Ranking the Dallas Cowboys' Biggest Needs Entering 2014 NFL Draft Day
With the draft one week away, the Cowboys' front office is setting up its draft board. Contrary to what many fans believe, the Cowboys don't rank their board vertically (just a ranking of prospects regardless of position) but actually horizontally (players are ranked in tiers, by position) as evidence by their leaked draft board from the 2013 NFL draft.
This approach means the Cowboys don't select the best player available, but actually the best grade available. A player's grade takes into account how good a player is, their medical background, their character and if they play a position of need. For example, a prospect that plays at weak- or strong-side defensive end would get a bump in their grade.
This is why it is unlikely the Cowboys draft a player like Johnny Manziel in the first round. While Manziel may be ranked higher on a "vertical" board than a player like Zack Martin, Martin will likely have a higher grade for the Cowboys specifically because he addresses a position of need.
Blogging the Boys' Joey Ickes gave a great explanation of the Cowboys' horizontal draft board:
How that player fills a need might bump a guy from a 1.15 (middle of first round), up to a 1.13 ( Top 1/3 of the first round) grade, where as failing to fit the scheme, or play a premium position might drop a guy from a 1.12 (Top 5 player in round 1) down to a 1.18 or 1.22 type grade (where Shariff Floyd likely should have fallen on the Cowboys board in 2013). So taking the player with the highest grade available means that before the draft, when you are not in the heat of the moment, you have taken things like your self evaluation of your team, your projection of the prospects' talent, their fit in your schemes, whether they are the RKG, their medical condition and any other information you obtain into account in your slotting of those players. Then when you get to your pick in the draft, you've already got guys in position where you feel comfortable taking them, and it's not based on some partial evaluation or short sighted criteria, like the best talent available or a pure team need.
Therefore, players from a position of need will likely get a bump. Now you might be thinking, "Which positions are needs for the Cowboys?"
I'm glad you asked.
The criteria I used was an assessment of which positions are the weakest on the team, how big of a negative impact it will have if that position is not filled and how important that position is on the team.
No. 2 Wide Receiver
With the release of Miles Austin, the Cowboys created a void at the wide receiver position opposite of Dez Bryant. The Cowboys drafted Terrance Williams last year in the third round with the idea that he would eventually step into Austin's position.
But is Williams ready or talented enough to step into the role as No. 2 receiver? This is a question the Cowboys must answer. If not, the Cowboys would be smart to address this position in the draft. This particular draft is very deep at wide receiver; therefore they will have a myriad of options to choose from if they believe Williams is not ready.
Also, Bryant has had a history of back injuries that has to worry the Cowboys brass. If Bryant is out for any extended period of time the Cowboys could be in very big trouble.
However, since the Cowboys have Terrance Williams, the need to fill this position is not as dire as that of guard or free safety.
With Kyle Orton's status as backup quarterback up in the air, the Cowboys may need to find a prospect who can backup Tony Romo. The Cowboys have signed former Cleveland Browns' quarterback Brandon Weeden. However, Weeden has not shown the ability to be an effective quarterback thus far in his NFL career.
Another reason the Cowboys need an effective backup is because of Romo's recent back issues. The Cowboys need to be ready if Romo gets sidelined due to injury.
This draft has a number of good quarterback prospects in the middle rounds that could be good options at backup quarterback. Also, if the Cowboys drafted a quarterback, he would serve the dual purpose of filling the backup quarterback position and would be groomed as the quarterback of the future.
However, the Cowboys seem confident that Orton will return. Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones said on 105.3 Dallas-Fort Worth (h/t ESPN Dallas), "We expect Kyle, when mandatory practice starts and mandatory things begin, we fully expect Kyle to be there."
Since it appears that Orton will most likely be back, the backup quarterback position is not as weak as, say, the 1-technique defensive tackle position.
The Cowboys saw great improvement with their offensive line in 2013. Tyron Smith developed into one of the premier young left tackles in the NFL and Travis Frederick showed the potential to become an elite center.
With Smith and Frederick, the Cowboys have a great core around which to build the rest of their offensive line.
Looking at the 2013 season, the Cowboys could improve at both guard positions. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) had Ronald Leary graded at minus-9.4 and Mackenzy Bernadeau graded at plus-7.5.
If you were just judging on their grades, you would guess that the Cowboys would be looking to improve on Leary at left guard. However, the Cowboys appear to be more interested in replacing Bernadeau, as evidenced by the Cowboys signing Brian Waters to replace him at the beginning of the 2013 season.
The Cowboys seem to believe that Leary can develop into a quality starting guard in the NFL. Leary has proven to be solid in the run game; however, he leaves a lot to be desired in the passing game. Leary seems to have a lot of room to go, while Bernadeau is much more of a finished product.
The biggest area the Cowboys would suffer in if they did not address the guard position in the draft is their pass-blocking. Both Bernadeau and Leary have proven to be below-average pass blockers at this point in their careers.
At this point guard is a big need just because of depth concerns. Behind Leary and Bernadeau, the Cowboys don't have any viable players. Even if the Cowboys don't draft a guard to start initially, they would need to draft one to be backup. However, if the Cowboys were able to draft an interior lineman who could replace Bernadeau immediately, it would allow them to have a solid backup in Bernadeau who could play either guard position in case of injury, a luxury not many teams have.
However, since Bernadeau has proven to be solid and Leary has shown a lot of potential, this position is not as big of a need as positions like strong-side defensive end.
Still, some prospects who could fill this need include Notre Dame's Zack Martin, UCLA's Xavier Su'a-Filo, LSU's Trai Turner, Mississippi State's Gabe Jackson and North Dakota State's Billy Turner.
4. Free Safety
The Cowboys have yet to find an adequate free safety since Darren Woodson retired in 2004. The Cowboys tried to fill that need by drafting J.J. Wilcox in the third round of the 2013 NFL draft. However, Wilcox proved to be more of a strong safety. Wilcox was good in run defense (PFF had him graded at plus-4.2) but awful against the pass (PFF graded him at minus-3.1).
Wilcox was not the only rookie to get a large number of snaps at free safety. Undrafted free agent Jeff Heath actually played more snaps than Wilcox (613 to 530).
Heath didn't have much success at free safety either. PFF graded him at minus- 2.9 versus the run and minus-3.1 versus the pass. Both Heath and Wilcox were very poor in pass coverage, which severely handicapped the defense.
Since Wilcox and Heath are both still young, there is hope that at least one of them will develop the coverage skills to be a quality free safety. However, Wilcox looks more like a strong safety and Heath doesn't seem to have the athleticism or instincts to excel at free safety.
Another player who has a chance to develop into a good free safety is the oft-injured Matt Johnson. Even though there is a small sample size, Johnson probably has the best coverage skills out of the three players. However, it remains to be seen if Johnson can stay healthy for any amount of time.
The Cowboys sorely need a free safety who has good coverage ability. The free safety position is very important because it is often the last line of defense. He can't let receivers get behind him.
If the Cowboys don't fill this need, bad consequences for the entire defense could result.
However, the Cowboys do have three young players each with the chance to develop into a solid free safety. Because of this, free safety is not as weak of a position as weak-side defensive end.
Some prospects who could fill this need include Florida State's Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State's Terrence Brooks and Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward.
1-Technique Defensive Tackle
The 1-technique defensive tackle position graded out as the worst position on the whole defense by PFF. Being the worst position on one of the worst defenses in the NFL is truly putrid.
Nick Hayden played the most snaps on the Cowboys defense line and mainly lined up at the 1-technique defensive tackle position. Nick Hayden received a dismal grade of minus-27.3 by PFF. That would put Hayden as the second-worst defensive tackle in the league, which shows how immediate a need getting a 1-technique defensive tackle is for the Cowboys.
However, the Cowboys have brought in some competition for Hayden. Former Houston Texans' defensive tackle Terrell McClain has not played much since coming into the NFL—he played only 182 snaps for the Texans last year—but because of how bad Hayden was last year, it would be hard to believe that McClain is not an upgrade.
The 1-technique will line up on the outside shade of the center while "cocked" toward the center. The 1-technique often faces double-teams from the guard and center. Therefore, he must be strong and use his hands well enough to anchor down against the run and allow the linebackers to flow and make tackles. However, the 1-technique will often be taken out during passing situations. The fact that Hayden was not taken out on obvious passing downs last year shows how thin the defensive line was and how badly injuries hurt them.
This position is one of the weakest on the whole team. If the Cowboys don't fill this need through the draft, then they will have a major weakness in the middle of their defense.
However, the 1-technique is not valued very high in Rod Marinelli's scheme. Stephen Jones recently stated on 105.3 FM "The Fan" (h/t dallascowboys.com) "If we think a player’s ceiling may be a one-technique, then it may be hard for him to make our first round."
The reasoning behind this philosophy is that the 1-technique will mostly play on running downs and doesn't bring much if any value on passing downs. Furthermore, 1-technique is not as big of a need as strong-side defensive end because they don't value it as high.
Some prospects who could fill this need at 1-technique include Penn State's DaQuan Jones, Florida State's Timmy Jernigan and Louisiana Tech's Justin Ellis.
Strong-Side Defensive End
With a healthy Anthony Spencer, the Cowboys were believed to be very strong at strong-side defensive end. Even though Spencer hasn't played SDE in the NFL, he was thought to be a perfect fit there.
However, Anthony Spencer had to get season-ending microfracture knee surgery and what once was a strength of the defense turned into a major weakness.
The Cowboys did their best to fill the need in the short time by signing NFL journeyman George Selvie during training camp last season. Selvie was quite a surprise for the Cowboys in 2013 and often times was the most productive defensive end on the roster.
Even though PFF gave Selvie a very average grade of minus-0.4, he did as good as anyone could expect given the circumstances. Selvie seems to fit best as a rotational defensive end who can play on both running and passing downs.
However, with the release of DeMarcus Ware, Selvie figures to switch to weak-side defensive end.
One of the unknown commodities the Cowboys have is Tyrone Crawford. Crawford was supposed to be an important piece on the Cowboys until he tore his Achilles tendon in day one of training camp. If Crawford can come back at full strength then he may be a good option at SDE.
Furthermore, the Cowboys will have Anthony Spencer, but it is unknown when he will be back and which defensive end position he will occupy. It is hard to expect much from a player coming off of major microfracture knee surgery.
The strong-side end is often double-teamed by the tackle and tight end. Because of this, he is supposed to be the stronger and more powerful of the two defensive ends. He must be able to take on multiple blockers, use his hands well and set the edge in the running game. The SDE must also be able to rush the passer as well.
The SDE is very crucial, and without a quality one, it is hard for the defense to be successful.
If this need is not filled during the draft then the Cowboys will be mediocre rushing the passer once again. The Cowboys severely need a strong-side end who can be a force rushing the passer.
However, with the return of Spencer and Crawford, SDE is not as weak of a position as weak-side defensive end.
Some prospects that could fill this need include Oregon State's Scott Crichton, North Carolina's Kareem Martin and Stanford's Josh Mauro.
Weak-Side Defensive End
Going into 2013, weak-side defensive end was one of the major strengths on the Cowboys. They had perennial All-Pro DeMarcus Ware, who was equally as dominate against the run as the pass. Ware had the ability to dominate and take over games on a weekly basis. Ware kept defensive coordinators up at night and often times the offense had to scheme away from Ware.
However, a myriad of injuries severely limited Ware and made him expendable for the first time in his career. The Cowboys deemed Ware not worthy of his $16 million salary and cut him at the beginning of the offseason.
The Cowboys were not left with many options at WDE. Selvie will most likely move over, but he doesn't bring the necessary pass rush to be the main cog at WDE.
The Cowboys also signed former Jacksonville Jaguar Jeremy Mincey. Mincey has been a solid player at defensive end while at the Jaguars; Mincey was graded at plus-5.3 by PFF. However, Mincey has not shown the ability to be anything more than a good rotational defensive end.
In the Cowboys' scheme the WDE is lined up on the outside shoulder of the weak-side offensive tackle, which is the left tackle most of the time. The WDE is usually the faster and quicker defensive end that is a pass rush specialist. Since the WDE doesn't usually have to face double teams against the run, he doesn't have to be as strong at the point of attack as the SDE. The WDE must be able to set the edge against any weak-side run and funnel the play inside toward the linebackers.
The WDE is very crucial to the defense because he is primarily tasked with bringing pressure to the quarterback. He must be able to bring constant pressure and disrupt and affect as many throws as possible.
If this need is not filled, the Cowboys will likely be very average rushing the passer, which will once again exacerbate any holes in the secondary. The best way to make the secondary look good is to get constant pressure on the quarterback.
Since the Cowboys don't have any players that have shown the ability to be quality starters at WDE, this position is one of the if not the weakest position on the team.
Some prospects who could fill this need include UCLA's Anthony Barr, Boise State's DeMarcus Lawrence, Missouri's Kony Ealy and Texas' Jackson Jeffcoat.