One of the keys to sustaining a winning football franchise is the ability to build a team through the draft. This is actually true in all sports, but in today's NFL, being able to draft well, develop those players and retain their services is the difference between the elite franchises and the average ones.
The Dallas Cowboys usually make for quality media fodder and good theatre, but when it comes to the draft, the level of discussion usually hits epic levels. Everything from Jerry Jones' abilities, his decision-making and his desire to prove he knows more than everybody else seem to be the butt of every joke.
But in recent years, the Cowboys have started to reverse their well-documented draft trends with the selections of Dez Bryant, Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Tyron Smith and DeMarco Murray. Add Dwayne Harris to the mix and now we have the formation of a young nucleus.
Fresh off the 2013 draft, the Cowboys will once again be looking for long-term building blocks with such players as Travis Frederick, Gavin Escobar and Terrance Williams.
The Cowboys will also be looking for immediate contributions and the expectations will be nothing short of that. But what about the 2012 draft and the impact those players have had on this team?
It's too early in the process to label this draft class, but it's never too early to assess the results.
Let's start by figuring out who needs to step things up in 2013.
The crown jewel of the Cowboys' 2012 draft class, Morris Claiborne had an up-and-down rookie campaign. He posted one interception but did have a fumble recovery for a touchdown. At times, you saw an apprehensive rookie trying to adjust to the NFL game.
But at other times, you saw the glimpses of a future elite cornerback that is dripping with talent. The transition to the NFL for any rookie cornerback is far from an easy task. And with the size, speed and athleticism of today's wide receivers, Claiborne held his own.
The Cowboys moved up to the sixth pick in the draft to select Claiborne, and he will be expected to produce big results in 2013. It's not a matter of will he step up in 2013, but it's more of a must—and that's the expectation level of a player in his position who was highly coveted and highly rated.
The key for this defense in 2013 will be about creating turnovers and being opportunistic. Expect Claiborne to have a say in this matter.
The Cowboys will be counting on Tyrone Crawford to play both defensive end and tackle in Monte Kiffin's 4-3 alignment. At 6'4" and 285 pounds, Crawford played in all 16 games last season and posted 20 tackles.
Not a huge impact for a third-round pick, but 2013 needs to reflect some improvement.
Crawford will have a chance to start in the imminent future, and the 2013 season needs to be the first big step in that process. He needs to be a sponge and learn from Rod Marinelli, and I believe he will be learning from one of the best.
The benefit of adopting the new 4-3 scheme is that it will make Crawford gain position flexibility and it will keep him active in the rotation. He is in a perfect position to be a productive situational, rotational player with an eye toward pushing the current group of veterans.
This is a player to keep an eye on and one that could quietly help this team.
Kyle Wilber is an interesting story simply because he will be making the switch to defensive end in a backup role. One of this team's fourth-round picks in 2012, Wilber played sparingly and only posted five tackles. He does need to step up in 2013, but he is also a bit of a question mark.
Drafted as more of a speedy outside linebacker suited for a 3-4, Wilber has added some bulk to his frame in preparation for the move to end, but the question lies in the matter of can this team rely on him when called upon?
The Cowboys need to find out what Wilber is capable of, if he can perform and can he live up to his draft status. If he can solidify his role, provide depth and be a contributor, then that will go a long way in the makeup of this roster going forward.
The Cowboys need answers to every question they have on Wilber, but he can provide that answer in his play.
The Cowboys' second fourth-round pick in 2012, Matt Johnson had a nonexistent rookie season. Hamstring and back injuries shut down his entire season, but the Cowboys not only think very highly of him, but they will give him every chance possible to be a starter at safety.
Johnson was a ball hawk, playmaking safety at Eastern Washington, and the Cowboys are hoping he can bring some of that element of his game to Dallas in 2013. The situation at safety is a little bit unsorted, but Johnson has the opportunity to cement his role with a strong camp.
This defense will be all about turnovers in 2013 and what better way to make a splash for Johnson than to lead with his play, display some of that ability to be around the ball and plant his flag.
Johnson will be one of the more interesting storylines and players watched as camp draws closer. Mid-round value on Johnson could be very valuable for this team and their future.
Last year's sixth-round pick, James Hanna could be one of the more opportunistic players heading into 2013. He started showing flashes of the type of pass-catching tight end this team needs behind Jason Witten, and he could be destined to break out.
Having Gavin Escobar in the picture will limit his opportunities to some degree, but the Cowboys need to utilize Hanna's speed between the hashes. Witten needs some relief in this offense as opposing defenses continue to key on him with extra attention.
If the Cowboys can take that pressure off of Witten by carving out a role for Hanna, then this offense will be tough to handle. Hanna has the ability to create mismatches, he can play the H-back position in short-yardage situations and he, along with Escobar, can provide another option in the red zone.
The Cowboys' commitment to the tight end position will afford Hanna many opportunities to succeed. That all depends if he's ready to step up and embrace the challenge. It can be game changing for this offense and career changing for Hanna.