By JP Fox-Contributing Writer/Radio Host-Football Reporters Online
As we know, the Dallas Cowboys have had problems in the past few years with finishing games. If it weren’t Tony Romo making a critical error (or two) late in the game, it was the defense’s poor ability to hold onto a lead. Coming into draft season, this is a critical year for Jerry Jones and company to hit a home run in the draft to make sure the team takes the next step. With Tony Romo turning 32 years old by the time April 26th rolls around, the Boys need to make a move soon before the window of opportunity closes on the chance of success with a franchise QB.
Let’s take a look at the position by position breakdown of the Dallas Cowboys draft needs and the chances of them going after that position in the draft:
QB: Very low chance
Like I mentioned, Tony Romo is entering his age 32 season. He just had one of his best statistical seasons of his career and honestly doesn’t look like he is about to slow down now. In the final 9 games of this past season, Romo put up 20 touchdowns compared to only 3 interceptions. He also lost two fumbles. So a 20:5 TD to turnover ratio was a great run by Romo. But in the final 5 games of the season, the Boys again struggled in December with a horrible 1-4 record, resulting in an 8-8 season and missing the playoffs. Starting QB is not the problem with the Cowboys. If the Cowboys are going to target this position come draft time, it’ll be late in the draft for a developmental guy. Stephen McGee hasn’t matured enough to be relied on as a true #2 QB and that’s disappointing since the Cowboys spent a 4th round pick on him hoping he’d eventually be that guy. I fully expect the Boys to target a veteran QB in free agency to hold down the back up position while they possibly bring in somebody else to push McGee out of a job entirely.
RB/FB: Very Low chance
DeMarco Murray was a 3rd round pick in the 2011 draft and broke onto the season in the St.Louis Rams game in week 7. In that game, Murray broke the franchise’s all-time single game rushing record with 253 yards. He ended the season with just below 900 games which ended in week 14 with an ankle injury. Murray is thought to be 100% by the time OTA’s and training camp roll around. With Murray and Felix Jones as the backup, the Boys are in a good place at the running back position right now. The flashes of brilliance by rookie Phillip Tanner also has the Boys in good shape at the third running back spot. Also, starting fullback Tony Fiammetta will be brought back after he burst onto the scene as a more than reliable pass and run blocker. The Boys will not spend a draft choice on either of these positions.
WR/TE: Low chance
At wide receiver, the Cowboys have pro-bowler Miles Austin and on-the-verge of super stardom playmaker Dez Bryant at the starting positions. #3 WR Laurent Robinson is a free agent but it’s expected the Cowboys will go all in on trying to bring him back after he burst onto the scene with 11 TD’s this past season. If they bring him back, the Cowboys will be set at the position. After those three, the Cowboys have several younger players that they are on and won’t need to spend a draft choice to crowd the field when it comes to players competing for the #4-6 WR positions. If anything, they’d target a guy who can be a return specialist since the Boys haven’t had that type of player since Deion Sanders. Dez Bryant will only be playing WR from here on out. At tight end, Jason Witten is on his way to the Hall-of-Fame. Backup John Phillips had his season end abruptly with a knee injury. In the preseason, Phillips was probably the most impressive player on the entire roster. With Martellus Bennett expected to move on in free agency, the Boys don’t have a set in stone guy for the #3 spot. If the Cowboys are going to go after a guy at the TE position, I believe it’ll be in rounds 5-7 to be the #3.
Offensive Line: High Chance
With the 9th overall pick in the 2011 draft, the Cowboys spent it on OT Tyron Smith. Smith ended up starting at right tackle and graded out as one of the best tackles in the entire NFL. Smith will flip-flop positions with Doug Free. Free is better suited to play right tackle anyway, and he looked lost last season protecting Romo’s blind-side. He’ll be back at his natural position while Smith, who is only 21 years old, will be at left tackle. The problem with the OLine is inside. The Cowboys flip-flopped two-three players last season at center. Two of those players were undrafted and inexperienced. Also, at guard, the Cowboys had old-timers Kyle Kosier, Montrae Holland, and Derrick Dockery rotating at times. Also, Bill Nagy was called on at times to play. Jerry Jones really fooled himself thinking the Boys were set on the interior offensive line with the mixture of low-round/undrafted players and long-time veterans. I expect the Cowboys to definitely focus on OG early in the draft. Names to remember with that 14th overall pick: Stanford Guard David DeCastro, Georgia OL Cordy Glenn, Wisconsin OL Peter Konz.
Defensive Line: Medium-High Chance
Jay Ratliff is manning the NT position. Each and every offseason, people say that Ratliff needs to be moved to defensive end. Why? I’m not completely sure. The guy has made multiple pro-bowls at the NT position. But at his age and the beating he’s taken, it might now be time to move him outside where he could create mismatches. If the Boys decide to do that, they could target a NT early on in the draft, probably in the 2nd round. If Ratliff stays inside, the Boys could also target a guy that can play 3-4 DE. The Cowboys have Marcus Spears and Kenyon Coleman at the DE positions. Two above-average players but they definitely can be upgraded, It’s a definitely possibility that they target a guy in round 1 that can be versatile in also playing up at 3-4 OLB. DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, and Victor Butler all have experience with the Cowboys playing DE on some downs while also standing up at other times. Quinton Coples, DE/OLB, from North Carolina is a possibility in the 1st round.
Linebacker: Medium Chance
All-Pro DeMarcus Ware is at OLB and that wont change any time soon. At the other OLB position, Anthony Spencer just received the teams’ franchise tag. The $8.8 million cap number is pretty high for a player that is not near elite status. But on the flip side, the Cowboys coaches/personnel value Spencer’s run-stopping ability, his ability to drop into coverage, and also to get to the Quarterback. He’ll most likely be retained on that 1 year salary if no long-term deal is reached. 2010 2nd round draft pick Sean Lee developed into possibly one of the teams best defensive players while becoming the #1 MLB. With him at one spot, and the likely departure of veterans Bradie James and/or Keith Brooking, the Boys will likely turn to 2011 2nd round pick Bruce Carter to take over alongside Lee. Having Ware and Spencer on the outside, with two young guys in the middle, the Cowboys LB’s could be the most underrated part of the team and end up being the most valuable. The backups are another story. The Cowboys have several younger players that they put high value on. Orie Lemon, Alex Albright, and Victor Butler are guys the Cowboys see as potential contributors to the team. Aside from the starting 4 and those 3, the Cowboys could choose to use a draft pick or two on either OLB and/or ILB. No high draft pick will be used on this position but for depth purposes, it’s a definite possibility.
Secondary: Very high chance
Here’s where things get pretty bad for the Cowboys. Starting cornerbacks Terence Newman and Michael Jenkins both underachieved last season. Newman turned into a way below average cornerback who just looked old and washed up. I expect the Cowboys to cut him before free agency starts on March 13th. Jenkins dealt with multiple injuries this past season while not showing the ball skills that made him a pro bowler just a few years ago. The Cowboys will bank on a bounce-back season from him. Orlando Scandrick is the 3rd corner on the roster and isn’t all that bad, but only when he plays in the slot. Jenkins will be back as a starter and Scandrick, who signed an extension during this past season, will be back to man the slot CB positon. If the Cowboys target one of the top CB’s on the market, such as Cortland Finnegan or Brandon Carr (as they are expected to do), the need for a CB in round 1 will go out the window. But even if the Boys do end up with one of the big names, that doesn’t get that position out of the woods. Beyond Jenkins and Scandrick, there is absolutely no depth. Draft picks need to be used, in whichever rounds, to add depth to a poorly manned position. At safety, the Cowboys have Gerald Sensabaugh locked up to be the strong safety. With Abram Elam likely moving on in free agency after 1 underwhelming season in Dallas, safety could be a top priority for the Cowboys come Day 1 and Day 2 of the draft. They definitely need a ballhawk in the secondary, something they haven’t had since the beginning of Roy Williams’ career. Alabama safety Mark Barron should be a name that’s kept in mind.
Kicker/Punter: Very Low Chance
Kicker Dan Bailey, undrafted last season, converted 32 of 37 FG’s and proved to be a good kickoff specialist as well. He’ll be the teams kicker from here on out while most likely pushing David Buehler completely out of a job, as he was only valuable on kickoffs anyways. Punter Mat McBriar was one of the best punters in the NFL for some time before hurting his plant foot during the season. He is a free agent come March 13th. I expect the Cowboys to attempt to re-sign him. If they decide not to, or are unsuccessful in bringing him back, the Cowboys are very high on rookie Punter Chris Jones. Jones punted in two games and averaged just about 43 yards per punt. He was undrafted last season and the Cowboys may have found something in him.
With all of that said, and without factoring in free agency, which can blow up everything I just said, the biggest needs for the Cowboys will be:
Cornerback, Safety, Interior Offensive Line, and Defensive Line
The least area for concern for the Cowboys will be:
QB, RB, WR, LB
Jerry Jones needs to do his homework and make sure that the team drafts players that fit specific needs. No more of the best player available nonsense. The Super Bowl Champs reside in their division and the Cowboys need to take the necessary steps to get over the hump.