The Dallas Cowboys, like the rest of the NFL, will be assessing more than 300 potential NFL rookies this week in Indianapolis at the NFL Scouting Combine. At this point the Cowboys are refining their list of players on their Big Board and the combine gives them a chance to assess and interview potential draft picks.
So who will draw the Cowboys’ interest? We can’t tell you for sure. But based on what is known about the Cowboys’ draft philosophy, offensive and defensive philosophies and perceived personnel needs, we can draw some conclusions. Today we’ll look at defense.
Defensive line. The change to the Cover 2 defense with a 4-3 front is going to have a huge impact on how the Cowboys approach their defensive line for 2013. With Jay Ratliff a potential cap casualty and linebacker Anthony Spencer – who would project as a 4-3 defensive end in the scheme – a free agent, the Cowboys don’t have much up front. DeMarcus Ware will man the quick end position, but much of the rest of the projected personnel is a mismatch. There is plenty of consensus in mock drafts that the Cowboys could spend their first-round pick on a defensive tackle, where the Cowboys are especially vulnerable. Fortunately this draft will be deep in interior linemen. Two players the Cowboys are sure to invest time in are Purdue’s Kawaan Short and Missouri’s Sheldon Richardson. Both are versatile enough to play either the one-technique (more of the run-stopper in the Cover 2) or the three-technique (the Warren Sapp position). Both made livings behind the line of scrimmage during their collegiate careers. Florida State’s Shariff Floyd is going to get attention, as well. There are several other tackles with first-round grades, but most project as 3-4 nose tackles. Floyd, Richardson and Short fit what new Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli like up front in those positions.
Don’t be surprised if Dallas goes back to that well later in the draft. Illinois’ Akeem Spence projects as a third- or fourth-round pick right now. He is considered a prototype three-technique tackle. The big debit against Spence is that he doesn’t penetrate the line of scrimmage as much as Short or Richardson. But every mid-round pick comes with something to improve upon. If the Cowboys are thinking about a last-day selection that could help them against the run, Mississippi State’s Josh Boyd is someone to track. Boyd consistently handled double-teams against some extremely talented interior linemen in the SEC and could project as a one-technique in the Cover 2.
With Ware in house, and outside linebackers like Alex Albright preparing to make a conversion to defensive end, the Cowboys could invest here, too. However, a first-round pick on a pass-rusher is unlikely. The Cowboys will also want to invest in an end with run-stopping ability to pair opposite Ware. The Cowboys talked with SMU’s Margus Hunt at the Senior Bowl. But he didn’t have the best week of practice or the best game on the field. But his measurables (6-foot-8, 277 pounds) will make everyone take notice. He should have a good week and the Cowboys could sit down with him again. Another name the Cowboys may put on their radar this week is Ohio State’s William Gholston, who has what the Cowboys could be looking for in a left end. He played at a high level in a major conference, he put up great numbers in 2012, showed he could stop the run and was an enforcer in the passing game with 10 passes defended. Right now he’s considered a fourth- or fifth-round pick and most scouts believe he has yet to reach his potential.
If Dallas wants to plan for life without Ware – and it must at some point – watch Missouri Western’s David Bass. At 6-foot-4, 263 pounds, he fits the size requirement for a right end in the Cover 2. He had 39.5 sacks in 50 games in Division II. Scouts say that he’s not intimidated by playing with Division I players. Right now he can be had for a fifth- or sixth-round pick and you can stash him away for a few years.
Linebacker. For 2013, the Cowboys are set at linebacker with Sean Lee, Bruce Carter and Dan Connor. Lee and Conner are free agents in 2014, though it’s highly likely the Cowboys will find a way to extend Lee this year so they can avoid free agency with their top linebacker. The Cowboys are most likely shopping for a linebacker that can help them on the strong side, where Connor projects, and who can take over for Connor when his contract expires. This won’t be a first-round pick for the Cowboys.
Connecticut’s Sio Moore was highly productive in college and should draw some attention from the Cowboys. The problem is he’s projected as a second-round pick and that may not fit where the Cowboys want to address the position. Two things stand out about Moore. First, he’s considered versatile. Second, some say he’s a better fit at weak side than strong side. So drafting a player like Moore could serve a purpose once Carter’s contract expires in 2014. Either way, Moore is a tough player who can tackle and cover, both of which are valuable in the Cover 2.
A couple of other players the Cowboys could look at this week are Florida’s Jelani Jenkins, who spent much of 2012 banged up and decided to come out early. He has the quickness to work in coverage and played in a big-time program. He needs more development and could be had for a fifth-round pick right now. There’s also Penn State’s Michael Mauti, who projects at the right size for the Cover 2 and is a great run defender. The questions are his pass coverage ability and his health, as he’s battled ACL injuries during college. Still, as a seventh-round pick, a player who bounced back to earn All-Big Ten First Team honors in 2012 may be worth looking into.
Secondary. Cornerback won’t be a high priority for the Cowboys, as they have their top three corners returning in Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick. If you think in terms of best player available, a late-round pick may be in order. Purdue senior Josh Johnson is a last-day value who was productive with the Boilermakers and knows how to play man coverage. Now, you may say that the Cover 2 corner doesn’t need man skills, but I watched Kiffin’s defenses in Tampa and that’s a misnomer. Kiffin likes his corners to be aggressive, physical and instinctive. Johnson has all three skills. There’s also the mercurial Tyrann Mathieu, who right now is a late-round grade and has some career rehab to do. But “The Honey Badger” has exceptional ball skills and anticipatory skills, both high values in the Cover 2.
Like corner, safety seems a low-value target. Still, there’s some question about Danny McCray’s value as a third safety and last year’s late-round pick, Matt Johnson, couldn’t stay healthy. It’s not a strong class at the position. Alabama’s Robert Lester is only valued as a fifth-round pick right now, but it’s hard to go wrong with a defensive back with personal tutoring by Nick Saban. Lester has a good reputation as an on-ball defender and his size (6-foot-1, 212 pounds) makes him an intriguing choice. The Cowboys may want to get to know more about him and about Notre Dame’s Zeke Motta, a free safety who is about Lester’s size and can really bring the wood when it comes to tackling. Like Lester, he’s a late-round value.
Specialists. It’s hard to imagine the Cowboys spending a pick on a kicker or punter. Dan Bailey is firmly entrenched and the Cowboys are still high on their young punter, Chris Jones.