Despite the Cowboys’ early exit from the ‘09 playoffs, there is no doubting that this roster is loaded with talent. It is hard to identify a weakness on either side of the ball, but there are some areas that can definitely be improved upon. In my opinion, the top five positions that could be upgraded via the draft are:
Although Patrick Crayton’s punt return average was superb this season, this number is skewed because of two long returns for touchdowns (one against Seattle, the other versus Atlanta). During these returns, the Cowboys’ return unit created holes so large that my grandmother could have scored a TD (Disclaimer: Grandma did once run a 4.35, albeit wind-aided).
In reality, Crayton is a reliable return-man, but not a game-breaker. I truly believe the two punt return touchdowns the Cowboys scored this season were in spite of Crayton, not because of him.
At KR, the need for an upgrade is even greater. Despite Felix Jones great burst and play-making ability, he looked hesitant on kick returns all season. Combine this with the fact that he is due to see a much larger workload on offense next season, and his chances of being a real threat at kick returner dwindle. Kevin Ogletree was adequate on returns, but again, the big-play threat was not there.
While others may view a return specialist as too limited a role to be considered a primary draft need, I believe the game-changing ability this position could provide is well worth a high draft selection (i.e. as high as round two).
2. OT (preferably left tackle)
While the offensive line did a respectable job up until the playoff loss in Minnesota, their age is becoming a concern. While experience and continuity are integral parts of playing on the o-line, at a certain point the future must be addressed. With the average NFL experience of the five starters being nine years, that time is now.
When Marc Columbo went down in the Green Bay game, Doug Free stepped in and did an above-average job at right tackle. However, my film study suggests that left tackle Flozell Adams did not do as superb a job as many others seem to believe.
Through that game in Green Bay, Flozell had already allowed six sacks on the season. While his penalties have always been a problem, they seem a bit less tolerable when he is allowing his quarterback to get mauled. Thus, despite the presence of Doug Free, the Cowboys desperately need a young left tackle to get into the mix, perhaps as early as next season.
I hate to rate this position so high, as I absolutely love the job Keith Brooking did this season. His impact came in more than just his on-field play, as Brooking instantly became a clubhouse leader. The team may not have gotten as far as they did without his leadership, and for that reason, I believe it is imperative that he returns next season. He makes a great duo at inside linebacker with Bradie James, who is more of a leader on the field.
Brooking’s age, however, means he has one, maybe two more seasons left in the tank. A young, versatile ILB would be a great addition to the defense. While Bobby Carpenter has done better in nickel situations than he gets credit for, a young ILB who can play both the run and pass would free up a roster spot.
Dallas is going to give David Buehler every chance to win the kicking job this offseason, but he will have to greatly improve his accuracy for that to happen. Plus, Buehler does not really use up an extra roster spot as a kickoff specialist because he is used on the special teams units.
While kicker is a huge need, it may be better for this position to be filled via free agency instead of the draft, assuming Buehler remains just a kickoff specialist.
In Wade Phillips’ version of the 3-4 defense, the defensive end position goes unheralded. Sacks are hard to come by, and the main focus for Marcus Spears & Co. is to stop the run. The ends have done an excellent job of that, particularly Spears and Igor Olshansky, and Hatcher and Bowen do solid work on passing downs.
With a hybrid DE/DT, the Cowboys could spell Spears and Olshansky, yet, more importantly, gain a quality backup behind Jay Ratliff. If Ratliff was to get seriously injured, Junior Siavii, the team’s only backup for him, just wouldn’t cut it. Thus, a player who could be an insurance policy for Ratliff, yet still get some playing time on running downs at DE, would be a great asset to the defense.