The Dallas Cowboys, along with most teams, say that they have their draft big board set ahead of the NFL Scouting Combine. We know that's not true though, because those who light up the combine typically get drafted higher than they were previously projected.
Further, if boards are already set, why even have the combine? If it isn't going to change anything and teams really "turn on the film" as a sole means of grading players, why collect measurables?
Thus, the NFL Scouting Combine can and should change a lot when it comes to draft boards, but teams do indeed already have a pretty good idea of which direction they'll head. That's particularly true in the first round because blue-chip prospects are easy to identify; we know a player like South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is a top-tier player, regardless of what happens at the combine.
Let's examine a few players the 'Boys will have on their short list in the first round. You won't see Clowney or any other surefire top 10 picks. Rather, the following six players are all legitimate possibilities for Dallas in the first round of this year's draft.
One of the most common players being mocked to Dallas is Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy. A 6'5", 275-pound pass-rusher, Ealy has prototypical size for a 4-3 end. Further, as perhaps the top pass-rusher on the board behind Clowney, Ealy is highly likely for Dallas if they want to go with a defensive end in the first round.
The primary concern with Ealy is that he didn't dominate in college. He had only 12.5 career sacks in three seasons. Sacks can be volatile, so it's always smart to monitor tackles for loss as well. If a player has a bunch of tackles for loss, it's a sign he has the same explosiveness that will lead to future sacks.
With 27 tackles for loss in his career and a high of 14, though, Ealy wasn't dominant in that category, either. Because of that, the Cowboys should probably pass on him with their first pick, opting instead for a defensive tackle.
As mentioned, defensive tackle makes more sense for the Cowboys early in the draft. Although defensive end DeMarcus Ware is aging quickly, George Selvie is returning in 2014 and the 'Boys have Tyrone Crawford to play outside as well if they so choose.
Meanwhile, the interior defensive line is extremely thin. Pitt's Aaron Donald is surely going to interest Dallas as a legitimate pass-rushing threat at defensive tackle.
Donald is such an interesting prospect because he has one trait—short arms—that predicts he could have trouble in the NFL. With 31.75-inch arms, Donald is lacking in an area where the top pass-rushers usually thrive.
Yet, Donald was highly productive at Pitt. Over the past three seasons, Donald racked up 29.5 sacks and 63 tackles for loss, including 28.5 tackles for loss in 2013 alone. Those are eye-popping numbers. Because Donald's college production was so elite, it makes it easier to overlook his arm length.
Donald might be the top available option for Dallas if he's on the board.
Another defensive tackle who will likely be a first-round pick, Florida State's Timmy Jernigan is probably in competition with Aaron Donald and Notre Dame's Louis Nix to be the top defensive tackle off of the board. Nix wouldn't fit well in Dallas, so the Cowboys will most likely go with Donald or Jernigan if they side with a first-round defensive tackle.
Donald is the superior player. Like Donald, Jernigan is undersized in terms of length. Unlike Donald, though, Jernigan wasn't ultra-productive in college. Jernigan totaled only 8.5 sacks and 25 tackles for loss over the past three seasons. Remember that Donald had 28.5 tackles for loss just last year.
The lure for Dallas might be that they could potentially trade down for Jernigan in the back of the first round, but Donald in the middle of the first round is still better.
The consensus top safety in this draft class, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is going to get pushed up the board because of his scarcity. He's a possible blue-chipper in a class that's weak at safety, so if Dallas wants an immediate game-changer at the position, Clinton-Dix is their only option.
The reason Clinton-Dix might not be as high on Dallas's board as you'd think is numbers; they have a number of young players they could start alongside Barry Church in 2014, including J.J. Wilcox and Matt Johnson. Due to the weaknesses along the defensive line, look for Dallas to favor Donald and Ealy over Clinton-Dix.
Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins is probably going to be the first player off of the board at his position, but Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans should be right behind him. In addition to wide receiver being an underrated position of need for Dallas, the 'Boys should consider Evans because he'd be such an incredible upgrade over Terrance Williams.
Evans is 6'5", 225 pounds and was highly productive in college at a young age. Those are good signs. With 1,394 yards and 12 touchdowns in his age-20 season, Evans probably has even more upside than he demonstrated at Texas A&M. He's a top-five sort of player who will be undervalued because of his decision to leave school early as a redshirt sophomore.
Like Evans, Lewan is a big-time talent at a position that's important, but not necessarily as pressing as some other holes in Dallas (namely along the defensive line). Still, if he's ranked as a top-10 player for Dallas, they'll consider him in the middle of the first round. Chances are he won't be available there, but the 'Boys need to consider every "what if"?
A 6'7" offensive tackle who would pair with left tackle Tyron Smith to give the Cowboys the offensive line bookends they need for the next decade, Lewan would be a significant upgrade over right tackle Doug Free, who struggled mightily down the stretch in 2013.