The 2013 NFL draft is a matter of days away—I love the sound of that—and where exactly the Dallas Cowboys are scheduled to make their first selection is the only thing known. But as far as what player or position will be targeted, nobody has a clue.
It seems like the majority of reputable mock drafts have the Cowboys selecting an offensive lineman, defensive linemen or a safety with their first pick. The latter of those positions could be a problem.
The name Kenny Vaccaro, the top-ranked safety on virtually all big boards, is commonly being linked to Dallas, presumably due to last month's release of free safety Gerald Sensabaugh. Last week's signing of free-agent free safety Will Allen has done little to satisfy the perception that the Cowboys need to draft Vaccaro in the first round—it's not like he'll be available in the second round.
My disliking of Vaccaro, especially as a first-round selection, has more to do with the position he plays than who he is as a player. While it's true that his four-year run at University of Texas was quite solid, it's not like he left a trail of mayhem for Longhorn opponents that simply can't be ignored. But, yes, there's certainly some productivity in there and Vaccaro should be a good player at the next level.
As a fit in defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's 4-3 scheme, Vaccaro also fits. But the problem might be the depth chart already in place.
Depending on whom you listen to, Vaccaro is projected as either a free safety or a strong safety in the NFL.
I'm from the school that believes that a safety who weighs more than 210-215 pounds is definitely a strong safety. There can be exceptions, and Vaccaro might be one of them, but your ball-hawking free safeties that create turnovers, like Houston's Ed Reed did in Baltimore for so long, are much closer to 200 pounds—and they're probably faster.
For example, Reed was running the 40-yard dash in 4.57 seconds during the 2002 offseason, according to nfldraftscout.com.
Vaccaro was clocked, officially, at 4.63 seconds in his 40-yard sprint at the NFL scouting combine in February.
Reed stands 5'11" and entered the NFL at 201 pounds—he's around 205 pounds now heading into his 12th season as a pro.
Vacarro is listed at 6'0'' and weighed 214 pounds at the combine—and he'll likely get a little heavier as he's introduced to an NFL conditioning program.
Now, these measurements and 40 times may seem like splitting hairs. But those split hairs are the difference between a pass either falling off a fingertip or landing squarely in both palms.
Vaccaro, like it or not, does not possess elite speed for a free safety.
To the Dallas depth chart: My money is on Barry Church as the starting strong safety in 2013 until I hear otherwise. His contract extension a year ago suggests that this will be the case but I also realize that Kiffin may have other ideas, but I really doubt it.
Kiffin's defense flourished early last decade in Tampa Bay with strong safety John Lynch roaming in the secondary.
Lynch stood 6'2'' and weighed around 220 pounds—classic example of a strong safety and a big-time hitter.
Church is listed at 6'2'' and 218 pounds—definitely a strong safety and one who’s signed through 2016.
So, the idea that Dallas needs two strong safeties in Church and Vaccaro seems a little redundant to me, even if Vaccaro is believed to be a free safety.
It's rare that any team is only a safety away from contending and this is definitely true where the Cowboys are concerned. Further, Dallas just spent a ton of dollars and resources a year ago in adding free-agent cornerback Brandon Carr and first-round draft pick Morris Claiborne, the top cornerback prospect available in the 2012 NFL draft.
At some point the trenches have to be addressed, and this should happen early in the draft this time.
The Dallas offensive line, while possibly not as bad as believed, could absolutely stand some early attention. If not the offensive line, then certainly a blue-chip prospect for the defensive line far outweighs the need for any safety on the opening night of player selections on April 25.
Am I sold on Allen as the starting free safety in 2013?
But let’s not forget the presence of Matt Johnson as a possibility.
And let's also understand that Dallas' lack of run defense is the primary reason that more deep coverage from the safeties, at least in the 3-4 alignment, wasn't possible. That problem has to be fixed and adding more safeties won't get it done.
Who will start at free safety in Dallas next season?
Great defenses are not built from the outside in but rather inside out. This means that the more disruption your defense can cause up front, the more plays your secondary will be in position to make once more 3rd-and-long situations begin happening—Dallas has been quite underwhelming in this category for years.
If we knew right now that defenders like Jay Ratliff and Anthony Spencer were going to better assist Dallas’ sack leader since 2005, DeMarcus Ware, then maybe taking a safety to start the draft would make more sense.
But for a defense making the kind of transition that the Cowboys are, prioritizing the secondary for the second straight year leaves some serious question marks in the trenches that could really hurt later on.
This could be true on either side of the ball.
Yes, Kiffin prioritizes a stud at safety in his scheme—but he also needs a dominant pass-rusher and a force at defensive tackle.
We know the pass-rusher in there in Ware, but which defensive tackle is going to be the apex predator along the interior of the defensive line? In addition to Ratliff, veterans like Jason Hatcher and Sean Lissemore are there, but are we sure about how these guys impact the defense moving ahead?
Safety is a position that the Cowboys need to address, for sure. But perhaps a player like underclassman Matt Elam out of Florida would be a better fit in the second round. Elam is a true free safety and certainly brings a resume similar to Vaccaro's. Elam also comes from a big-time program, has plenty of experience and his 40-time of 4.54 seconds excites me a bit more than Vaccaro’s. Elam has a knack for making big interceptions at the right times and that's something you can't ignore.
Dallas needs a pure free safety as opposed to a hybrid defender like Vaccaro, whose strength is definitely closer to the line of scrimmage—and I’m aware that his coverage ability is beyond acceptable at the next level.
But when you’re a team like Dallas who’s trying to move beyond complete mediocrity for so long, the direction to go is with players that are closer to the football much more often than not. The Cowboys will be in position to do just that very soon—and they must capitalize on that fact in the first round.