As the 2014 NFL Draft approaches, the Dallas Cowboys have a number of holes they need to fill.
Without much salary cap room with which to work, it's unlikely they'll obtain many, if any, impact free agents. That means this rookie class is perhaps more important to Dallas than usual, which is a scary thought.
In my opinion, the Cowboys should take their needs into account when drafting, using them to heavily influence their decisions.
That's in opposition to the traditional "best player available" draft strategy, which I believe fails to account for the potential fallibility of one's board. I explained this idea in my article on the five toughest decisions for Dallas this year:
In my view, teams should usually (but not always) draft the highest player on their board at a position of need. The primary reason I believe that blindly drafting the best player available is disadvantageous is because teams overestimate their ability to identify the true best player available. In reality, NFL teams are pretty inefficient at drafting players, but they approach the draft as if their rankings are flawless.
One problem with drafting the best player available is that he's probably an outlier on your board, i.e. you have him ranked higher than any other team. And while draft grades shouldn't just be groupthink, there's certainly value in knowing that the rest of the league doesn't view a particular prospect like you do.
When you start to factor your own fallibility into the mix, the difference between your best player available and the next-best prospect shrinks. That inflates the value of drafting a player at a position of need.
Teams and fans know deep down that they shouldn't always draft the best player available. What if the Cowboys' top player available in the first round this year is a quarterback, but there's a defensive end ranked one spot behind him? Clearly drafting the quarterback would set the franchise back; I'm just taking that argument and extending it a bit further.
Sometimes the true best player available will be at a position of extreme importance and need. Those situations make for easy draft picks. But other times things won't align so nicely, in which case Dallas will need to make a choice between its board and need.
The Cowboys should never pass up an extreme value who is ranked very far ahead of other players, but otherwise, drafting the best player available is an overrated draft strategy that assumes infallibility in draft rankings that clearly doesn't exist.
I'm going to have plenty more on draft philosophies and why I believe "best player available" is a poor long-term (yes, long-term) strategy.
If I'm right, it means the players listed in this slideshow, all playing positions of need, should be much in play for Dallas.
We all know the Cowboys are going to address the defensive line early in the 2014 NFL Draft.
The question is really just whether they'll take a defensive end or defensive tackle first.
With Tyrone Crawford returning this season and making for a nice pass-rushing threat inside and DeMarcus Ware unlikely to ever "return to form," you could make a very strong case that defensive end is even more of a need than defensive tackle.
Stanford's Trent Murphy is a very viable option for Dallas in the first round this year.
At 6'6", 252 pounds, Murphy has good size for a defensive end. More important, he has 33 1/8-inch arms; that's not incredibly long for his height, but it's plenty long enough.
Further, Murphy dominated in 2013 at Stanford with 15 sacks.
When a pass-rusher has a bunch of sacks, I always like to look at his tackles for loss because that's another great indicator of explosiveness; if a player has a lot of sacks but few tackles for loss, it's a good sign he might have just gotten lucky. With 23.5 tackles for loss, we can conclude Murphy wasn't a lucky player.
Other Defensive Ends to Watch
Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas (Round 2)
Marcus Smith, Louisville (Round 3)
Even if the Cowboys draft a defensive end in the first round, I still think there's about a 90 percent chance they come out of the first two rounds with a defensive tackle.
With Jason Hatcher on his way out of the door in Dallas, the team desperately needs an impact player on the inside.
Enter Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman.
At 6'6" with 33 3/4-inch arms, you aren't going to find many players with better length at the defensive tackle position. Hageman had only two sacks in 2013, but he also had 13 tackles for loss. Still, with only 10 sacks in four years at Minnesota, you have to question Hageman's pass-rushing ability at the next level.
The other issue is that Hageman was redshirted, meaning that in NFL rookie terms, he's old.
When the 2014 season begins, Hageman will already be 24 years old. As perhaps the most overlooked predictor of success, age is really important in forecasting college prospects. Because he couldn't dominate the college level even at an age when most players are in the NFL, I'm worried about Hageman's long-term outlook.
Other Defensive Tackles to Watch
Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh (Round 1)
Will Sutton, Arizona State (Round 2)
I'm not one who is too concerned about the Cowboys' hole at free safety.
Yes, it's a problem right now, but Dallas has power in numbers. They have so many options to potentially contribute next to Barry Church, including J.J. Wilcox and, yes, Matt Johnson, that I think someone will step up in the preseason. I'd be concerned if they were banking on one unproven commodity, but they're not.
Nonetheless, the 'Boys might want to draft yet another option at the position.
If that's the case, USC's Dion Bailey might be a consideration in the middle rounds. As Bleacher Report's Matt Miller pointed out in the above video, Bailey can play all three downs. He needs to work on his man-coverage ability, but he's not going to be in much man coverage in Dallas.
In zone coverage, though, Bailey is a playmaker. He has nine total picks in the past two seasons. Bailey also added 62 total tackles in 2013, including 6.5 for a loss.
Other Free Safeties to Watch
Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix, Alabama (Round 1)
Ed Reynolds, Stanford (Round 2)
If you're already sick of me writing that the Cowboys need a wide receiver, it's going to be a long few months. To drill this point home, I'll try to present my argument from a bunch of different angles.
One way to think about roster construction, in opposition of the "who can we add?" approach, is a "who can we currently not afford to lose?" mentality. In short, find potential leaks in the roster, assume that Murphy's Law will sprout its ugly face and prepare for the worst.
Outside of quarterback Tony Romo, who is the one player the Cowboys can't afford to lose? Who is the player who, if lost (or even if not contributing at a high level), could potentially devastate Dallas? The answer is wide receiver Dez Bryant, and it isn't close.
Bryant is so incredibly important to Dallas because he's one of the league's premiere red-zone threats on a team that is otherwise poor at playing in tight areas.
If Bryant were to go down, who can Dallas rely on in the red zone?
Tight end Jason Witten has historically been mediocre at best near the goal line and wide receiver Terrance Williams probably doesn't have the bulk to be dominant over the long run. I like tight end Gavin Escobar, but who knows if he'll be utilized often and he's probably not going to be as good between the 20s.
Yup, the Cowboys' offense could be devastated if Bryant gets injured or, more likely, is taken out of the game by the defense. Vanderbilt wide receiver Jordan Matthews can fix that. Here's what I wrote about him last week:
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 Rams wide receiver Tavon 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.
If Matthews is available in the second round, he should become a member of the Dallas Cowboys.
Other Wide Receivers to Watch
Allen Robinson, Penn State (Round 1-2)
Donte Moncrief, Ole Miss (Round 4)
The Cowboys received unexpected quality guard play in 2013 from veterans Brian Waters and Mackenzy Bernadeau, but Waters is gone and Bernadeau was much worse in 2012 before a string of good games last year. Chances are he won't continue to play at such a high level.
Baylor guard Cyril Richardson is a mammoth offensive lineman at 6'5", 348 pounds with 33 7/8-inch arms. His strength is in the running game. Here's what I said about Richardson in my Senior Bowl guide:
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.
Because NFL teams as a whole don't place enough emphasis on interior linemen, I wouldn't be surprised to see Richardson fall into the third round. He'd be a sensational value at that point.
Other Guards to Watch
Xavier Su'a-Filo, UCLA (Round 1-2)
Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State (Round 3)