The Dallas Cowboys have an absolutely monumental Week 17 contest on the horizon, but the truth is that it's highly unlikely this team is going to be able to make a deep postseason run with the current roster and coaching staff it has in place.
The Cowboys have always had elite talent at the top of their roster, sacrificing depth for studs. It hasn't worked out, and now many of their top players from previous seasons are no longer dominant. Regardless of what happens on Sunday night, the Cowboys absolutely must replenish their roster with a strong showing in the 2014 NFL draft.
Let's take a look at some of the premiere prospects who could potentially help Dallas improve at areas where it was once strong.
A 2013 Walter Camp First-Team All-American, Stanford defensive end Trent Murphy dominated opponents in his senior season. Amazingly, 19.5 of his 28 solo tackles were for a loss. I think tackles for loss are the most overlooked stat for pass-rushers because they display explosiveness, perhaps capturing it even better than sacks.
Murphy had plenty of sacks, too, with 14, which led the nation. At 6'6", 261 pounds, he has prototypical size to transition from outside linebacker to defensive end. His arm length will be key, but at his height it's likely he's going to check in with long arms.
For Dallas, the defensive end position is probably the one of most concern right now. Like it or not, DeMarcus Ware doesn't have much left in the tank. I like George Selvie and think Dallas should give him an extension, but he's not going to turn into a true No. 1 pass-rusher. Murphy has that potential.
If defensive end isn't the Cowboys' main area of concern, it's defensive tackle. Jason Hatcher has been great this year, but it's unlikely Dallas will bring him back in 2014 with their salary cap issues. That leaves a whole lot of nothing at the position.
Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman is an athletic, versatile interior defensive lineman who could play either the 1- or 3-technique positions for Dallas. He registered only two sacks in 2013, down from six the season prior, but he also had 11 tackles for loss.
As is the case with Trent Murphy, Hageman is a long player at 6'6". That should help him get off of blocks to give Dallas a more formidable presence in the middle of its defense. He's currently projected as a fringe first-rounder, although defensive tackles have a tendency to rise on draft day.
Safety might not be as important of a position as cornerback or defensive end, but when you're incredibly weak at the position, offenses will find a way to single out that weakness. The Cowboys have found their strong safety of the future in Barry Church, but now they need a ball hawk in the back end to complement him.
Alabama's Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix is that player. At 6'1", 208 pounds, Clinton-Dix has outstanding movement skills for his size. He had two picks at Alabama this year, but interceptions are notoriously fluky and thus a horrible way to judge prospects. All of the signs point to Clinton-Dix having what it takes to make plays as a "center fielder" type of safety.
Clinton-Dix is currently being mocked to Dallas in the first round by some analysts. In a weak safety class, it's unlikely that he escapes the top 32 picks.
Despite dramatically better blocking from their interior line in 2013, the Cowboys will still be in the market for a guard (or two). Mackenzy Bernadeau and Ronald Leary have both improved considerably this season, but it's not like they're incapable of being replaced.
The offensive line is an extremely difficult position to project because O-linemen don't have the same predictors of success as other positions. We can use analytics to know that running backs with elite straight-line speed typically outplay slower backs by a wide margin, but there's not much we can use to predict offensive line play in that same manner. Whereas the use of stat analysis has increased dramatically in the scouting process in the past few years, we still have to rely on film study for offensive linemen.
As I mention quite frequently, one trait that helps all of the big guys up front is arm length. At 6'5", Stanford guard David Yankey is likely going to have elite arm length. It also helps that he's been a first-team All-American in each of the past two seasons.
The Cowboys said they wanted to use a lot of two-tight end sets this year, but the truth is that they don't have the personnel to do it. Jason Witten is on his last legs, and neither James Hanna nor Gavin Escobar have shown any signs that they'll be able to develop into trusted pass-catchers.
If the Cowboys are serious about implementing a two-tight end base offense, which will give them another red-zone threat other than wide receiver Dez Bryant, they need to upgrade the position.
Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins is an option. In the past three seasons, Seferian-Jenkins has taken 20 of his 143 receptions into the end zone. At 6'6" and 276 pounds, he has the potential to be an elite pass-catching/blocking combination tight end. The presence of Eric Ebron (UNC) and Jace Amaro (Texas Tech) should help push Seferian-Jenkins down the board.