shows that he can get around the edge pretty well for a man his size. With a defensive line coach like Marinelli, Goodman could be a real difference-maker with the Cowboys sooner than later.
I like Anthony Spencer as a player and always have. I was never one to question his lack of stats because I know what kind of player he his and that he was definitely marginalized by that undersized defensive line in the scrapped 3-4 scheme.
But at left defensive end I'm not so sure about Spencer, even if Jones and company seem to be.
Goodman would be a smart player to add that wouldn't have to lead right away but could definitely pay dividends beginning in 2014 and beyond.
It's safe to say that running the football has not been a strong point of the Dallas offense under the leadership of head coach Jason Garrett.
This must change.
I am as big a fan of starting tailback DeMarco Murray as there is. Compare his numbers to his predecessor Adrian Peterson at Oklahoma and you'll see what I mean.
But the big question surrounding Murray is his ability to stay healthy.
Compounding that question is the fact that there really isn't a ball-carrier on the Dallas roster, at this time anyway, that creates any confidence whatsoever.
Enter Le'Veon Bell of Michigan State.
Chances are pretty good that Bell is selected prior to the fourth round.
On the other hand, the 2013 NFL draft isn't exactly loaded with franchise-caliber running backs. Factor in the silly, pass-happy nature of the NFL and it's a reasonable bet that some good runners will fall into the mid-rounds in April.
Bell is a massive back who stands 6'1'' and weighs 230-pounds—but Bell runs like he weighs 220-pounds.
This underclassman averaged 29 carries per game in his first season as the Spartan's featured back. His 382 carries in 2012 totalled 1793 yards and 12 touchdowns.
In other words, Bell is a guy who can carry the rock if necessary and this is about the best insurance policy you can ask for should Murray miss time, a reality for most running backs from time to time.
But think about this: What if Bell could also play fullback, which some scouts feel he can? Nothing against Lawrence Vickers, but he'll never offer much as an offensive weapon even if he is a very good blocker.
Bell is simply a bruiser that reminds me of a young Marion Barber with a little more burst in his step. This is precisely what the Cowboys could use in their backfield on short-yardage and goal-line situations, especially with an offensive line that should perform better in 2013 than it did last year.
Romo can't do it alone and it's been clear for years that asking him to sling the ball around the yard 50-to-60 times per game is just flat stupid, regardless of what Garrett thinks. Sometimes the best pass protection possible is a dominant running game.
There will be life for the Cowboys after Garrett, this is for sure.
But Dallas, moving into the future, has to find the tough yards, especially in the red zone where they have had significant struggles.
A rushing combo of Murray and Bell would instantly change the Cowboys' offensive fortunes as this franchise attempts to become a contender once again.
Tyrann Mathieu is a talent, especially when there is All-American ability in front of him creating havoc for the quarterback.
Cornerback Mike Jenkins is an unrestricted free agent and it appears likely he will not be in Dallas in 2013. The current salary cap situation will probably prevent the Cowboys from retaining their former first-round selection from the 2008 NFL draft.
Adding to the temptation of this selection, if the player formerly known as the ''Honey Badger'' falls this far, is the recent departure of free safety Gerald Sensabaugh.
Mathieu would be one of those risks that Jerry Jones likes to take. In other words, when the potential reward is high while the risk itself is relatively low, then you should do it.
Drafting Mathieu, especially in this position, would represent both the splash and the need that the Cowboys have—hardly the same as going to Vegas with your paycheck believing that if you hand it over, you'll get much more in return.
Further, Jones is probably not in position to make the kind of headlines that he did with cornerback Morris Claiborne in the first round of last year's draft.
But this is okay.
It's hard to say whether Mathieu is best suited for cornerback or safety in the NFL, but I suspect the latter could be true. This is a player that simply has a nose for the football and these guys don't grow on trees.
His off-the-field issues aside, Mathieu is just the kind of prospect that Jones and the Cowboys probably have a need for.
I have complete faith that Monte Kiffin can find a role for this player that would definitely be ranked much higher on draft boards had he not been kicked off the LSU football team early last August.
Finally, remember that Mathieu has some juice in the return game also and would give Dallas some options in addition to apparent third wide receiver Dwayne Harris.
As I mentioned before, the NFL is a passing circus these days, which means cornerbacks are always going to be in high demand.
Travis Howard of Ohio State brings, experience, size and versatility to the NFL.
While his performance at the East-West Shrine was nothing to write home about, I don't put too much stock into this kind of postseason contest which is halfway between an organized game and a scouting combine.
It's hard to have it both ways.
Howard picked off six passes during his final two seasons with the Buckeyes and also contributed 10 passes defensed and a couple of forced fumbles. As a third or fourth cornerback he brings enough height at 6'1'' to create some intrigue.
But Howard might also garner a look at free safety if he doesn't show the speed and overall talent to handle man coverage at the next level.
I have never believed that you're only a safety away from contending for a Super Bowl and this is true of the Cowboys. Granted, Dallas might very well address this position with greater intention earlier in the draft or perhaps in free agency, but defensive backs are always in demand and these guys seem to be getting taller and taller—and the receivers they cover are doing the same.
Howard comes from a big-time program with high expectations. I'll always take that over a similar prospect from a smaller school that simply flashes a sexy time in the 40-yard dash.
Howard looks like he's just as likely to end up as a depth player at the next level as he does a starter. But he's got upside, experience and possibly value as a player that could handle a couple of different positions.
In the sixth round the Cowboys could do much worse—and they certainly have in recent years.