The free-agent signing period is well underway and it's been a rather quiet offseason for the Dallas Cowboys on that front. But rather quiet does not mean silent and the actions taken so far have certainly helped to shape the Dallas draft board, even if this is still a work in progress.
The biggest Dallas Cowboys news this offseason is last week's anticipated contract extension for quarterback Tony Romo. This was the right move for both financial and competitive reasons, despite what former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb had to say about the deal.
Then again, McNabb knows all about that lone playoff victory for Romo because it came against him following the 2009 NFL regular season.
Just wanted to clear that up.
So, Romo's extension sets the stage for the 2013 NFL draft later this month simply because the Cowboys will have money to sign draft picks.
This is a good thing because Dallas has only six selections at this time and the pressure is on to hit on as many of those picks as possible.
Obviously free agency has not changed the depth chart a whole lot, especially when considering losses like defensive lineman Marcus Spears, safety Gerald Sensabaugh and outside linebacker Victor Butler.
Recent signings like outside linebackers Ernie Sims and Justin Durant, safety Will Allen and the franchising of Anthony Spencer have helped to an extent. But this wasn't exactly the greatest free-agent class to begin with and that means that the draft is where future building blocks have to come from.
The Cowboys have to continue reversing the trend of horrible drafts like those that closed the previous decade.
From the 2008 draft, which included basically two first-round busts, only cornerback Orlando Scandrick, a backup, figures to have a role in Dallas moving forward.
From the 2009 draft there is nobody left following Victor Butler's signing with New Orleans. Sadly, the Cowboys had 12 picks that year.
Things have gotten better, especially in the early rounds, since 2010 and the Cowboys have to keep that up. Dallas is a team with talent, some of it aging, but a younger corps of players has begun to appear and America's Team has to capitalize on those recent additions in this year's draft.
I'm projecting the Cowboys with seven selections based on either the trade of a player or their 18th selection in the first round. Remember that this draft is deep and also that Dallas lost a second-round selection a year ago in trading up for cornerback Morris Claiborne. With no significant upgrades via free agency, the more blue-chip prospects the better.
Since all players retained or acquired have not addressed major weaknesses, Dallas will be in fine position to capitalize on this deep draft. There will be plenty to choose from even into the mid-rounds of the annual selection meeting beginning April 25 in New York City.
All combine results courtesy of NFL.com
With the ink still wet on Romo's extension, it's official that Dallas' starting quarterback is the focus of the Dallas offense in 2013.
This means that the offensive line is going to get the love right away.
It's true that offensive guards don't generally go very high in the first round of any draft. It's also true that the Cowboys have not selected a first-round guard since 1966.
Factor in last year's double-play of free-agent guards Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau, and it just doesn't seem like Dallas will go with North Carolina's Jonathan Cooper or Alabama's Chance Warmack.
The Cowboys can get the best of both worlds with Warmack's teammate D.J. Fluker, especially with a trade back later in the first round—it's not like Cooper or Warmack are a guarantee to be available at 18 anyway.
Fluker brings two elements to the Dallas line that are both needed and somewhat rare: mass and versatility.
Fluker projects as a right tackle in the NFL, and he represents the beginning of the unofficial second level of tackles that will be available.
But some, like myself, feel that Fluker's best position might be inside at guard, which is exactly where Dallas is hurting right now, especially with Bernadeau now having had three surgeries since signing with the Cowboys just barely a year ago.
If I'm right about Dallas trading back, then it will have actually taken both a tackle and guard prospect at about the right place in the first round while also gaining an extra selection—this is why Dallas will sport two third-round picks in this mock.
Questions still remain regarding the future of current right tackle Doug Free who was awful last season. Remember that Free could also be moved inside to guard himself, an idea confirmed recently by Dallas vice-president Stephen Jones to DallasCowboys.com reporter Nick Eatman.
''I’d never rule out anything. We’re looking at it. We’re going to un-turn every stone to get better. But I wouldn’t rule him out of tackle either. He’s pretty versatile. He’s smart.''
Fluker's selection makes all the more sense given the numerous angles that Dallas will investigate prior to the start of the regular season.
Fluker, at 6'5'' and 339 pounds, would be the largest lineman to protect Romo since Leonard Davis, an unfortunate cap-casualty following the disaster that was the 2010 regular season for the Cowboys. The former Crimson Tide blocker would start somewhere right away, and this, by itself, should make life a little easier for Romo.
Finally, Fluker is among the potential first-round prospects scheduled to visit Valley Ranch for a pre-draft visit this week.
Head coach Jason Garrett has stated his desire to put a better offensive line around Romo—my goodness it's about time!
The selection of two offensive linemen with the Cowboys' first two selections would surprise nobody, especially if they're able to trade back and get that extra selection in the upper half of the draft.
Larry Warford of Kentucky could easily be that guard that so many experts are clamoring for, and rightly so. But remembering that Free is no lock to play at right tackle in 2013, it would be wise to have an upgrade over him in case he doesn't pan out at guard. Same thing for last year's free-agent guards Livings and Bernadeau.
Warford, like Fluker, is a massive and powerful lineman that makes an impact instantly.
Kentucky was not a very good team last year, but Warford was a man among boys and his selection changes the dynamic of a tepid and tired rushing attack which has plagued the Cowboys for far too long.
Absent the selection of Warmack or Cooper in the first round, Warford might be the final ingredient for a completely rebuilt interior that is young, big and powerful, which should be music to the ears of Romo as well as starting running back DeMarco Murray—and a future player coming up in this mock.
Warford stands 6'3'' and weighs 333 pounds, a certain problem for defensive tackles who weigh between 275-300 pounds in most opposing 4-3 schemes. His 28 reps on the bench press show the kind of strength that immediately shows up in the NFL despite the expected learning curve.
Warford serves notice that depth might be a little more expensive than what owner and general manager Jerry Jones had anticipated a year ago.
But Jones wants more Romo and this is how he can get the best out of his franchise passer.
According to most mock drafts, the Cowboys are going in the direction of offensive line, defensive line or safety in the first round.
Nothing against more highly ranked safeties like Kenny Vaccaro of Texas, Matt Elam of Florida or Eric Reid of LSU, but I don't think this position is nearly as important as the trenches.
Having addressed the offensive line in this mock, and in a big, strong way, Dallas can turn its attention to the defensive secondary if it chooses.
D.J. Swearinger is a classic free safety prospect who plays much like a strong safety. At 5'10'' and 208 pounds, he's perfectly built to play either safety spot if called upon—and he's done that.
Swearinger is a four-year starter for the Gamecocks, an unusual distinction for a secondary player. He's a tenacious hitter, talks lots of trash and loves to hit people. In fact, Swearinger has actually logged plays at cornerback due to injuries and there should be little doubt as to whether he can cover tight ends in the NFL.
The release of Gerald Sensabaugh last month has increased the chatter regarding Dallas selecting a free safety in the draft. The Cowboys have to do this as early as possible but not at the expense of an offense that needs significant improvement upfront.
Sensabaugh was a free safety, as is free-agent acquisition Allen, just signed away from Pittsburgh. But Swearinger offers stout competition at the position even if he's not quite ready to start as a rookie—remember that special teams is also an area where a player like this can make an immediate impact.
Since Allen is not known as a guy who forces turnovers to change a game, Dallas' best move is to grab Swearinger and let him force opposing wide receivers to really think about how badly they want to catch the football.
Strong safety Barry Church, if healthy, is in place to provide the physical run support that's similar to what Roy Williams and Darren Woodson once brought to the Dallas defense. Swearinger would be a little more like Ed Reed—a ball-hawking center fielder who has great anticipation and knows how to play behind a disruptive pass rush. Remember the name Jadeveon Clowney, Swearinger's defensive end teammate, who will be a top five selection next year.
The combination of Church and Swearinger would be the best pair of safeties in Dallas since Woodson and Williams paired up to help the Cowboys return to the playoffs in 2003 following a three-year absence.
Church and Swearinger could be asked to do the very same thing.
In short, the Dallas running game sucks.
If it isn't injury issues concerning Murray then it's the poor run blocking all over the offensive line.
To this point, this mock has fixed most of the blocking problem.
After digesting a solid argument for Arkansas running back Knile Davis from SportsDayDFW.com special contributor Jonathan Bales, I'm sticking with the running back from my previous mock draft: Le'Veon Bell of Michigan State.
Both of these backs are intriguing, to say the least. But the odds and long-term potential favor Bell for several reasons.
First of all, Bell has more experience running the ball as the focal point of an offense than Davis. Bell averaged 29 carries per contest last season and was the primary reason the Spartans ever moved the ball. He's been carrying the ball since his freshman year and has always been productive.
Bell doesn't possess the surprising speed of Davis, but he also doesn't have the alarming ankle injuries either—remember that we're talking about bigger running backs here.
In other words, if an 18-wheeler is traveling too fast, a sudden attempt to stop is a recipe for disaster, as it's been for Davis.
This is not the kind of gamble that the Cowboys should take. Injuries below the knees to a running back are too frightening.
Bell doesn't travel quite as fast but still has impressive athleticism for a guy who stands 6'1'' and weighs 230 pounds.
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 need in the backfield on short-yardage and goal-line situations, especially with an offensive line that should perform better in 2013 than it did last year.
Should Bell fall into the hands of Dallas, I can no longer say that Murray is the starting back next season. I'm as big a fan of Murray and his ability as there is, but an every-down runner he's not proving to be. There is time for this to change but Bell offers a fantastic insurance policy against more absences from Murray.
There's also the idea that Bell can play some fullback, given his size and strength.
How about two weapons in the backfield?
Sounds good, but having one for sure is a necessity.
The switch back to the 4-3 defensive front probably took too long, but it's finally here with the addition of new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.
Among numerous priorities of this offseason is job preservation for novice head coach Jason Garrett and also maximizing Romo's ability to win more games.
But the switch to the 4-3 scheme cannot and will not be ignored, especially in the trenches.
The 2013 NFL draft, like last season, is considered deep where defensive tackles are concerned. Dallas, as it sits now, can certainly afford to add a lineman or two that fit Kiffin's scheme and have the ability to penetrate opposing backfields. This is something that was rarely seen in the 3-4 alignment mostly due to the nature of the scheme itself.
Brandon Williams of Missouri Southern State, should he drop into the fourth round, would be a solid pickup and an instant contributor in a rotation of tackles that will join defensive ends DeMarcus Ware and apparently Anthony Spencer.
Williams brings size and strength right away and these qualities make an impact regardless of experience. His 38 reps on the bench at the scouting combine in February offer proof of that.
But beyond his workouts in Indianapolis, Williams has plenty of experience at the Division II level.
Williams contributed as a true freshman before missing the 2009 season due to injury.
But as a redshirt sophomore in 2010, he erupted with 50 tackles, including 17 for a loss and nine sacks. Over his last two seasons Williams chalked up 32.5 tackles for a loss and 16.5 sacks. He forced five fumbles in 2012 en route to being named the MIAA defensive player of the year.
Three time All-Americans don't grow on trees and Williams is the kind of lineman that would benefit immediately under the tutelage of new defensive line coach Rod Marinelli.
Some might think Williams' weight of 333 pounds might be a bit heavy, but I beg to differ. Remember that Ware and Spencer will be a duo of ends that are closer to undersized than prototypical. Factor in the anticipated absence of defensive tackle Josh Brent and there's room for some beef on the defensive line.
Wide receiver doesn't exactly jump out as a pressing need for the Cowboys.
But a closer look at the depth chart offers a different perspective.
Starters Dez Bryant and Miles Austin are firmly entrenched as the top two wideouts for Romo, provided that they can stay healthy.
After those two names above, things get a bit uncomfortable on the depth chart.
Assuming that Dwayne Harris is able to lock down the third receiver spot, which he likely will, there's still room for more weapons.
Olympic speed doesn't show up all the time in the NFL and Marquise Goodwin of Texas brings plenty of it. His 40-yard dash of 4.27 seconds was easily the fastest at the combine and there's an immediate place for him in the Dallas offense.
Goodwin is a much more accomplished track and field athlete than he is a football player. But it's not like he was invisible with the Longhorns.
Goodwin will be undersized and perhaps limited as a route-runner, perhaps the main reasons he could fall this far in the draft.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Goodwin's potential with the Cowboys is on kickoff and/or punt returns. Dallas hasn't had a difference-maker in this role for a long time and Goodwin would be an instant fit.
Understanding that Harris probably has the inside track on punt returns, let's not anoint anything to anybody this early in the offseason.
Question: Why do cheetahs hunt Thompson's gazelles on the plains of Africa?
Answer: Because they can.
Speed kills in the wild just as it does in the NFL.
You can never too many defensive backs, especially in today's NFL. Almost any quarterback can throw for 3,000 yards, a benchmark that used to be tough to reach.
Having said that, the premium on defensive backs with both size and experience has never been higher. The question boils down to who can play at the next level and who cannot.
Travis Howard of Ohio State offers a solid option anywhere after Round 5 in the draft.
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. Versatility is never a bad thing.
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.
The upcoming draft is about getting good football players who can contribute quickly. It's not about drafting projects and redundant positions for glamor and pizzazz.