The Dallas Cowboys haven't always drafted well under Jerry Jones, but things have taken a turn for the better in recent years. The core of this very talented Dallas team is almost fully homegrown, and the five players it drafted in the first three rounds in 2010 and 2011 have all become key starters.
The pressure's on Dallas to keep that momentum moving, because the cap-strapped Cowboys were handcuffed throughout free agency this year. The onus is on Jones and Co. to find starting-caliber players at guard, tackle, safety and maybe even in the defensive front seven.
As the 'Boys goes through the process of preparing for that, we'll be right here with updated rumors, reports and instant analysis.
4/11/2013: Potential first-round picks Margus Hunt and Damontre Moore visited the Cowboys on "Dallas Day."
4/9/2013: The guys at the Huddle Report believe the Cowboys are interested in drafting Alabama running back Eddie Lacy with that No. 18 overall pick. Before you dismiss that because you haven't heard of the source, consider that they were also one of the first sources to report that the Cowboys were interested in trading up for Morris Claiborne last year.
4/8/2013: The Cowboys actually scheduled and conducted the vast majority of their allotted 30 prospect visits last week, and, unsurprisingly, the focus has been primarily on those who either play safety or reside in the offensive or defensive trenches.
Our friends at Blogging the Boys have put together a comprehensive breakdown of every reported workout thus far, but here are the first-round candidates Dallas has either hosted or visited this spring:
- Chance Warmack (G, Alabama)
- Jonathan Cooper (G, North Carolina)
- Justin Pugh (G/T, Syracuse)
- Kenny Vaccaro (S, Texas)
- Sheldon Richardson (DT, Missouri)
- Damontre Moore (DE, Texas A&M)
The Cowboys would obviously love to land someone like Eric Fisher, Dion Jordan, Star Lotulelei or Sharrif Floyd in Round 1, but none of those guys will be available by the time Dallas is on the board. Instead, I've devised a short list of realistic first-round targets for the Cowboys based on a combination of overall talent, need and fit.
This is obviously subject to change. Lots of change.
1. Kenny Vaccaro (S, Texas): Dallas absolutely needs a starting-caliber safety, and Vaccaro, who is the best safety in this class, both fits the mold and is NFL-ready. If he slides to the Cowboys, this is a no-brainer.
2. Lane Johnson (OT, Oklahoma): He's expected to go in the top half of the first round, but with Fisher and Luke Joeckel already in the top 10, Johnson could fall. If that happens, the Cowboys could solve their right tackle issue for many, many years to come.
3. Jonathan Cooper (G, North Carolina): Realistically, it'll either be Cooper or Chance Warmack if they go the guard route, because at least one of the two should be gone.
4. Chance Warmack (G, Alabama): I gave Cooper a slight edge because I think he's more versatile and could offer more in pass protection, but this is close to being a toss-up. Warmack's ceiling might be higher.
5. Sheldon Richardson (DT, Missouri): A potential long-term replacement for Jay Ratliff inside, but he wouldn't be a big factor in 2013.
6. D.J. Fluker (OT, Alabama): This is the worst-case scenario. Fluker almost certainly will be available, but he could be a project still at right tackle.
Based on the team's needs, where its picking and who will likely be available in that range, I'd be extremely shocked if Dallas didn't pick one of the six guys listed above.
Round 1 (Pick 18): Jonathan Cooper (G, North Carolina)
Round 2 (Pick 47): Eric Reid (S, LSU)
Round 3 (Pick 80): Johnathan Hankins (DT, Ohio State)
Round 4 (Pick 114): Le'Veon Bell (RB, Michigan State)
Round 5 (Pick 151): Brennan Williams (OT, North Carolina)
Round 6 (Pick 185): Devin Taylor (DE, South Carolina)
In the last 32 years, the Cowboys have drafted only a single offensive lineman in the first round. But the fact that that pick was used on Tyron Smith just two years ago is a good sign. If improving said line isn't still the team's top priority, then we have a problem here.
Right tackle Doug Free isn't fit to start, right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau had a terrible 2012 season and they don't know if they can trust center Phil Costa.
The Cowboys just paid Tony Romo, like, a trillion dollars to quarterback this team for half a dozen more seasons. That investment will go to hell if they don't add reinforcements to either support or replace the players I just named. And that has to start in Round 1, because this draft happens to be loaded with extremely talented linemen.
Chance Warmack and Jonathan Cooper are two of the best guard prospects you'll see, and Justin Pugh isn't far off either. Eric Fisher, Luke Joeckel and Lane Johnson might be beyond their reach, but D.J. Fluker is also expected to have a big career.
The Cowboys have to be in the mix for Warmack, Cooper and Johnson (in case he slides), as well as Pugh and Fluker. And they can't stop there. If at least two picks aren't used on offensive linemen, they won't have done enough.
That's a question posed by ESPNDallas.com's Calvin Watkins, despite the fact they backed a dump truck full of money into Tony Romo's driveway earlier this offseason.
This quarterback class is weak, Dallas is betting that Romo will be effective for at least a few more years and the 'Boys have one of the best backups in the league in Kyle Orton. Still, if they feel inexplicably passionate about someone in this class, I'm not against giving it a shot. After all, Romo didn't start during his first three years, just like Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay.
By no means should it be an early selection, but rolling the dice with one pick wouldn't hurt. I expanded on this idea back in January.
With Felix Jones' future up in the air as an unrestricted free agent and DeMarco Murray always at risk of injury, the Cowboys know they probably need one more running back on the roster. And with Kevin Ogletree gone, they'll enter 2013 with a new No. 3 wide receiver.
So while the focus of this year's NFL draft will likely be on trench players and defenders, there's a belief that the 'Boys will also take the time to select a running back and a receiver.
The Dallas Morning News has put together a photo gallery asking not if the Cowboys should draft a running back, but which running back they should draft.
Charean Williams of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram notes that Dallas has high hopes for youngsters Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley, who are expected to be the third and fourth receivers, but that they could also look for another wideout in the draft.
But Harris and Beasley are near-locks to make the final roster and I can't imagine the Cowboys would already be willing to give up on last year's fifth-round pick, Danny Coale.
Harris was a sixth-rounder in 2011 and they took Dez Bryant in the first round in 2010, Technically, this would be the fifth straight year in which they selected a receiver, but only Bryant has been chosen before Round 5. That trend would likely continue because I don't think they can afford to use a top-end pick on a position they're not desperate to address.
Same rule applies to the running back situation. You can find a solid change-of-pace back in the later rounds, and don't forget that Phillip Tanner and Lance Dunbar remain on the roster, for what it's worth. It's also possible that they stay away in the draft and bring back Jones, who remains on the open market, afterwards.
By the same token, it's possible they opt not to take a receiver for once and give Laurent Robinson a call in May.