Tony Romo has been sacked 72 times over the past two seasons, a stretch in which the Cowboys’ offensive line has allowed the team’s quarterbacks to be hit 156 times. That’s a manageable but still high level of abuse, and it remains remarkable that Romo hasn’t missed a game since 2010, despite having to play through a punctured lung at one point.
Lungs are important, you know, because of that whole breathing deal, and nevermind the throwing bit that comes during the breathing process.
Two years ago, Dallas invested a first-round pick (ninth overall) in tackle Tyronn Smith. But Romo still endured three games this past season in which he was sacked four or more times, most notably a Week 11 win over Cleveland when he went down seven times, with the total lost yardage accounting for over half the field (56 yards).
So further reinforcements are needed among the large bodies tasked with protecting the man who was just given many shiny new dollars. We can expect a guard to be selected with the 18th overall pick then, right? But what happens if the top guards are gone by then?
1. Will upgrading the offensive line and keeping Romo upright be the early focus?
We can only hope.
It appears that need and value are going to intersect perfectly for the Cowboys. In a draft that has elite talent at the interior positions (namely guards Chance Warmack, Larry Warford, and personal favorite Jonathan Cooper), it would appear that Dallas is in a position to grab a top prospect to address one of their heavier need areas. Most Super Bowl contenders have an offensive line that boasts at least a first, second, and third-round starter, if not better. Dallas lines up with first rounder Tyron Smith plus a fourth, a seventh, and two UDFAs.
Going O-Line early should get Dallas one step closer to clean pockets and running lanes, and allow them to be the elite offense they were between 2007-09, coincidentally their last playoff run. It seems Dallas is moving towards more of a Zone Blocking Scheme, which means that Cooper is the coup d’etas of this draft for them. He’s athletic, nimble, effortless to the second level, and powerful. Warmack and Warford are just as elite, but they’re better fits for Man Blocking Schemes.
2. What about a defensive end early? If Chance Warmack and Jonathan Cooper are spoken for, the focus could turn to finding more DE depth during the switch to a 4-3. Who’s the best fit?
Dallas’ problem on the defensive line isn’t one of talent, it’s one of age. Anthony Spencer is 29 and is the youngest projected starter. As most know, defensive line players tend to regress once they hit 30, so while that isn’t a death sentence, it does cause some concern that we may see diminishing returns from DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff, and Jason Hatcher.
Spencer is still on the franchise tag, one-year plan. So combined with Ware, the team could be planning ahead by drafting either an open or closed DE who can start in the near future. There are several that are expected to go high in this draft; Ziggy Ansah, Barkevious Mingo, Dion Jordan, Datone Jones, as well as players I’d rather they stay away from like DaMontre Moore (strength), Sam Montgomery (effort), and Bjoern Werner.
The player I think will have the best career, though, would be Florida State’s Tank Carradine, who is coming off a late-season ACL injury. Carradine’s rush moves and first step are mighty impressive, and I think he’d be the cream of the crop if not for the knee issue. Dallas can’t wait for him in the second round, becauase there’s no way he makes it past Atlanta at 30, if he even makes it there. If Kiffin and Marinelli want a new toy, I’d start my Christmas list with a Tank to play with.
3. Then there’s the backfield. A running back is likely to be selected sometime in the early rounds to provide support behind an injury prone DeMarco Murray now that Felix Jones is gone. Maybe Jonathan Franklin or Le’Veon Bell in about the third round?
Here’s where I differ from a lot of my contemporaries. I see holes in basically every running back’s game. I wouldn’t spend the early pick it would require for Eddie Lacy or Gio Bernard with too many other pressing needs. But if Dallas got to the third round, traded back to get a seventh pick, and then selected South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore…I wouldn’t be crying tears of disappointment. Lattimore is the only back who would have received a universal first-round grade if he didn’t blow up a knee again, and he seems to be on an Adrian Peterson recovery schedule. He’s the type of talent you take a risk on. Even though Dallas paired two injury risks together in Murray and Felix, there amazingly wasn’t a single game in the last two years where neither didn’t start.
Franklin is very intriguing, but I don’t know if he’s a “franchise” back, and that might be what Dallas needs should Murray miss extended time again (he’s missed nine games over the past two years). Wisconsin’s Montee Ball isn’t overworked, just as Ray Rice wasn’t when he came out of college, so he’s a possibility. I love Andre Ellington from Clemson as a change of pace/returner guy.
I also think that Arkansas’ Knile Davis, a projected first rounder two years ago before wrecking his ankle, looks to finally be recovered by the way he dominated the combine. Any speed score (metric of speed per weight) over 120 is elite, and he came in at 124.5. Then he out-bench pressed all runners except for one fullback. If the Cowboys spend their picks elsewhere and Davis is there in the 6th round, take a risk on him and then grab a UDFA with a healthy resume, and there will be several. A later-round guy I like is Pittsburgh’s Ray Graham, and I’m looking into under the radar gents like Vanderbilt’s Zac Stacy, Missouri Western’s Mike Hill, and Knile’s teammate Dennis Johnson. At fullback, I’m really intrigued by Zach Line of SMU.
4. Tyrann Mathieu has been loosely connected to the Cowboys, mostly because Jerry Jones isn’t afraid of prospects with character concerns. Is he worth a late-round gamble?
If he’s linked to Dallas, it hasn’t become known in the media circles around the Cowboys. There’s a different culture around Dallas and it does not look for players that have previous histories of run-in’s with the authorities. Jason Garrett has an edict he calls RKG’s, and those are team leaders, captains, and guys with great maturity…is anyone using those words to describe the Honey Badger? Not gonna happen.
5. What other needs should be addressed?
Since 2007, Dallas has been formulating their draft strategy for the first round. They go after the “Money 5″ and Best In Breed. Since Anthony Spencer in ’07, they’ve taken a player who lines up at one of the expensive positions (cheaper rookie deals means a better return on investment on positions that command high dollar) such as quarterback, receiver, left tackle, cornerback, pass rusher. Those picks were Anthony Spencer, Mike Jenkins, Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith, and Morris Claiborne. They only strayed from that with Felix Jones when they had two first rounders. Over the last three years that’s combined with making sure they grab the best guy at his position (Bryant/Tyron/trading up for Claiborne). You can probably expect at least one of the two to hold true.
Now, that doesn’t mean that Dallas’ board will resemble everyone else’s. The Consensus is that Warmack is the best guard, but Cooper is the best for a zone-blocking scheme. Star Lotulelei and Shariff Floyd might be the best defensive tackles, but they could prefer Sheldon Richardson. And then again, those aren’t money positions. Maybe they look to bail from the No. 18 spot if those guys aren’t available. Safety’s a huge need, and Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro might still be around.
Don’t lose your lunch should Dallas select Tennessee’s Cordarelle Patterson or West Virginia’s Tavon Austin. You might think Dallas is set at wideout with Dez Bryant and Tavon Austin, but remember that they bid a third rounder for Josh Gordon in last year’s supplemental draft. Wideout is always on their mind, and this is actually a Money 5 position. In a draft this crazy, Dallas could strike at any of these positions with their six picks. They’re all on the table.