Dallas Cowboys: Drafting Quality Defensive Line First Means Success in 2011
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The Cowboys are currently a team in flux. A team that has multiple needs on both sides of the ball.
The problem is trying to figure out which holes to plug first.
In the eyes of many, last year's meltdown was due to a failure of leadership and communication from the top down. From the owner, the head coach and the assistants there was a failure to communicate and lead the team.
Everything was rosy for the team before the season, as the paper tigers that was the Cowboys were predicted to be a Super Bowl-finalists. Then the house of cards came crashing down on opening day and the rest was history.
When looking at the team's overall statistics, on the offensive side of the ball they were actually above average—finishing the season ranked eighth overall in total offense.
The offense actually outperformed the Steelers and the Packers in total offense, and as we know, they ended up in the Super Bowl.
Even though the offense ranked 16th in the running game and ninth in the passing game, the team was basically sound enough to make the playoffs. The weakness here, is the aging offensive line that will need to be addressed in the next year or two.
The defense is a very different picture altogether.
The overall ranking of 31st in the league—with only Denver being more porous than Dallas—points to the problems with the team.
Being 12th against the rush is respectable; not great, but above average. The main issue here is the nose tackle position as Jay Ratliff is undersized to play this spot in a 3-4 defense.
The pass defense for this team was atrocious—ranked 26th—and was the reason for this team being on the sidelines during the playoffs. The inability to put pressure on the quarterback led to too many big plays downfield.
My take is the team needs to draft to the defensive line first. Rob Ryan has traditionally preferred a 4-3 defense, which—given the Cowboys current personnel—will determine their draft needs.
If Ryan follows his normal instincts, then the bust that is Igor Olshansky may be salvageable as a defensive tackle. This would also have an impact in determining the future of the inside linebacker position.
With Keith Brookings at the end of his career, he faces the possibility of being released—meaning Bradie James would have to step in and continue to play solid defense in the middle. This would open the door for the talented Sean Lee to get quality playing time as the backup.
So, for the sake of argument and this article, let's say the Cowboys move to a 4-3 defense. What will be the effect on how they draft?
Let's take a look at what may occur with the six picks they currently own, having used the seventh pick in the supplemental draft.
With their first pick at No. 9 they should pick J.J. Watt as a defensive end.
At 6'6'' and 290, Watt would be a force to reckon with on run defense. With a 37-inch vertical leap and the strength to get off blocks, he would be able to pressure the quarterback in the passing game.
By picking Watt, they also maintain the option of playing a 3-4 defense, as he's the type of player that can transition at the end position between the two styles. Watt would be a solid choice for the strong-side end position, replacing Olshansky.
With the second-round pick, the Cowboys should address the glaring issue in the Dallas defensive backfield—especially at free safety where Alan Ball was obviously not the answer. The inability to perform in coverage led to too many big-yardage plays against the defense.
UCLA's Rahim Moore would be the right selection for the Cowboys' second pick. With the size and speed to play in various coverage schemes, Moore—if available—would be the best choice here.
He is projected to be able to start right away and be an impact player. He has an excellent burst on the ball, and with wide receiver-type skills, could become a ball hawk for the Cowboys. This would allow Gerald Sensabaugh the opportunity to cheat up and provide added support against the rush.
With the first issues resolved, the Cowboys could then look to the future at cornerback, and the Terrence Newman situation with his penchant for injury. The team needs to find their next shutdown cover corner.
With their third-round pick Dallas should be able to fill that need. Curtis Brown from Texas could fill this slot. The take on him is he has the speed and ability to cover both the deep routes and to maintain contact with receivers on double moves.
Brown has demonstrated he can play on an island and shut down receivers as needed. He is another choice that could start on day one and play in nickel or dime coverage schemes on the slot receiver.
With the three main defensive issues addressed, the team could now look at bolstering the offensive line with their fourth pick.
Chris Hairston from Clemson would be a good selection here.
He has the size to play right tackle in the run game and the power to handle smaller defensive linemen on pass plays. Hairston would be a solid selection as the future replacement for Marc Colombo.
The Cowboys' fifth pick could go to filling the need of a power running back to replace Marion Barber. If the rumor mill is to be believed, odds are Barber will not be with the team in 2011.
Where does Dallas need the most help?
If that is truly the case, then Dallas could have a quality pick here in Vai Taua from Nevada. The reports show that Taua is a hard-nosed runner between the tackles and a threat in the passing game as an underneath receiver.
While Taua has had issues with ball security in the past, this is a correctable issue. Taua would be an excellent choice and would pay benefits in his first year in the league.
With their final pick, Dallas could draft another offensive lineman capable of playing either guard or center. A good choice here is Stefen Wisniewski from Penn State.
Wisniewski is said to have the ability to play all three interior offensive line positions. He's a savvy player with great football intellect, as he comes from a football family.
At 6'3" and 313, he would be a an excellent late-round selection to replace any of the three Dallas interior linemen in the future. Wisniewski's versatility will make him an excellent backup in his early years in the league and an eventual starter for the team in the future.
Well, that's my take on what the Cowboys need to do to be successful in this year's draft.
Of course, I know that I'm just one of many voices out there, as all of us hope that Jerry Jones makes the right decisions to bring "Big D" back from the disaster that was 2010.
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