Five “Must Have’s” for Dallas Cowboys in the 2014 NFL Draft
By Matthew Postins
For a couple of years now I’ve written and talked about the “doughnut hole” of talent on this team. The doughnut hole is the gap in talent between the players drafted when Bill Parcells was head coach (2003-2006) and when Jason Garrett took over (mid-2010 to present).
Players drafted from 2007 to 2010 – the period in which Wade Phillips was head coach – would be on their second contracts by now. Teams that are successful in the NFL draft those players, groom those players and keep those players. They fill defined roles on successful teams. They keep teams from having to spend big in free agency to fill holes they couldn’t fill with drafted players.
The Cowboys did a poor job during Phillips’ regime, though one could hardly blame Phillips. Jerry Jones was the one that pulled the trigger on those moves. He still pulls the trigger today. The only reason to feel a little more optimistic about the players drafted over the past few years is that, well, they’re young and you can be optimistic about youth.
But there’s still that big doughnut hole in the middle. Let’s put it another way.
And if the Cowboys had kept DeMarcus Ware and Miles Austin, it would be a tie. That exposes the Cowboys’ inability to find the right talent immediately after Parcells left the team. The Cowboys have spent most of the past four seasons under Garrett playing catch-up.
This Cowboys team is exceptionally young, and I don’t think that many fans understand that. And it will only get younger after next weekend when the Cowboys draft another 11 players. If you’re the Cowboys or a Cowboys fan, here is what needs to happen during this draft for the Cowboys to take another step forward.
The Cowboys need to draft at least three players that can contribute now. Last year the Cowboys had four selections in the first three rounds and hit on half of them. First-rounder Travis Frederick became the starting center from Day 1 and was an All-Rookie selection. Third-round pick Terrance Williams played so well by the end of the season the Cowboys didn’t need Miles Austin anymore. But second-round pick Gavin Escobar and the other third-round pick, safety J.J. Wilcox, did not make much of an impact last season. That isn’t to say that Escobar and Wilcox won’t improve in 2014. But the fact is the Cowboys need to select three players next week that can contribute immediately, either as starters or steady rotation players. They don’t have to be selected in the first three rounds. But in all likelihood those are the three rounds in which the Cowboys will find likely starters or contributors.
The Cowboys need to come out of this draft with options at defensive line. Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli likes to have options up front. He wants seven or eight linemen he can rotate throughout the game. The Cowboys had two big problems last year up front – injuries and depth. The Cowboys have made some inroads into rectifying that in free agency by signing three players – defensive tackles Henry Melton and Terrell McClain, and defensive end Jeremy Mincey. But they need more options. If I had to put a number on it, I would say the Cowboys need to come away with three defensive linemen. That would give them a dozen defensive linemen to work with as they lead up to the season and enough options to whittle it down to the right eight or nine players.
The Cowboys need to draft another wide receiver. Hear me out. The Cowboys have five of them on the roster right now, plus three signed to futures contracts. That might sound like enough. But I’m not sure. Dez Bryant, Williams, Cole Beasley and Dwayne Harris are locks. The fifth, LaRon Byrd, missed all of last season with a concussion. The Cowboys carried five wide receivers last year, but that was predicated on the belief that the Cowboys were going to use more two-tight end sets in the passing game. That never materialized as Escobar ended up catching just nine passes opposite Jason Witten. There is also the matter of Beasley and Harris entering free agency next year, though Beasley may end up as just a restricted free agent. Planning ahead has not been a hallmark of Jerry Jones as of late. This would be a good opportunity to show some foresight and protect themselves in 2015.
The Cowboys need to strongly consider drafting a quarterback in the middle rounds. As with wide receiver, quarterback would be a good position to plan ahead, but for different reasons. No one thinks that Tony Romo is going away. But at some point his skills will diminish. In fact, it’s likely to happen in the next three to four years. That’s the length of a rookie contract for a mid-round pick selected next week. Yes, the Cowboys have four quarterbacks under contract, and the three backups – Kyle Orton, Brandon Weeden and Caleb Hanie – are pulling in close to a combined $5 million. But not all of them will make the roster and if Orton comes back do you really need Weeden or Hanie as a third-stringer? Jones has told reporters before that he’s not enamored with grooming a quarterback only to see him go to another team. Well then groom one for your own. I’ve written for some time that I believe that Georgia’s Aaron Murray would make a great fit for this offense, as long as you don’t reach to get him. Murray might slide to the fourth round. He might not. That’s why I say “strongly consider” drafting a quarterback. It should be the right fit and it should not cost the Cowboys a whole lot. Murray may not be the only right fit in this draft. But if the Cowboys don’t come across the right fit, I think it’s OK to wait one more year to draft Romo’s successor. But if the right player is there, snap him up.
The Cowboys have to get lucky in the seventh round. Cowboys executive vice-president Stephen Jones told reporters recently that the Cowboys “own” the seventh round, as they have six picks in that round, thanks to compensatory picks. What the Cowboys really need is to get lucky. I remember a few years ago when the New Orleans Saints took a lightly-regarded wide receiver named Marques Colston in the seventh round. Colston is now New Orleans’ leading all-time receiver. Other seventh-rounders you’ve heard of include wide receiver T.J. Houshmanzadeh, guard Adam Timmerman, former Cowboy Brock Marion and tight end Shannon Sharpe. Heck, throw in former Cowboys defensive tackle Jay Ratliff. You don’t expect to find a starter in the seventh round. But sometimes you luck into one. The Cowboys need luck on their side in that round next weekend.