Which Positions Can Dallas Cowboys Immediately Upgrade Via 2014 NFL Draft?

John OwningCorrespondent IApril 25, 2014

Oregon State defensive end Scott Crichton is shown during an NCAA college football game against Washington in Corvallis, Ore., Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013.  (AP Photo/Don Ryan)
Don Ryan

The Dallas Cowboys, specifically Jason Garrett, need this draft to make an immediate impact in the 2014 season. 

If the Cowboys want to finally get over the 8-8 hump, they need immediate upgrades to a few positions. The best way to improve and upgrade these positions is through the draft. 

The 2014 NFL draft has been said to be one of the deepest in recent years. This means the Cowboys have the ability to find quality starters throughout the draft. 

Obviously, the Cowboys hope to find immediate starters in the first and second round. However, if the Cowboys play it right, they can find starters in the third and fourth rounds. 

If the Cowboys can come out of the draft with four solid starters then the Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones and Will McClay did their jobs.  



While the Cowboys saw major improvement in their offensive line in the 2013 season, there is still room for growth. With Tyron Smith developing into an elite left tackle and Travis Frederick proving worthy of being last year's 31st overall pick, the Cowboys have a solid young core for years to come.

Depending on your opinion of left guard Ronald Leary, the Cowboys can upgrade either guard position during the draft. While Leary had a poor season, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) had him graded at minus-9.4, many believe he has the potential to develop into a good starting offensive lineman.

On the other side at right guard was Mackenzy Bernadeau, who proves once again to be a solid and reliable option at the guard spot. PFF (subscription required) graded Bernadeau at plus-7.5 on the year, which points to a good year.

However, it seems like the Cowboys are more apt to replace Bernadeau rather than Leary, evidenced by the Cowboys bringing in Brian Waters to replace Bernadeau and not Leary. It appears the Cowboys like the potential that Leary has and want to see him develop, while they know what they are going to get from Bernadeau. 

As evidenced by the Cowboys pre-draft visitors list, the Cowboys seem interested in drafting a guard to most likely replace Bernadeau. 

The biggest name the Cowboys could draft to upgrade the guard position would be Notre Dame's Zack Martin. Martin would be an ideal pick because he can help solidify the interior offensive line, but he also has the versatility to move to tackle in case of injury.

One aspect that Martin would mightily improve from day one would be the interior pass blocking of Dallas' offensive line. According to PFF (subscription required), Leary and Bernadeau combined for a -9.3 grade in pass blocking. Martin thrives in pass protection and he is equal if not better then Leary and Bernadeau at run blocking right now. Martin has the potential to be a huge upgrade at guard.

Other prospects that could upgrade the guard position: LSU's Trai Turner, Mississippi State's Gabe Jackson and North Dakota State's Billy Turner. 



Strong-Side Defensive End

Going into the 2013 season, the Cowboys thought they were set at strong-side defensive end. However, due to Anthony Spencer's season ending microfracture knee surgery, the Cowboys had a major void at the position. The Cowboys brought in NFL journeyman George Selvie during training camp, and he had as good of a year as one could have expected given the situation.

Selvie was graded at minus-0.4 for the year by PFF (subscription required), which is average by their standards. Because of this, Selvie would seem to figure as a better rotational player then the main cog at SDE. Another player that may end up playing the position this year is Tyrone Crawford. However, coming off of a torn Achilles tendon, it is hard to expect him to be an impact player right away.

The SDE is lined up to the strong side of the offense, which is usually the side of the offense with a tight end. He is typically supposed to be the stronger, more physical of the defensive ends. The SDE's job is to set the edge during run plays and try to funnel the ball carry back to the linebackers in the middle of the field. Often facing double-teams, he needs to have the power to still set the edge. However, the SDE must bring the ability to rush the passer as well, especially with the NFL becoming more and more of a passing league. 

A prospect who could be an upgrade the position would be Oregon State's Scott Crichton. Crichton is a strong and powerful defensive that gives relentless effort on every play. He is stout against the run and uses good leverage to set the edge. At this moment, he does not have a defined set of pass rush moves and is still very raw in terms of rushing the passer.

Even though Crichton is lined up at the 3-technique defensive tackle position on this play, he shows some of traits necessary to be a great strong-side DE (skip to 0:41):

Crichton begins the play by attacking the inside shoulder of the offensive tackle, as both he and the guard try to double-team Crichton. As the guard tries to get over to help, Crichton uses superior leverage on the tackle to explode through the B gap, get deep into the backfield and make a great tackle for loss.

Crichton showed the ability to split the double-team and use superior leverage to win against the blocking scheme, traits that every strong-side defensive end needs to have a productive career.

Crichton would immediately upgrade the Cowboys run defense and hopefully develop into a force rushing the passer. He should be a good option for the Cowboys in the second round.

Other prospects who may be an upgrade include North Carolina's Kareem Martin and Stanford's Josh Mauro.


Weak-Side Defensive End 

Coming into the 2013 season, the Cowboys were thought to be one of the few teams with an elite weak-side defensive end.

After all, DeMarcus Ware had been one the best players over the last decade and one of only a handful of defensive ends that has the potential to be dominant throughout 16 games. However, another injury-riddled season left the Cowboys believing that Ware was not worth his $16 million salary.

The Cowboys seem to want to replace Ware's production with multiple players instead of one. The Cowboys have signed former Jacksonville Jaguar Jeremy Mincey. Mincey was a solid player last year for the Jaguars, grading out at plus-5.3 by PFF. However, he should figure to be a rotational player in the Cowboys scheme. 

The WDE is usually lined up on the outside shoulder of the left tackle, which is usually the weak side of the offense. The job first and foremost of the WDE is to get to the quarterback. Typically, this defensive end is quicker and is much more of a speed-rusher than the strong-side defensive end. The WDE must also be able to hold up against the run, maintain gap integrity and be adept at funneling outside runs back into the teeth of the defense. 

Outside of potential No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney, this draft is severely lacking in WDE prospects. The best prospect for the Cowboys outside of Clowney may be UCLA's Anthony Barr. While Barr has never played with his hand in the ground, DallasCowboys.com's Rowan Kavner writes that it seems like the Cowboys could project him as a defensive end:

But based on Barr’s visit with defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, it seems likely he’ll be joining the position group that the former defensive line coach taught last year. 

“I spoke with him at length today,” Barr said. “He showed me a lot of tape of (Julius) Peppers and Simeon Rice and (Warren) Sapp, so I think he wants me playing that defensive right end position to go after the quarterback, and that’s something I’m all for.”

Barr has the elite speed, quickness and acceleration that make his a potentially elite defensive end. However, Barr is still raw when it comes to his hand usage and pass-rush moves. This is due to the fact that he played defense for only the last two years at UCLA. However, for being so new to that side of the ball, Barr does things that are very rare.

Here is an example of Barr's elite speed, quickness and acceleration (skip to 0:51):

At the snap, Barr explodes and gives the left tackle no shot at getting a decent block. As Barr comes around the corner he swipes the tackles hands away and has a clear shot at the quarterback. Barr accelerates and gets a great hit on the quarterback just after the ball is thrown. 

Even though Barr didn't get a sack, he displayed the type of traits that should have Rod Marinelli drooling at the prospect of Barr being a part of his defensive line. 

Some other prospects who could upgrade the WDE position include Boise State's DeMarcus Lawrence, Missouri's Kony Ealy and Texas' Jackson Jeffcoat.



1-Technique Defensive Tackle

The position where the Cowboys graded out worst was at the 1-technique defensive tackle position.

The Cowboys starter there, Nick Hayden, logged the most snaps on the Cowboys' defensive line at 843 and was graded out at minus-27.3 by PFF. This ranked him at second to last among defensive tackles in the NFL. This means the Cowboys are truly in need of at least a decent 1-technique defensive lineman. 

The Cowboys have signed former Houston Texans defensive tackle Terrell McClain. McClain logged only 182 snaps for the Texans this season and graded out to a minus-0.8. McClain will almost certainly play more snaps than Hayden and hopefully be an upgrade.

The 1-technique is lined up on the outside shade center and in between one of the guards and is usually "cocked" inside toward the center. The 1-technique must be strong enough to be able to take on double-teams and not let the guard scrape to the linebacker. This tackle is typically a run defenders who brings little pass rush and is often taken out in passing situations.

Perhaps the Cowboys don't believe that a 1-technique has enough value to be taken early in the draft, given that they are primarily two-down players who have little impact on a team's pass defense. That may be the reason the Cowboys passed on Sharrif Floyd in last year's draft.

A player that would be an immediate upgrade for the Cowboys at the 1-technique position would be Penn State's DaQuan Jones. He is a massive human being at 6'4" and 322 pounds who has the strength to consistently take on double teams. Jones is one of the few players who can be an immediate upgrade that may be available in the third or fourth round. 

Jones is not a flashy player by any means, but he does the dirty work necessary for the defense to function effectively. 

Other prospects who could be upgrades at the 1-technique position include Florida State's Timmy Jernigan and Louisiana Tech's Justin Ellis.


Free Safety

The free safety position has drawn ire of fans ever since Darren Woodson retired in 2004. The Cowboys went through the season with two rookies getting a majority of the snaps at free safety, J.J. Wilcox and Jeff Heath. Both Heath and Wilcox had their struggles throughout the year, with PFF grading Heath at minus-4.8 and Wilcox at minus-2.7.

The Cowboys have done nothing about this need and still might not do anything. The team may go into the season hoping Wilcox, Heath or often-injured Matt Johnson develop into a reliable free safety. 

The free safety position is the safety that is often supposed to be better in coverage then the strong safety. They are often the last line of defense, and they can't let any receiver beat them deep. A free safety must be able to read and react, exhibit good range and take great angles to make plays.

Since this is not one of the most pressing needs for the Cowboys, I do not see them taking a safety in Round 1 unless they trade back. Thus, if they do draft a safety, I see them doing it in Rounds 2-3. A player who could immediately upgrade the free safety position in the second or third round would be Florida State's Lamarcus Joyner.

Joyner played both safety and slot cornerback while at FSU and excelled in both positions. The only reason he's not a first-round pick is because of his size. Joyner measures in at 5'8" and 184 pounds, but he plays very physical, which sometimes gets him in trouble, but also it helps him make a bunch of impact plays.

Joyner takes good angles and is very good at reading the offense and reacting quickly. He's also versatile enough to play corner.  Joyner would be an upgrade over both Heath and Wilcox, and he is someone the Cowboys should seriously consider after the first round.

Other free safety prospects that could be immediate upgrades: Florida State's Terrence Brooks and Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward.