With the 2013 NFL draft just more than two weeks away, speculation is rampant regarding the Dallas Cowboys and how exactly America's Team pulls away from back-to-back seasons of .500 football. The best-case scenario for the Cowboys is to land at least two starters in the annual selection meeting which begins April 25—and three or four starters or contributors would be ideal.
Easier said than done, right?
In my previous mocks I have speculated that the Cowboys will trade down in order to get extra picks in the middle rounds. Following last year's loss of a second-round pick in moving up for cornerback Morris Claiborne, Dallas needs football players, and as many as they can get. Remember that this draft isn't exactly loaded with the typical diet of highly regarded quarterbacks, pass-rushers and other skill position prospects.
Still, the coming draft is believed to be deep with respect to players in the trenches—music to the ears of Dallas fans.
The Cowboys could trade down, stay with the scheduled 18th selection—or trade up.
With owner and general manager Jerry Jones, anything is possible and never was this more true than a year ago.
In briefly scrolling over mock drafts from a year ago, I couldn't find a single one that predicted that Claiborne would end up in Dallas. He was thought to go too high for the Cowboys reach—but then Jones reached and the rest is history.
So, could Dallas actually trade up again?
My reasoning is this: A number of teams currently in the top 10 of the first round realize that in this draft it might be more wise to trade down for more picks. This could be better for a bad team that probably wants more players as opposed to one decent one.
For example, Kansas City, with the first overall pick, is actively shopping that selection based on the fact there is really not a player worthy of that pick, especially with no quarterback or immediate impact pass-rusher sitting there.
The Chiefs are not the only franchise in the top 10 likely considering this option.
For Dallas to move up, I believe that outside linebacker Anthony Spencer could be a part of a package that allows Jones to land an immediate starter while not losing additional picks, at least not in this year's draft. This is the kind of thing he might do and it might not be the wrong call.
Who plays defensive end if Spencer's playing elsewhere in 2013?
I can't answer that for sure but it seems that nobody remembers the presence of second-year veteran Tyrone Crawford out of Boise State. Coming from a 4-3 program and drafted in the third round of the 2012 draft, it's time for him to play football—and he's perfectly built to play defensive end at 6'4'' and 285 pounds, although he might be better suited dropping about 10 pounds or so.
So, let's see how this scenario could play out—and in this mock draft the Cowboys will not actually gain a seventh pick via trading down. Dallas will have only six and these have to count early and often.
Remember that this is not a prediction of what will happen but rather a prediction of what could happen, especially given Jones' recent history as GM. Dallas has traded up in the first round twice in the previous three NFL drafts and,while it may not seem likely for this to happen for a second straight year, anything can happen when Jones is in the war room.
All combine results courtesy of NFL.com
Quarterback Tony Romo's massive contract extension signed last month strongly suggests that Dallas' top selection will likely address the offensive line. It's not likely that either of the top two offensive guard or tackle prospects will be available at the 18th selection. This could easily tempt Jones to move up closer to the top 10 in order to make sure he adds an immediate upgrade for his lousy offensive line.
In some way, shape or form that I can't detail, a deal including Spencer, and possibly more, could make this a reality.
But Jones will not trade up for a guard.
Jones will, however, trade up for an offensive tackle.
Lane Johnson from the University of Oklahoma would be the best-case scenario.
Yes, the Dallas offensive line is a virtual mess, especially with last year's double-downgrade of free agents Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau. But is there any way to ignore the liability that has become right tackle Doug Free?
I believe that the beginning of a successful offensive line begins with the tackles. Only one seems to be a sure thing in 2011 first-round selection Tyron Smith, whose second-year re-location to left tackle might have been a mistake.
By drafting Johnson, Smith could be moved back to his natural right tackle position and a young, blue-chip left tackle could finally arrive in Big D.
Or, Smith could stay on the left side and Johnson could move to the right, possibly an easier transition for any rookie tackle entering the NFL.
Either way, Romo's pass protection would improve, in theory, and remember that the Sooners love to pass the football under head coach Bob Stoops. Johnson has lots of experience in pass protection.
Dallas' game of musical tackles needs to stop, and I believe it already has.
Johnson performed quite well at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., earlier this offseason and his draft stock has only gone up. Fellow tackle prospects like Luke Joeckel of Texas A&M and Eric Fisher of Central Michigan likely don't make it out of the first five selections.
But Johnson could fall closer to the 10th pick and this is where I could see Jones trying to land.
Johnson has better athleticism than your average top-rated tackle prospect and his strengths are numerous. He has quickness, adequate power and plenty of experience. Johnson is also a high character player and an outstanding student. In addition to his resume on the football field, he was also named Academic All-Big 12 First Team in 2011 and 2012—definitely the type of player that head coach Jason Garrett would like to have.
Dallas has options at guard and center, and some of those are still very young.
Offensive tackle is the position of highest value for Dallas in the first round and Jones has almost $120 million reasons to go after it.
For too long the Cowboys have gone without a difference-maker in the deep secondary. They have had neither a big-hitter that intimidates opposing wide receivers going across the middle nor a ball hawk that takes the ball away from competitors in midair.
The main part of this problem has been an undersized defensive line that could not create more third-and-long situations after stuffing the run—especially during the 3-4 nightmare. But I'm betting that new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's 4-3 scheme will alleviate much of that problem with less room for opposing offensive linemen to exploit.
So now is the time to bring in a quick, aggressive free safety, such as Matt Elam of the University of Florida.
I believe the Cowboys will have that punishing strong safety in Barry Church, a fourth-year veteran out of the University of Toledo. With Elam, Dallas will have the ball hawking free safety that has the ability to change football games, especially if the Dallas pass rush sees significant improvement in 2013.
Elam has fantastic read and recognition skills that put him in position to make plays anywhere on the field. His quickness and experience would be an instant upgrade over recent free-agent acquisition Will Allen, and let's not forget his potential on special teams.
Getting at least two starters for next season would be the minimum necessity for the Cowboys in the coming draft. If Elam falls into the second round later this month, then the combination of Johnson and the former Gators defensive back would have already accomplished that goal.
I don't have official figures on this but the term ''abroad'' applies to the coming NFL draft more than any other I can recall. Consider the following names and territories:
Ezekiel ''Ziggy'' Ansah – DE, Ghana, Africa
Margus Hunt – DE, Estonia
Menelik Watson – OT, Manchester, England
Jesse Williams – DT, Brisbane, Australia
Yes, American football is beginning to catch on as a professional possibility for more and more foreign students coming to the United States for athletic or academic reasons, and it's usually both.
The last name on this list, in a best-case scenario, would fall to the Cowboys in Round 3, although this could be wishful thinking.
It turns out that Williams is the first Australian native to receive a scholarship to play college football in the United States. It also turns out that Williams is pretty dang good.
Following two seasons at Arizona Western College beginning in 2009 so he could beef up his academic requirements, Williams moved on to Tuscaloosa, Ala.—and talk about timing!
Two national championships later, Williams is likely an early to mid-round draft pick later this month.
Now, Williams is coming from a definite 3-4 program where he has played all over the line, which includes nose guard. But Williams isn't so big that he can't easily transition to defensive tackle in Kiffin's 4-3 scheme.
Williams performed 30 reps on the bench press at the NFL scouting combine in February but he's known to lift even more than that. His quickness is adequate and there's no reason why he can't be an every-down player, at least early in his career. Williams is a more than capable lead blocker in goal-line situations—not exactly playing both ways but you get the drift.
Decades ago, the Dallas defense featured a player named ''Manster'' in defensive tackle Randy White, who was a key part of ''Doomsday."
Williams is affectionately nicknamed ''Tha Monstar'' and it would be most fortunate to see him under the coaching of defensive line coach Rod Marinelli—if he lasts that long.
In previous mock drafts I have Michigan State runner Le'Veon Bell going to the Cowboys in the middle rounds. But I'm not sure at all that he'll actually be available this late so I'm changing my tune.
A more likely scenario is that UCLA tailback Johnathan Franklin falls into the fourth round and is scooped up by Dallas.
Running back is not among the top needs for the Cowboys but it is a need that should be addressed in the middle of the draft.
DeMarco Murray is clearly the starter, but his inability to stay healthy is a growing concern. Beyond Murray's health is the fact that the depth chart, as of now, offers little to nothing in terms of a runner that can carry the load in Murray's absence.
Franklin is a pure running back that possess everything you want in a starting back, let alone a backup. He has vision, patience in the backfield and is harder to bring down than you might expect at just 205 pounds.
Franklin is not a bigger back that's going to break four or five tackles en route to a modest gain. But he can break one or two and then simply take off. His tackle-breaking ability reminds me a little of NFL all-time leading rusher Emmitt Smith. In other words, just when you think his carry is over, you realize that he's still going—and with his 4.49 second speed displayed at the combine in February, he can definitely go the distance.
Franklin's productivity at UCLA is unquestioned. His 26 touchdowns over his final three seasons put his scoring ability into perspective. He amassed 3,837 yards along the way and also catches passes out the backfield.
After the coming season, Murray will enter the final year of his four-year rookie contract. Now is the time for Dallas to identify the player who's going to carry the load for the Cowboys into the future.
I suspect that it might not be Murray, to be honest.
So how exactly does Dallas guarantee itself a contributor for the coming season this late in the draft?
The answer is easy: Speed.
I have previously mocked University of Texas speedster Marquise Goodwin to the Cowboys and, in a best-case scenario, he would fall far enough for Dallas to snag him in the fifth round.
Starting wide receivers 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, 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 Goodwin 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 Cowboys offense.
The Dallas depth chart currently includes the following names sitting beneath Bryant, Austin and Harris: Danny Coale, Jared Green, Carlton Mitchell and Cole Beasley.
Only Coale and Mitchell look like players that could realistically play a significant role in the Dallas offense if called upon.
Goodwin will be raw but he will bring speed that no opposing secondary can match, period. If not as a wide receiver early on, Goodwin could still pay dividends right away on kickoff or punt returns, another area where the Cowboys have been less than special for a long time.
Yes, speed kills in the NFL and you can never have enough of that.
Oh, and as you can see Goodwin is a more than willing blocker, too!
Dallas head coach Jason Garrett is an alumnus of Princeton University. Therefore, should we be surprised if a Tigers player—and last year's Ivy League defensive player of the year—winds up being selected by the Cowboys?
It's been over a decade since a Princeton player has had his name called during an NFL draft.
But this is almost guaranteed to change.
Defensive end Mike Catapano is not a well-known name right now and, aside from possibly being the first Ivy League player to hear his named called in New York City, it might take awhile for this to change.
But there isn't much reason to think that this Tigers defender doesn't have a bright future ahead of him.
At 6'4'' and 270 pounds, Catapano has been a dominant player at the Division I FCS level. Last season he was an absolute beast as he was clearly a physical mismatch for anybody he faced. Catapano has a wingspan of about 7 feet and he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.75 seconds, twice, at his pro day last month. For a guy that heavy, that's pretty dang fast.
Catapano also brings lots of strength. His 33 reps at the same pro day speak volumes about what kind of prospect this player is, at least physically.
Catapano won't be able to simply ''get by'' with his physical attributes at the next level. He's going to be raw and Dallas will need to have some patience, but probably not for too long. Whether he's bulked up a little to get some reps inside at defensive tackle or left as is in a backup role at end, Catapano is a guy to watch closely—a major sleeper who might not even last as long as the sixth round.
You can't have enough pass-rushers and it really doesn't matter where they come from either. This is an area where the Dallas defense stands to make the most significant improvement, by far. With a year or so under the coaching of Marinelli, Catapano will add technique and some experience to his game—and then look out.