The 2013 NFL draft is less than a month away. Unlike most years, it's impossible to find a consensus on the first overall selection, let alone which player the Dallas Cowboys will select with the 18th selection on the evening of Thursday, April 25.
The first round of the annual selection meeting, while highly uncertain right now, will see plenty of surprises. But it does not appear that Dallas' first selection will be much of a surprise.
The Cowboys, reportedly close to extending the contract of quarterback Tony Romo, don't appear to be looking in the direction of a new signal-caller.
Having dumped plenty of resources into the cornerback position a year ago, it's a pretty safe bet that a corner will not be chosen first.
Running backs, fullbacks, linebackers and wide receivers are also off the list at the top, but this still leaves numerous positions that Dallas needs to address in the draft.
So what exactly is the priority?
Well, nobody knows but plenty of people think they do, including myself.
Here´s a look at what a number of experts think about Dallas' first selection of the NFL draft. Each assumes that the Cowboys will go ahead and select at No. 18. In my most recent mock draft I have Dallas trading down for additional picks due to the lack of free-agent dollars with which to spend and also the fact that the Cowboys only have six picks total.
But if things go as they seem now, here's some of the ideas that are floating around.
All combine results courtesy of NFL.com
Mel Kiper Jr. - ESPN
Analysis: Chance Warmack of Alabama is likely the first offensive guard off the board once the draft begins. He really only has one other competitor for that distinction and we'll review that player later on.
It's no secret that the Dallas offensive line has been less than acceptable for several years now. Injuries to Romo combined with the quarterback's pass attempts have reached the level of ridiculousness under novice head coach Jason Garrett, who certainly isn't viewed in the NFL community as he was several years ago.
The Cowboys' lack of a running game further drives this argument home.
Free-agent guards Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau were brought to town a year ago and owner and general manager Jerry Jones got very little in return on those investments. In fact, Bernadeau has had three surgeries in less than a year since signing his four-year, $11.5 million contract last March.
On paper, Warmack is probably the right pick—or least the best guard available when Dallas goes on the clock. Warmack has blocked for numerous Crimson Tide running backs that are either in the NFL now or heading there. He has three national championships under his belt.
The problem with this pick is the fact that guard is not a position that Jones, or the Cowboys, prize very highly in the first round. Not since 1966 has America's Team selected a guard in the first round, and with last year's newcomers Livings and Bernadeau, it wouldn't seem like this is the year to break the trend.
The Cowboys drafted left tackle Tyron Smith in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft. The franchise had not selected a tackle in the first round prior to that since 1981. Just food for thought when considering the likelihood that Dallas takes a guard in the first round this April.
Warmack is the right selection based on true need, unless a better opportunity presents itself at tackle, which I highly doubt.
But what the Cowboys should do often doesn't line up well with what Jones actually does—this is always anybody's guess, including his own.
Analysis: Sheldon Richardson could very well be the best overall 4-3 defensive tackle prospect in the 2013 NFL draft. Having attended a couple of years of junior college out of high school to beef up his academics to NCAA satisfaction, Richardson's following resume at Missouri is somewhat limited.
But make no mistake about this underclassman.
Richardson played a reserve role for the Tigers during Mizzou's final year in the Big 12 in 2011, yet still took home honorable mention honors.
In 2012 the Tigers started play in the all-powerful SEC and at times Richardson's team was simply overmatched. You can't say the he was ever in over his head though.
Richardson is a classic prospect for a position that is somewhat in question for the Cowboys now that defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is on board with his version of the 4-3 alignment. Kiffin's 'Tampa 2 scheme is known to covet a dependable safety over the top, a stud at linebacker and a highly disruptive defensive tackle.
Assuming that Bruce Carter is the weak-side linebacker, that still leaves the defensive tackle and the safety—we'll address the secondary option soon.
If we knew that defensive lineman Jay Ratliff was the interior presence Kiffin is looking for, then perhaps a player like Richardson might not be as necessary.
But this is a big if given Ratliff's recent injury issues and years playing completely out of position at nose guard in the scrapped 3-4 scheme.
Is it Sean Lissemore?
Yes, Dallas has some candidates to stock the defensive line, but remember that the switch to the 4-3 means that a different type of lineman is required. Richardson will be young, powerful and should bring a penetrating presence that will definitely take pressure off those just-mentioned interior linemen as well as defensive ends DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer. Those ends are making a serious adjustment as well and we already know that the Cowboys don't rush the quarterback very well.
A volatile presence on the defensive line holds slightly more value in the first round than a guard, despite the fact that both are absolutely needed.
You can't have it all, but Dallas has to get one of those needs filled for sure.
Analysis: I'm not sure anybody was as high on Alabama offensive tackle D.J. Fluker than I was prior to the NFL Scouting Combine last month in Indianapolis. Having him pegged as a better prospect than teammates Warmack and guard/center prospect Barrett Jones, I really thought he resembled the kind of massive and powerful prospect that Dallas has not had on the offensive line since Leonard Davis.
But then came Fluker's disappointing 21 reps on the bench press in Indianapolis and I had to pause.
Remember that Hall of Fame offensive lineman Larry Allen was capable of lifting 225 pounds over 40 times when he entered the NFL in 1994. Allen was a second-round pick, just for comparison.
In fairness to Fluker, Allen is a once-per-generation talent that simply stands by himself.
But you would like to see a little more strength out of a guy the size of Fluker.
Former Dallas offensive guard Leonard Davis lifted over 30 times at the 2001 combine, for additional perspective.
Why do I compare Fluker to these guys?
Size and mass.
Fluker stands 6'5'' and weighs just under 340 pounds. This is a big, big guy that, despite the combine numbers, should be a great player for years to come.
But the analysts above project Fluker as a right tackle, a position that he might be capable of in the NFL.
But remember that while Allen was a Pro Bowl tackle during part of his career, Davis wasn't nearly as good of a tackle as he was a guard.
I think the same will be true for Fluker.
If I'm right, then Dallas, in this case, would be drafting a guard not named Warmack with the 18th pick in April, and I think there are better options.
Imagine moving current right tackle Doug Free inside to guard only to find that Fluker can't fill that position either.
Dallas has to avoid that mistake at all costs and I'm never a fan of drafting a guy to play a position in the NFL that he did not in college unless he's a pass-rusher—and that idea often fails as well.
Analysis: I have said before that NFL teams are seldom a safety away from winning a Super Bowl. The Cowboys are definitely one of those teams.
The release of free safety Gerald Sensabaugh earlier this month has elevated the idea that Dallas needs to address this position in the first round of the draft.
This is not to say that safety is not a position of concern, or even urgency. I'm simply going to suggest that there are more dire positions in the trenches that are more critical to the success of the Cowboys than the secondary, especially in this draft class.
I stated almost a year ago that the selection of cornerback Morris Claiborne, especially given the loss of a second-round pick to do so, would probably not result in a significant change in the win column in 2012. As it turned out, Dallas finished with the same record in 2012 that they had in 2011—but this is not Claiborne's fault.
The Cowboys were already poorly built heading into their final season in the 3-4 scheme and this applied primarily to the defensive line. In other words, if you don't stop the run very well then you can forget getting as much pressure on the quarterback as you might like. And if you don't get pressure then your secondary will often be exposed.
Vaccaro will not, by himself, change the direction of the Dallas defense. He may very well be a fine player in the NFL, be it as a strong safety or a free safety. But pressure on the quarterback has to come first and a strong defensive line has to be the priority. Once this is accomplished you start to see more 3rd-and-long situations that result in sacks and turnovers.
Vaccaro has been frequently linked to the Cowboys as he will visit Valley Ranch soon. But just because Dallas vice president Stephen Jones makes public comments about the safety position, as he did recently, does not mean that Vaccaro is the guy.
In fact, LSU free safety Eric Reid, a prospect that I feel would be a better fit in Kiffin's scheme, is also slated to visit Dallas. Reid is almost certainly not a first-round selection.
In fact, free-agent Michael Huff could also be in the discussion, although I don't see that as much of a possibility given Dallas' salary cap situation.
Vaccaro is more of a strong safety than a free safety, just given his build. Unless you believe that current strong safety Barry Church won't be given the opportunity to get his job back following last year's Achille's injury and subsequent contract extension, then a true free safety that's more of a ballhawking player makes more sense to me than Vaccaro.
Vaccaro's strength is playing close to the line of scrimmage, definitely the trait of a strong safety. More often than not, Kiffin's scheme is likely to keep safeties deeper rather than up close to the line of scrimmage.
Is this the best use of Vaccaro's skills?
This doesn't mean that Vaccaro cannot play free safety in the NFL or that his coverage skills aren't highly impressive.
It also doesn't mean that the Cowboys won't select him.
I'm just saying that just because you can do something doesn't mean that you should—and I have real doubts that Vaccaro is still on the board anyway.