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Cowboys Draft Blog #1: Team Needs

March 31, 2013

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You know Joe Casey you’re right, the draft is only 3 1/2 weeks away and I’ve yet to post anything about it. Let’s fix that shall we. Below is my first draft blog which will break down the team needs and how the upcoming draft fits those needs. The Cowboys are quite lucky this offseason as their top 3 draft needs (safety, right tackle, defensive tackle) happen to be 3 of the deepest positions in the 2013 NFL Draft. Hopefully Jerry will utilize this advantage and come out of the draft with 3 or 4 capable starters to plug into the holes I discuss below.

1. Safety: Last season the Cowboys looked pretty solid at safety with Gerald Sensabaugh and Barry Church. Neither were of the playmaker category but both were at least average starters and weren’t expected to be targeted by an opposing offense. Then early in the season Church tore his ACL and was out for the year and the safety situation became a mess as the Cowboys rotated a collection of backups like Charlie Peprah and Danny McCray in which resulted in horrible results. One year later Sensabaugh is gone (cut) and Church is a question mark (still recovering from ACL surgery) so the Cowboys lack both talented starters and capable backups. The Cowboys did add Will Allen but he would best be used as a team’s #3 safety where he would receive playing time in certain packages and fill in temporarily as a starter when injuries occur. The key will then be to add at one starter quality safety in the Draft and luckily the Cowboys have the perfect draft to do it in as the 2013 NFL Draft has incredible depth at the safety position. Every analyst has a difference of opinion on who their top few safeties are but all agree that there are at least 3 safeties with 1st round grades and 3-5 more with 2nd or 3rd round grades. Currently many mock drafts have the Cowboys targeting Kenny Vaccaro, a hard hitting SS from Texas who I am not nearly as high on (3rd round on my board, mid 1st on most others) but specific player grades is something for another blog post. No matter who they draft expect the Cowboys to use either their 1st or 2nd round draft choice on a safety to shore up a position that has been a weakness for about a half decade now.

2. Right Tackle: When the Cowboys signed Doug Free to a 4 yr $32 mil deal I thought it was a very reasonable deal. He was coming off a very good season at RT and at his young age it appeared like the Cowboys were locking up 4 years in the prime of his career at market value. Fast forward 2 years later and the deal looks atrocious as in 2011 he had a down year at LT and in 2012 he had a terrible year at RT. It was so bad that Dallas turned to a time share situation with undrafted 2nd year player Jeremy Parnell and despite the reduced playing time Free still finished near the top of the league for penalties charged to an offensive lineman. The Cowboys have two viable options: cut Free or force him to reduce his salary to a more reasonable level. Initially the Cowboys appeared to be unwilling to do either but rumor has it they will be giving Free the same “take a pay cut or be cut” offer they gave to Dan Connor earlier this offseason. Whether Free agrees to reduce his salary or not will determine how high RT is on the Cowboys shopping list come draft time but even if Free comes back at a reasonable salary and even if the team thinks Parnell is a future starter it still would behoove themselves to add another offensive tackle if only for depth. My dream scenario would be if somehow Lane Johnson from OU dropped to the Cowboys at #18 but at this time it appears like all three tackles (Luke Joeckel, Eric Fisher, and Johnson) will be Top 10 draft picks and there is no 4th OT worthy of a choice in the Top 20. That points to the likelihood of the Cowboys addressing this position in the 2nd or 3rd round with one of the highly talented projects like Menelik Watson (only 1 year of Division 1 college experience) or Terron Armstead (blew up the Combine but played at Arkansas Pine-Bluff so likely isn’t a year 1 starter). Taking a project in the 2nd or 3rd round would be a great fit if Free came back at a reduced salary as he could be a stop gap for the team until the project was ready yet if Free is cut I would be worried about going into a season with only Parnell and an unproven rookie to handle the spot. That is why Johnson falling would be an incredible piece of luck but at this time I don’t see it happening.

3. Defensive Tackle: With Josh Brent likely headed to jail and Jay Ratliff coming off back to back injury plagued seasons the Cowboys are severely lacking at defensive tackle. What’s even worse is the fact that they made the move from a 3-4 to a 4-3 and the Cover 2 scheme used by new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is a defensive scheme that is predicated on great play from the “under tackle” which is the penetrating tackle made famous by Warren Sapp in Tampa Bay. Ratliff 3 years ago would have fit this scheme perfectly and he might have one more Pro Bowl caliber year left in him but he’s clearly a player in decline and the Cowboys both need to address who will start next to Ratliff in 2013 and who will replace him as the stud DT in 2014 and beyond. Currently there are 3 defensive tackles with high grades on most boards (Shariff Floyd, Star Lotulelei, Sheldon Richardson). I currently have Floyd with a Top 10 grade, Richardson with a Top 15 grade, and Lotulelei with a late 1st round grade yet many have Star with a Top 5 grade so if any of them make it to #18 it would present good value and a great fit. If those 3 are already taken then the Cowboys could look to Round 2 or 3 as the DT class is also very deep and players like Kawann Short, Jordan Hill, and others would present good value in those rounds.

4. Right Guard: While OG is a need area by most analysts I have a different opinion. Left guard Nate Livings last year was a very solid starter who profootballfocus (an amazing website by the way that goes through every play of the NFL season and grades each player) rated as the Cowboys best lineman in 2012. Also the Cowboys recently were linked to Brandon Moore, the right guard formerly for the New York Jets who is best known for his butt tackle of Mark Sanchez but who is a very underrated player in his own right (profootballfocus ranked him as the #3 RG in all of football in 2012). If the Cowboys sign Moore to a contract before the draft I would argue that OG actually is one of the stronger positions on the club and should not be addressed. If Moore is not signed it would leave them with Mackenzie Bernadeaux as the starting RG and he struggled with that responsibility in 2012 so competition via the draft would make sense. Considering how cheap starting guards are in free agency I’ve never felt it wise to draft one in the first round simply due to economics but Jonathan Cooper is the 3rd best OG I’ve ever graded (Top 20 grade) so if the Cowboys took him at #18 it would make some sense. I still wouldn’t be happy about it as Dallas has much bigger needs that could be addressed with the pick but Cooper at #18 would be a lot smarter than Vaccaro at #18 so there’s that at least. My preference, and the reason why RG is only the 4th biggest need, is for the Cowboys to sign Brandon Moore and solidify their two OG spots with cheap veterans. Hopefully Dallas can get a deal done before the draft and shore up this position.

Other areas that aren’t as pressing but worth addressing:

Backup TE: With the Cowboys losing their #2 TE each of the past two seasons in free agency they could stand to add another player in the later rounds to compete with James Hanna for the job.

WR: Dez Bryant and Miles Austin provide a great 1-2 punch but little is behind them. Dwayne Harris came on towards the end of the season and Cole Beasley is an underrated player I’ve been trumpeting for the past year but both are slot receivers and when Bryant or Austin gets injured next, it’s not a question of if but when with this duo, there will be no one to replace them on the outside. A developmental player in the mid rounds would be a good choice.

C: Phil Costa was extended by the Cowboys so they clearly like him more than I do but to me this team hasn’t had a good center in the past 3 seasons and it’s time the position was addressed. The draft rarely has good depth at center so again it appears that the Cowboys would have to spend a pick in rounds 1-3 to get one with any talent but it’s about time they decided on that course of action as the musical chairs game at center needs to end.

Conclusion: The Cowboys have few holes yet those needs are very pressing due to the down years of Jay Ratliff and Doug Free and the recent cutting of Gerald Sensabaugh. The signings of Justin Durant and Will Allen give the Cowboys some flexibility going into the draft as they no longer need to address the LB position and now only need to add 1 safety to the roster so this draft appears pretty well set in how the Cowboys will use their first few picks. I can almost guarantee that of the Cowboys first 3 draft picks, at least 2 of them will be either safety or defensive tackle. The Doug Free situation and the potential signing of Brandon Moore make RT and OG arguably less pressing, I say arguably less pressing because Doug Free was ARGUABLY the worst right tackle in football last year so I am not one of those expecting a bounce back year in 2013, but Dallas addressing either of those positions with one of their first 3 choices would make sense as well. With the general needs of Dallas taken care of in this blog entry we will move forward to specific players and how they might fit in Dallas’ scheme. Be on the lookout for that article next week.

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