Dallas Cowboys: Projecting 2011 Draft Picks' Rookie Seasons and Beyond
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Dallas fans know the schtick: This our year.
At least that's how it always feels.
Hard to describe the NFL's second-most-winningest franchise as embattled, but it's been rough to be a Dallas fan the same way watching the Red Sox in October used to make you a better man. Tough to take it, the worlds of promise interrupted by an early playoff exit you can't explain away.
That was the story in 2007—really, 13-3 and you go out like that?—and even 2010, after another injury-plagued September and hopeless December.
There are more examples, but you get the point.
Here's where the promise of the NFL draft plays into the mix. Every selection brings the sweetest football amnesia, wiping every tear-jerking loss and replacing it with images of Tyron Smith planting Trent Cole like a daisy.
Of DeMarco Murray dicing the Giants secondary like Italian spices. Of Bruce Carter joining Sean Lee for—gasp—a serviceable linebacker corps.
Makes you hope, doesn't it? Hope that new-hire Jason Garrett can parlay 5-3 into 13-3. Hope that Tony Romo's shoulder rebounds like Drew Brees' (not Chad Pennington's). Hope that the league's most stacked offense can finally gell and that one of its shakiest defenses can be competitive.
Or project, the function of this slideshow, one expert's speculation into the future of the 2011 Dallas Cowboys draft picks.
Who'll pan out? Who'll flame out?
Click onward and find out.
Rubric: How We're Grading
How these selections stack up to picks past, like Dez Bryant (left), depends on more than just physical tools and football savvy.
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Important note: This isn't your typical draft grade column.
For one, it's not praising or slamming the organization based on how it addressed positions of need, capitalized on available talent—whatever. It's only designed to extrapolate these eight players' futures.
To that end: A lot of this boils down to track record. Who are you? Where did you spend your NCAA days? What did you win as a collegian?
Did you, like Bruce Carter, help implode a college program?
There's obvious stock vested in physicality, one of the reasons Tyron Smith projects so well. And refined football skill is irreplaceable, and registers high on this list.
But gifts aren't everything, as you'll see, at least not nearly as decisive as circumstance. If you're having a tough time getting a roster spot, let alone PT, it's hard to rave.
And so far as I know, Pfizer hasn't whipped up a topical for the "injury bug." Watch out for that, especially for a class that's spent its share of time on a trainer's table.
MOST important, maybe, is the eye test. Do you see a player panning out?
It had better, or you won't be seeing any ringing endorsement in these pages.
Round 1: Tyron Smith (Pick 9) OT, USC
So long as he's not flagged for holding—that does look like holding—Smith (No. 70) should bookend the offensive line with Doug Free from Day One, and shore up Dallas' most glaring position of need immediately.
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You can quantify it tangibly—Dallas ranked among the top 10 most sacked teams four of the last five seasons—or in gestures, like motioning at Tony Romo in a sling.
The organization needed to shore up it's offensive line, something they did with Smith, easily the most physically gifted tackle in the draft. Technique that spews from his ears and growth potential don't hurt, either.
Imagine if Bruce Campbell actually played a down of football before mistaking Maryland's 2010 Pro Day for a stop on the IFBB circuit. That mix of genes and skills is what Dallas gets with Smith.
His should be a seamless transition into Dallas heavy zone running scheme, akin to his college system at USC.
Plus, with Doug Free comes flexibility, enough to swap the two between the right and left side as needed and depending on how each reacts in training camp (insert frustrated reminder about the lockout, #whenever and #if and #football and #happens).
Smith has been dinged in his career, even this offseason, with foot injuries and water his knee hamstringing pro days and team workouts. Keep a watchful, not skeptical (at least not yet), eye on that. But it doesn't seem to be problematic just yet.
Projection: The "so easy Al Davis couldn't botch it" pick
Round 2: Bruce Carter (Pick 40) ILB, UNC
Let's hope Bruce Carter (No. 54) stays healthy and trouble-free long enough to celebrate up-and-down Dallas' sidelines for the better half of a decade.
It seems like every Tarheel selected in this draft was taken at some absurd discount. Marvin Austin to the Giants (Round 2, Pick 52), Greg Little to the Browns (Round 2, Pick 59). In essence: if you didn't pick up one of Butch Davis' problem children for well under market value, you either weren't drafting or weren't trying.
The Cowboys got theirs, Carter, for the kind of steal that makes you jump when the doorbell rings. He's not the most polished linebacker available (Denver's Von Miller), but he's more-than-the freakiest physically (runner-up is soon-to-be Titan Akeem Ayers).
In his time at UNC, Carter showcased speed (check), great hands and feet (check), flat coverage skills (check)—all make-or-break in Dallas' 3-4 scheme.
But Carter has more than a small, Nordic nation of red flags.
For one, he did next to nothing at the combine, a ripple of the bum knee that ended his last season in Chapel Hill. That's scary, especially for his position—Dallas hopes to move him to the inside, where hurdling lunging offensive lineman is an occupational hazard—and given fans' recent memories.
(I normally whisper 'Bobby Carpenter' at times like these, but I don't have the heart to now.)
Then there's the fun stuff, as in Carter had a disproportionate and NCAA-disapproved of amount of fun at UNC.' Not, 'fun for Dallas fans.'
Carter, like Pryor, helped implode the Tarheels' run at a BCS bid for player-agent/babysitter scandals. (It's important to note: his role wasn't nearly as pronounced as Robert Quinn, Austin, Little and others.)
Dallas has drafted question marks before (see: Bryant, Dez), who've fared alright. But between character and injury concerns, I'm tentative about Carter's future in Big D.
Projection: The 'would be great, if not for (past) life and (creaky) limb' pick
Round 3: DeMarco Murray (Pick 71) RB, Oklahoma
I want to gush over DeMarco Murray (No. 3), but I'm just not sold his body can hold up.
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I want to like this pick. Really, I do.
His injury history—Murray dislocated his kneecap (yikes), missing nearly a year of football—is scary enough. Roll in the zillion times Felix Jones has been felled (a toe in 2008, knee in 2009), and Dallas enthusiasts wince at the thought of a guy with that many question marks and so much scar tissue.
Not to mention that Murry, however viable, would be the fourth running back on the roster. Count 'em: Marion Barber (one), Jones (two) and Tashard Choice (three). There are only so many carries, swing screens and gadget plays to go around.
That, though, is part of the brilliance. Murray enters a situation with more flexibility than a recently unemployed gymnast. The Cowboys can use him sparingly, testing out problem spots for an entire season before wondering whether he's capable of more, let alone forcing that on him.
If he can hold up—it seems likely, given that he's stayed healthy since his 2007 MTV: Scarred-worthy injury—he could be the most productive back in the offense, for a simple, underappreciated reason:
He can block.
Imagine this backfield of faceless, silhouetted running backs: Two guys. One runs a 4.24 40-yard dash, the other a 4.37. Both are natural, fluid runners and both can stretch the field in the passing game—already a hassle with Miles Austin and Dez Bryant being the leading cause of hypertension in the NFC East.
That's what you get with Jones and Murray, well before we start gushing over their pass protection. Over the past three years, Jones registers off-the-charts (actually, in the Top 10) as a blocker, allowing only eight pressures on 157 passing downs he's stayed in to protect for.
Enter Murray, easily one of the more polished blocking running backs, and you've got two swords and two shields.
And two Ambiens for Tony Romo.
Prediction: The "signing off with one hand, covering my eyes with the other" pick
Round 4: David Arkin (Pick 110) OT, Missouri St.
Arkin has more stacked against him than plate of IHOP pancakes in front of a diabetic.
For one, he's the product of small-school Missouri State, well below the caliber of your typical, FCS pipelines.
His learning curve will be the steepest of all Dallas' eight picks, given his limited exposure to the size and speed that frequents the low end of NFL interior defensive lines, let alone Justin Smith (49ers), Albert Hanesworth (Redskins), both Ndomakung Suh and Nick Fairley (Lions) and Vince Wilfork (Pats), anchors of Dallas' first four opponents.
It doesn't get easier either; later come Darnell Dockett (Cards) and Gerald McCoy (Bucs).
And Arkin will be on the inside, not the outside he warmed to as a Bear (yes, I looked that up...). That's problem No. 2, the transition from tackle to guard that some just can't make.
But predicting Arkin's success is more an exercise in nomenclature than forecasting. In other words, it depends on how you measure him.
If you're sizing him as a potential starter, Arkin won't make the grade—not even with Leonard Davis being replaceable and Kyle Kosier being fragile. But if he's measured by the depth he brings the league's most tattered unit of 2010, Arkin should be just the thing.
Prediction: The "good, so long as he doesn't have to be great" pick
Photo courtesy of missouristatebears.com
Round 5: Josh Thomas (Pick 143) DB, Buffalo
Harris (No. 15) has refined skills as they come, but concrete feet, too, a speed concern that dampens his prospects in Dallas.
You like start to like everything about Thomas' scouting report in the same way you like the first half of From Dusk 'Til Dawn. Amazing instincts (rich plot), great feet (Quentin Tarentino humor), breaks on the ball like a Mercedes Benz on a road trip. You really can't say more about Thomas, the football player.
But then the plot twists. George Clooney, Tarantino and Harvey Keitel pull up to a rinky dink bar in the middle of the New Mexican desert, and all hell breaks loose. Instead of suspenseful dialogue and a storyline that pulls your eyes out of your head, you get claymation.
Really, Robert Rodriguez?
That's the same reaction you have to Thomas' write-up, once you get to the part about his abysmal speed.
Really, Jerry Jones?
No, 4.46 isn't maple syrup-slow. But for a team that's had glaring holes at safety since Brock Marion, George Teague and/or Darren Woodson (in any order), and a pass defense that's ranked 20th or worse three times in the last five seasons, you can't be too hopeful about Thomas quicks.
Or should I say, "slows"?
Same story goes for Thomas as Arkin: It's all about designation. The grade depends on the context.
Some dub Thomas a hopeful No. 2 corner opposite Mike Jenkins in the not-too-distant future. I think you have more of a chance of winning a Lamborghini at your area's next VFW Chinese auction.
But if he's used wisely, in a nickel and blatant passing situation only role, with linebackers to bracket slot receivers until they're deep enough for safety help (or until the quarterback's jersey becomes a DeMarcus Ware memento), Thomas' refined skills could carry him to a productive career.
Projection: The "please, don't leave me on an island with this guy!" pick
Round 6: Dwyane Harris (Pick 176) WR, East Carolina
I love Harris (No. 17) almost as much as this epic NFL Network music bed.
I love this guy. It'll probably be the pick that kills me, but I truthfully don't care. There's just far too much to like.
For all the concern we shared over Carter and Murray's injuries, you don't have that with Harris, healthy throughout his East Carolinian career. And for the small fish in a giant, state aquarium, shark-stocked tank doubts that swirl about Arkin and Thomas, you eat those up when it comes to Harris.
He's exactly what you want from a wide receiver draft pick. He's reliable (Harris was the Pirates' leading receiver two years running), proven (he was a four-year letterman and finished second in receptions and yards as early a sophomore), prolific (he had double-digit touchdowns in 2010)—and, best of all, a sixth-round pick.
Don't underscore the value in undervaluation (or underrated or underappreciated). It's been true in recent history, with Wes Welker (NE), Danny Amendola (STL), Davone Bess (MIA), Malcom Floyd and Antonio Gates (SD), Lance Moore (NO) and our own Miles Austin all having standout 2010 seasons, despite going undrafted in their respective classes.
It's as true historically, with three of the league's top eight receivers—Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens and Andre Reed—being products of itty bitty college programs.
Those are the guys you want in the league and shoot for in the draft. Not the ones with the redunkulous physical gifts, or at least not all of them, to the extent that they're love-drunk on their own awesomeness.
Not the ones who'll soon demand otherworldly salaries and smoked lox platters in team meetings.
Go ahead, Tom Dimitrioff, package two years of drafts for Julio Jones, a move that's got Herschel Walker written all over it.
I want Harris, a guy who'll be scrapping for a roster spot, let alone PT, the same way Miles Austin once did, practicing route running until his toes bleed and scribbling passing trees on the insides of his contact lenses.
The guy whose attention to detail will make him competitive, even in a receiver corps as stacked as Dallas'.
That is the new breed of NFL success at wide receiver. Get to writing, Michael Lewis.
Projection: The "vesting my career and credibility on this guy surprising" pick
Round 7: Shaun Chapas (Pick 220) FB, Georgia
Fullbacks are awesome. Dallas now has one.
Transitive property tells us that Chapas makes Dallas awesome.
Here's the mathematical proof:
Fullbacks = awesome
Dallas = fullback
Dallas = awesome
Now, he's missing a bona fide fullback name (à la Mack Strong or John 'The Terminator' Conner), but Chapas did help a miserable Georgia backfield average 4.1 yards per carry in 2010, against mostly SEC competition.
If you're looking for translation (I'm done with geometry for today), familiarity with size and speed that makes the cream of the NFL's crop is it.
Chapas doesn't have "Darryl Johnston' written all over him (then again, what first-year fullback screams 'Hall of Famer'?), but so long as he's not Chris Gronkowski (Tony Romo's shoulder really can't handle any more), Chapas will fare fine.
Projection: The "awesomeness with a neck roll" pick
Round 7: Bill Nagy (Pick 252, Compensatory Selection) C, Wisconsin
Not really much to say about Nagy, unfortunately.
He's short (6'2) and unglamorous (not highly touted by scouts), even despite his Big 10 roots. Though he played on an offensive line bookended by Game Carimi (the Bears' 6'7, 315-pound first-rounder) and plugged with John Moffitt (a 6'4, 319-pounder who went in the third round to Seattle), Nagy didn't have much buzz entering the draft, part of the reason he almost fell out of it.
Still, Dallas fans are privvy how quickly things (euphemism for offensive lines) can fall apart, faster than you can wonder, "Am I really upset Mark Colombo isn't playing?"
So with Pro Bowler Andre Gurode's knee known to flare up, the Cowboys can more than use the security from a guy grain-fed, mid-Western nourishment and its top-shelf gridiron.
Projection: The "no news because there's just no news" pick
Photo courtesy of annarbor.com