Missing Pieces Dallas Cowboys Could Still Land

Christian Blood@@cowboysguruContributor IIIMay 8, 2013

Missing Pieces Dallas Cowboys Could Still Land

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    The Dallas Cowboys, as you likely know, have some gaping holes open on the roster as we slowly move closer to training camp later this summer.

    On the bright side, Dallas is a deeper football team than last year following the 2013 NFL draft.

    On the other hand, America's Team isn't completely full yet and those positions left completely ignored during the annual selection meeting are of vital importance to the franchise's future success.

    Out of all seven draft selections, plus numerous undrafted prospects already in the fold, only one offensive lineman and exactly zero defensive linemen have been added by the Cowboys.

    I still find this amazing.

    Questions remain regarding an offensive line that was both injured and simply not very good in 2012. With the focus squarely on quarterback Tony Romo as the apparent key to the offense, I'm still not certain who exactly is going to be blocking for him.

    The defensive side of the ball isn't looking particularly dominant on paper despite the shift back to the 4-3 alignment under new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. There is no shortage of defenders on this portion of the roster, but is anybody beyond DeMarcus Ware going to deliver a Pro Bowl performance next season?

    So here's a closer look at a few questions that somehow have to be answered prior to Week 1 of the 2013 NFL regular season.

Right Offensive Tackle

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    Here's a real pickle for owner and general manager Jerry Jones.

    It's rather shocking that Dallas didn't draft a single tackle prospect during the draft, especially early on. To fill one of the most important positions on the offensive line—one in which was in need of an upgrade—the Cowboys drafted a center with the 31st selection in Wisconsin's Travis Frederick.

    While an upgrade at center was a good call, it remains a real head-scratcher as far as exactly why Dallas completely ignored the tackle position.

    The status of current starter Doug Free is, to say the least, up in the air. Among the worst performers on the Dallas offensive line in 2012, Free stands to earn $7 million in 2013, but the Cowboys have no intention of paying him that salary.

    The only experienced free-agent option left for the Cowboys is former Kansas City right tackle Eric Winston, a player Dallas clearly has interest in, but remember that this is a player that the NFL's worst team in 2012 didn't want to keep around.

    Free is being asked to take a pay cut in order to remain on the team, and he'll likely do this or simply end up unemployed. The only way the Cowboys can possibly have room under the salary cap for both him and Winston is if Free takes a reduced salary in 2013. Free is the lone backup left tackle as well.

    Even if both tackles end up on the roster, do they represent the long-term future at right tackle? Don't bet money on that.

    Another option for the Cowboys is fourth-year veteran Jermey Parnell out of Mississippi. Parnell actually shared playing time with Free down the stretch in 2012. It's not beyond the realm of possibility that he ends up as the starting right tackle this coming season, but it's highly doubtful.

    As bad as some want Free released, I repeat that Free is the lone, experienced left tackle on the roster. Unfortunately, the Cowboys still need the seven-year veteran out of Northern Illinois even at a reduced salary.

Defensive Tackle

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    Almost as perplexing as the Cowboys' complete lack of attention to offensive tackle was Dallas' apparent disinterest in defensive linemen.

    Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd was projected as a top-five selection in the draft and yet he slid all the way to the Cowboys at their original 18th selection. Obviously, the Cowboys passed in favor of a trade with San Francisco that netted an extra third-round pick as well as the 49ers' 31st selection in the first round.

    This might not have been the right move for the Cowboys despite the extra selection, even if Floyd wasn't thought to be a valuable new piece up front.

    Granted, Dallas has bodies for a rotation of defensive tackles which could resemble that of what former defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt used to employ back in the early 1990s.

    However, Kiffin's history suggests that he really likes an enforcer up front that gets frequent penetration into the opposing backfield.

    Perhaps the best candidate on paper for that role is former nose guard Jay Ratliff. The 31-year-old Ratliff should play better in the new scheme than he was able to as a horribly positioned centerpiece in the scrapped 3-4 defensive scheme.

    But who else is there?

    Warren Sapp and Anthony McFarland were the anchors for Kiffin's championship defense some 10 years ago in Tampa Bay, a unit highlighted by the systemic destruction of an aging Oakland Raiders roster in Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego.

    Sean Lissemore, Tyrone Crawford and Jason Hatcher could all flourish in the new 4-3 alignment.

    A player to watch as training camp begins is Rob Callaway, a second-year veteran out of Saginaw Valley State. The 6'5'', 324-pound lineman enters a contract year in 2013 and he could be the run-stuffer for a defensive front that's looking rather small right now.

Defensive End

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    An area that doesn't seem to get the attention that it should for the Cowboys is defensive end.

    This position offers the most experimental feel of any heading into next season.

    All the Cowboys seem to be doing is throwing former 3-4 linebackers at the position, obviously preferring small-and-quick over strong-and -imposing with a lack of height and bulk far from the only concerns.

    Like most, I have little concern about the ability of DeMarcus Ware to transition smoothly from linebacker to defensive end, his position in college while at Troy.

    I'm not sure the same can be said of Anthony Spencer, another college defensive end from Purdue who played mostly on the side that Ware will play moving forward.

    But even if Ware and Spencer transition well and Monte Kiffin's defensive front isn't run over by bigger, stronger offensive lines, which is a clear likelihood, one has to wonder who exactly backs up Ware in the event his new facemask isn't enough to keep him on the field?

    Well, this is where things get a little weird.

    Back in March, ESPN's Calvin Watkins quoted Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones regarding second-year veteran linebacker Kyle Wilber. Jones was asked specifically who he expects to start at linebacker along with Sean Lee and Bruce Carter:

    I hope Wilber. We signed Ernie Sims. It’s obviously a veteran deal there, but I think it’s time for Kyle Wilber to step up. There’s a lot of things we liked about him last year and we’re hoping that he can step up and take that challenge.

    Great, but during the NFL draft only a matter of days ago, Star-telegram.com writer Clarence Hill quoted head coach Jason Garrett as saying the 6'4'', 246-pound Wilber is a starting—wait for it—defensive end?

    I think his size is OK. The traits that you want in your defensive linemen in this style of defense is quickness and speed. So Kyle needs to get bigger. But we have got to be careful about him getting too big. We still want him have some juice coming off the ball as a pass rusher.

    By all means, let's see how small we can possibly get.

    Also expect to see third-year veteran Alex Albright out of Boston College in the mix for some consideration at end. At 6'5'' and 260 pounds, he's a bit larger than Ware and looks to be able to handle the contact up front as well as any other linebacker convert on the roster.

    I'm a believer that 4-3 defensive ends not named Ware should be defensive linemen in the range of 6'5'' or 6'6'' and 270-plus pounds.

    Linebackers are linebackers.


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    Yes, the Cowboys may have other areas they would like to address, but the primary issue preventing that is highly limited space under the salary cap. Once Doug Free's status is determined, there will be some relief, even if it is short-term.

    But two things are clear concerning Dallas' offseason so far.

    First of all, Dallas wants to throw the ball as much as possible, and they want to do it the way New England does it. The problem is that the Patriotshave a much better offensive line than Dallas and it's important to remember that quarterback Tom Brady hasn't won a Super Bowl in close to 10 years now.

    His lack of a running game is the main reason why his great regular-season offenses in 2007 and 2011were neutralized in Super Bowl losses to the New York Giants.

    Romo will likely suffer a similar deficiency once again in 2013 and I'm not counting a Super Bowl loss either, mind you. 

    Second, the Cowboys remain committed to the small approach for their defensive front and they still prefer ignoring young pass-rushers while drafting many more secondary players.

    Football, however, is won and lost by those closest to the football and Dallas has clearly lost some perspective on this basic fundamental. If an opponent can run the ball against your defense, you're pretty much cooked and you can forget interceptions, sacks and possibly some penalties.

    Could the Cowboys reach the playoffs in 2013? Sure.

    Dallas has knocked on the door the past two seasons and wasn't eliminated until the final whistle on Week 17 both years.

    Is Dallas a contender? I wouldn't go that far.

    Dallas' star players are aging and while there's a fair group of younger players like Lee, Carter and wide receiver Dez Bryant who can keep this team floating into the future, the answers to the aforementioned needs will have to show up over the next couple of seasons for this franchise to make another push for a Super Bowl with the current corps of talent.

    Are those needs on the roster now? Maybe, but probably not.

    I'll leave you with this: Dallas does have plenty of tight ends in the fold.

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