By Matthew Postins
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 offense.
Quarterback. The Cowboys have set extending Tony Romo’s contract as a priority. Given that, plus the fact that backup Kyle Orton is under contract for next year, the Cowboys probably won’t spend a first-round pick on a quarterback. But they do need to think about the future, so a mid-round selection isn’t out of the question. Given the influx of young QBs like Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick, it’s not out of the question the Cowboys will look at Florida State’s E.J. Manuel, as he fits the run-pass profile. To a lesser degree, Kansas State’s Collin Klein fits that bill, too.
But drafting a player like that requires a philosophical shift down the line. If you’re drafting to what the Cowboys do now, which is a pro-style formation, there are several developmental options. The Cowboys could look at Tennessee’s Tyler Bray, who has been attached to the Cowboys in at least one mock draft. Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson will intrigue Jerry Jones, but he seems unlikely to fall past the second round at this point. One quarterback who might be right in Dallas’ wheelhouse in the fourth or fifth round is Miami of Ohio’s Zac Dysert, who put up great numbers for the Redhawks and is drawing comparisons to Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger. If the Cowboys are committed to improving the defensive and offensive lines with early picks, it’s hard to see the Cowboys using anything higher than a fourth-round pick to address their future at this position.
Backfield. With DeMarco Murray as the clear starter at running back, the need here is to increase the competition for holdovers Phillip Tanner and Lance Dunbar, assuming the Cowboys allow Felix Jones to walk in free agency. As Murray is the Cowboys’ more physical back, the likelihood is to go after more of a home-run hitter with top-end speed. Right now Oregon’s Kenjon Barner is listed as a potential fourth- or fifth-round pick and might be a steal at that vicinity. He’s 5-foot-9, 188 pounds, has top-end speed and was highly productive in college. Another good change-of-pace option is UCLA’s Jonathan Franklin, who showed off some real speed during the All-Star games. Franklin is a little bigger at 5-foot-10, 201 pounds. The Cowboys won’t ignore Knile Davis of Arkansas, either. You can count on that. He’s bigger at 6-foot, 226 pounds, but those Hog ties will be quite enticing to Jones. Davis has great potential, but durability is an issue. If the Cowboys decide to go full-on jitterbug, Fresno State’s Robbie Rouse would be a good choice. He’s just 5-foot-6, but he has back-to-back 1,700-yard seasons for the Bulldogs and is drawing comparisons to Darren Sproles.
It’s unclear how the Cowboys will approach the fullback position, as Lawrence Vickers could be a cap casualty. Either way, there is a need for a lead blocking back of the future. SMU’s Zach Line projects as a fullback, though a bit undersized at 6-foot, 233 pounds. However, he can block and he brings great rushing and receiving skills to the table. He left SMU among its Top 3 rushers of all-time. Ohio State’s Zach Boren is larger, coming in at 6-foot, 245 pounds, and has much the same skills as Line. Both can be had for a late pick and are worth a look.
Receivers/Tight Ends. Should Miles Austin not fall victim to the salary cap, then the Cowboys may lose only Kevin Ogletree in free agency. In that case, the need for a receiver isn’t paramount. If the Cowboys draft a receiver, it should be late in the draft. Aaron Mellette of Elon was a highly productive receiver in FCS and gets a chance to get some attention this week. Labeled as a fifth- or sixth-round pick, he has above-average size (6-foot-3) and holds the Southern Conference single-season record for receiving yards. Duke’s Conner Vernon is in the same mold. He’s smaller (6-foot), but led Duke in receiving each of the last three years and is considered to have great hands. At this level you also want to think of players that have extra value in the return game, like current Cowboy Dwayne Harris. In that case, South Carolina’s Ace Sanders should get some attention. He’s just 5-foot-8, but he was the Gamecocks’ best punt returner last year and was sixth in the nation in average return. He was South Carolina’s second-leading receiver each of the past two years. He’s considered a fourth- or fifth-round pick.
The luxury of Jason Witten means that the Cowboys don’t have to spend a high pick on a tight end. Plus, the emergence of James Hanna late last season means the Cowboys may already have his backup, if John Phillips departs in free agency. If the Cowboys take a tight end, it will likely be late. There is an interesting prospect in Jake Stoneburner of Ohio State, who right now is valued in the sixth or seventh round. His coach, Urban Meyer, compares him to current Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez. He’s 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, and while he didn’t catch many passes last season the Buckeyes lined him up in several different places to block.
Offensive Line. Where to start? The Cowboys really can’t go wrong spending a first-round pick here, and there’s no shortage of potential first-round picks on the offensive line. The question is which players will drop to Dallas at No. 18? You can probably take Texas A&M tackle Luke Joeckel and Central Michigan tackle Eric Fisher out of the equation, though Dallas will watch them closely just in case.
More likely it will be a guard that will be in position for Dallas at this selection, which means the Cowboys will keep a close eye on Alabama’s Chance Warmack and North Carolina’s Jonathan Cooper. Both players are probably higher values than No. 18, but because the NFL puts more of an emphasis on tackles, it could be that one or both players could be available in April. It would be hard to pass up Warmack, who some consider to be the best guard on the board. Alabama’s massive tackle D.J. Fluker anchored the right side for the Tide this season. Fluker will probably spend the week addressing his weight (355 pounds) and trying to convince scouts he can play in the NFL at that weight. Fluker is graded as a potential first-round pick, but may be there at No. 18.
Another Alabama product, Barrett Jones, can play any position on the line and, to some, is considered a second-round pick. Dallas will keep its eye on him, as a player with three national title rings who brings position flexibility would be hard to pass up, even as he recovers from surgery. Oklahoma tackle Lane Johnson is also someone Dallas will keep an eye on. He’s talented enough to step in at right tackle immediately. That’s one thing to consider. If Dallas goes offensive line in the first round, that player will likely supplant someone in the starting lineup.
Dallas will keep its eye on plenty of linemen this week, as it is possible they’ll select a second lineman later in the draft. At tackle David Quessenberry is getting some attention, though the San Jose State product is just 294 pounds and will likely need to gain a few pounds. But his quickness is intriguing. At guard Kentucky’s Larry Warford is getting plenty of love this offseason and is now a clear second-round pick that is pushing for a first-round grade. He’s a road-grading, 333-pound guard who was very impressive at the Senior Bowl. Syracuse’s Justin Pugh is listed as a guard, but has also played tackle. If Dallas chooses to go after a center late in the draft, Notre Dame’s Braxston Cave would be someone to keep an eye on. He has the NFL size, has worked with different types of quarterbacks and could be a steal in the fifth or sixth round. It’s no guarantee the Cowboys will keep both their centers.