While the East-West Shrine Game was the Cowboys' first chance to take an up-close look at many of this year's draft prospects, the 2014 Senior Bowl will feature far superior prospects. There's a good chance that at least a few of the Cowboys' early-round picks will play in this game, so it's an outstanding opportunity to scout some potential future Dallas Cowboys.
Reviewing player measurables, college stats and Senior Bowl notes from various sources, I've identified five players I believe the Cowboys should watch very closely this week. As you'll see with the first prospect I break down, it doesn't necessarily mean I believe all of these players will be great values.
It's no secret that the Cowboys desperately need to upgrade the interior of their defensive line. Nick Hayden isn't a starting-quality defensive tackle and Jason Hatcher will probably leave via free agency. Tyrone Crawford will be back next year and I think it makes sense for Dallas to try him inside so that they can add an interior pass-rushing threat, but the Cowboys will still be very thin at the position.
Pitt's Aaron Donald is a defensive tackle who is going to interest pretty much every team that needs a defensive tackle because he was so unbelievably productive in college. Over the past three seasons, Donald has totaled 180 tackles, 63 tackles for loss and 27.5 sacks. Those are jaw-dropping numbers for a defensive tackle.
Donald appears to be playing well in Senior Bowl practices, too. Bleacher Report's Michael Schottey has taken notice:
The top defensive lineman of the day was Aaron Donald (DL Pittsburgh), who can probably play either 3-Tech in a 4-3 defense or 5-Tech in a 3-4 defense at the next level. At times, he was unstoppable against both single- and double-teams. The only player in Mobile, Ala., who may have a quicker first step is the South's Will Sutton (DT Arizona State).
So what's not to like? Well, Donald is 6'1" and 288 pounds with 31 3/4-inch arms. Without much bulk or great length, Donald's game is based entirely on speed. If NFL interior linemen are able to combat his first step, how will he respond?
I'm really conflicted on Donald because the two traits I value most for pass-rushers are arm length and college production. He's horrible in one area and sensational in the other. Projected as a borderline first-round pick by CBS Sports, I see Donald as a high-risk/high-reward prospect who makes sense for Dallas if he were to fall into the second round. In my opinion, his size makes him too much of a risk for the first.
"The last thing the Cowboys need is another wide receiver." That was me imitating what you just said to yourself. But you're wrong.
Outside of quarterback, I think wide receiver is rapidly becoming one of the most important positions in football. One reason is that they score points, and teams need to score points to win. Duh. Big, physical receivers can not only move the ball up the field, but they remain relevant in the red zone, helping teams convert offensive efficiency into wins.
Anyone here know a team that has historically racked up a lot of yards, but not a lot of points? Yeah, me too.
Second, there are still some terrible inefficiencies in the way NFL teams draft wide receivers. They care more about speed and less about size than they should. When you see a player like Tavon Austin get drafted in the top 10, you know there are problems. Austin sure is fun to watch, but St. Louis is going to have trouble scoring unless the NFL decides to award points for running sideways across the field.
There are three things I care about in regards to wide receiver success: age, size (namely red-zone relevance) and college stats. Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews passes all three tests with flying colors. He's 21 years old, checked in at 6'3" at the Senior Bowl and posted at least 94 catches, 1,300 yards and seven touchdowns in each of the past two seasons.
You might argue that Austin also had awesome college stats, but Matthews' are more impressive. Here's why. As the guys at rotoViz will tell you, we should analyze receiver stats in terms of market share: the percentage of their team's overall passing stats for which each player was responsible. Because West Virginia was so effective on offense as a whole, Austin's market-share numbers weren't as outstanding as Matthews' market share stats.
Matthews has had some drops in practices, according to Jimmy Kempski of Philly.com, but he's also reportedly playing better than any wide receiver there.
The Cowboys don't necessarily have an immediate need at guard, but the position is far from a strength. My guess is that one of the current starters, either Ronald Leary or Mackenzy Bernadeau, won't be starting by the end of the 2014 season. Bernadeau improved late in the year, but it's not like either one was outstanding.
Baylor's Cyril Richardson is projected by CBS Sports to be a second-round pick. He's an enormous 6'5", 348-pound redshirt senior who could be a dominant run blocker at the next level.
Bleacher Report's Michael Schottey wrote about Richardson's work in Mobile:
Cyril Richardson (OG Baylor) had a fantastic day in the "Pit." Later, he would struggle a bit in pass-protection drills, but he repeatedly won matchups with his devastating strength in simulated run blocking. The best matchup of the day ended with Richardson bending Donald over backward—something no one really expected to happen.
You never want any offensive lineman to be a liability in pass protection, but run blocking is more important for interior linemen than offensive tackles, in my opinion. While the running game isn't of incredible importance these days, it can still be really vital in short-yardage situations.
Richardson could help Dallas convert a higher percentage of short-yardage plays so its offense can stay on the field or, even better, get into the end zone.
The Cowboys will have a close eye on every defensive lineman this week. On the perimeter, Dallas should really prepare as though they won't have defensive end DeMarcus Ware in 2014. I think he'll take a pay cut to remain in Dallas, but it's not a certainty. Even if he does, the Cowboys need youth at the position.
Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith was productive at Arkansas with 24.5 tackles for loss and 18 sacks in the past two seasons. He's looking good in Senior Bowl practices, too, according to Sporting News:
Easily the standout performer along the defensive line, Arkansas’ Chris Smith not only looked the part in weigh-ins, but excelled in all aspects of the practice. Smith has extreme suddenness out of his stance, plays comfortably with sink to his hips and understands how to utilize his 34” arms effectively to set the edge.
Think about something that makes you happy. That's the feeling I get with pass-rushers who have long arms. Smith will probably go somewhere in the second round.
Finally, another defensive end the Cowboys will be watching is Auburn's Dee Ford. According to Jimmy Kempski of Philly.com, Ford has been the best player in Mobile at times:
The best player on the field today was Auburn DE Dee Ford. He was unblockable around the edge with his speed rush, and once he had opposing tackles leaning too far outside, he was beating them inside as well.
Players like Ford tend to rise before the draft because they impress scouts and coaches in person with their speed or some other trait, but he's one I'd bypass. First, at only 243 pounds, Ford is a much better fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker.
Second, his arms are under 33 inches long. No bueno. If you rely on speed and can't beat NFL offensive tackles with that speed, you're in trouble.
Third, despite being a redshirt senior, Ford had only 25 tackles-for-loss and 19.5 sacks in his entire Auburn career. There are comparable players who have approached those numbers in one season. I have a feeling Ford is going to dazzle scouts with his workouts and get over-drafted as a result. He shouldn't even be a mid-round pick, in my view, but he'll probably go in the second round.