By Zach Walker
The Cowboys season was awesome, and could have ended with a Super Bowl berth. The Cowboys offense last season was epic, a force that no team can take lightly, with the combination of a stout run game, provided by great blocking from blue-chip players; and a deadly play-action passing game that couldn’t be taken lightly, thanks to the very real possibility of a run happening. What Tony Romo said in training camp that we’ll see “the best version” of him, turned out to be a true endorsement of his abilities. Romo played lights out football, no longer forcing throws into closed windows, and often get more than enough time in the pocket to find receivers downfield. DeMarco Murray worked himself to the bone, leading the league in most of the running back categories, and really exploiting holes opened up by the offensive line.
The receivers performed well in their roles: Dez, the Beast; Terrence Williams, the speed; Cole Beasley, the knife; Dwayne Harris, the special teams monster. Unfortunately, free agency could reduce the remaining provisions, with only Williams and rookie Devin Street untouchable for this offseason. The tight ends aren’t anything to worry about, they have Jason Witten. Along with Witten, Gavin Escobar added four touchdown catches, just one behind Witten, and James Hanna is a solid enough blocker.
The Dallas beef is what makes this team a contender. Tyron Smith and Zack Martin are first team All-Pro, Travis Frederick is second team, but to have three All-Pro players on one five man line is just damn impressive. Ron Leary is very good, but needs to work at staying healthy, because he’s dangerous against power rushers. Doug Free is an impending free agent, and personally, I think the guy could leave and get some solid cheddar. Because there are a lot of teams that could use a solid tackle like Doug Free, it would be a gap needed to be filled, but I’m not opposed to replacing him in the draft, because Jeremy Parnell is also unguarded for the taking, and based of his play, he could get a shot somewhere. On offense, there aren’t too many spots to worry about, but getting some players to work into the possible gap on the offensive line, getting another running back could be very useful, and maybe a quarterback to groom for the future.
On defense there are many more questions, most importantly, who are next year’s linebackers? Justin Durant, Bruce Carter, and Rolando McClain are all free agents, leaving just Anthony Hitchens, Cameron Lawrence, Kyle Wilber, and the oft-injured Sean Lee. Now, at this point, Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens are serious starters, and a draft player is a serious option on Day Two, maybe day one is the stars align. I am not as worried about the defensive line as others are, because they played out of their minds. Tyrone Crawford got moved into a position that he absolutely excelled at, and Jeremy Mincey is a freaking beast coming off the edge. Late in the season, the line got some extra ammo, having DeMarcus Lawrence getting into games down the stretch, and though he didn’t record a regular season sack, he got two in the postseason. Josh Brent got back into the mix, and when I saw him on the field, standing next to Ken Bishop, Brent looks like a tank, and on paper there isn’t too much between the two of them, and I can’t wait to see what he can bring after training camp and OTA’s. George Selvie, Anthony Spencer, and Nick Hayden are free agents, and I can’t think that any of them are considered priority free agents and with likely be moving on, so maybe as many as two of the first five picks could be used to help replenish the “Rushmen.”
The secondary is, and has been, a problem for a really long time. Orlando Scandrick is truthfully the lone bright spot for the entire unit. I really love JJ Wilcox’s play, but to say that his job is safe is just an oversight. Barry Church is much the same player as Wilcox, which doesn’t bode well for him if the Cowboys look for a new safety in the draft. Brandon Carr had a seriously down year, but did come on strong down the stretch, but his cap number is pretty large and could get cap ‘capped.’ Morris Claiborne has one year left on his rookie deal and needs to have a great season, just to get his stock up to tolerable to even have a shot at decent second contract. So, on defense, there are holes to fill, pretty much everywhere, and the cliché “take the best player available” comes immediately to mind when thinking of the draft and the Cowboys defense.
The way I’m going to lay this out is, I’m going to put one player at the pick, then a few options of players that could be floating around the Cowboys pick in that round.
1st Round – Mississippi State LB Benardrick McKinney – Fantastic size, good instincts, but is often a step off from making the play in coverage. Solid replacement for Rolando McClain, if the money can’t reach him.
*1st Alternative – Oregon DT Arik Armstead – The size of a blooming city, athletic through the core, potential over experience. Injury history, but could be a steal if he reaches even close to the apex of his potential.
*2nd Alternative – Kentucky DE Alvin Dupree – Looks to be trending out the reach of the Cowboys, but could slide. Great starter size, could add some bulk, but strength isn’t lacking. Think of him as a Pierre-Paul starter kit.
*3rd Alternative – Florida State DT Eddie Goldman – Like Dupree, could be beyond the reach of the 27th pick. A game-changer. Both a plug against the run, and a handful when he rushes the passer. Conditioning is his flaw, like Timmy Jernigan a year ago, when he’s on the sideline, it’s a huge boost for the offense.
2nd Round – Iowa DT Carl Davis – Davis was a serious performer during the entire Senior Bowl week, dominating practices, and showing great pursuit in the game. Davis could be sitting there at the 60th pick for the Cowboys to upgrade the pressure coming from the middle of the defense.
*1st Alternative – Ohio State DT Michael Bennett – Joey Bosa was the beating heart of that Buckeyes’ defense, but more towards the middle of the defense was the brawn, Michael Bennett. Flip a coin, because Bennett and Davis play a very similar game, and really gets into the backfield.
*2nd Alternative – Louisville FS Gerod Holliman – It’s one thing to say that a player has a nose for the ball, but a player with 14 interceptions in a single season, that’s downright discouraging to go into his area code. The Cowboys have needed a true free safety since, I actually don’t know, forever doesn’t seem to get the point across. I mean, I love JJ Wilcox’s game, but he could slide over and take over Barry Church’s spot and perhaps be more effective. Maybe, Holliman should be a higher priority in the draft.
*3rd Alternative – Indiana RB Tevin Coleman – This is the first replacement pick choice for the possibility that DeMarco Murray doesn’t return. Coleman is an under the radar running back in this class. He’s got a wonderful stride to his game, he’s got great size, and can actually catch the football. A second round pick might seem to be high to take a running back, but given his dynamic play and the way the Cowboys’ offense has evolved, it could be a good decision.
3rd Round – Duke OG Laken Tomlinson – I saw this guy at the Senior Bowl, and witnessed a beast. Unlike other guys, who got rotated against lower talented guys in the one-on-one blocking drill, Tomlinson was against top talent on every matchup, and damn-near pitched a shutout. His base is solid enough to build some condos off of, his strength was apparent with every rep, and his recovery was impressive for a guard. With Zack Martin’s position flex, the Cowboys have the option to move Martin to right tackle, and plant a new guy in his old spot.
*1ST Alternative – Penn State OT Donovan Smith – When watching him at the Senior Bowl, I came up with a nickname for Smith, “Donut”. Because he pitched a shutout in the game, and looked very strong in one-on-one. Doug Free will end up somewhere, because he’s shown to be a desirable commodity, and Smith, working next to Zack Martin, could learn quickly and get up to speed with the offense.
*2nd Alternative – Boise State RB Jay Ajayi – This is likely the pick where the Cowboys would replace DeMarco, if he walks. Ajayi is one of the running backs that the Cowboys are actually looking at in the draft, and why shouldn’t they? The London-borne, North Texas-groomed eventual blue turf tearing machine has got a fantastic chassis to build and lean on, supreme production that improved every season, and a seemingly permanent home in the endzone, with 50 career rushing touchdowns, with 28 happening this past season. This pick might be out of Ajayi’s realistic draft position, but if the Cowboys could land Ajayi past the second round, it’d be a massive steal.
4th Round – TCU CB Kevin White – TCU cranks out some of the best defensive players, and their real staple is instinctual cornerbacks. Jason Verrett went in the first round last year, and Kevin White… won’t. Not that this is a terribly talented draft for corners, but it is a deep pool to fish in. Kevin White plays with great positioning and instincts, and his best game was against Kevin White of West Virginia, and make no mistake, had White let White get loose, the Horned Frogs wouldn’t have even been in the conversation for the Playoffs, because of how tight that game ended.
*1st Alternative – Minnesota RB David Cobb – When anyone says that this is best running back draft in years, they aren’t talking nonsense or out of desperate need. If the Cowboys just sit in their position, don’t trade up or back, and the previously mentioned running backs are gone before they can draft them, Cobb is the last of the potential backs before a drop in talent and skill. Another Texas high school player, going north to play football. About an inch and a half shorter than Jay Ajayi, but Cobb showed terrific consistency for the last two seasons, averaging just over five yards per carry for two straight seasons. He didn’t get to showcase his hands, but again averaged a two year total of over ten yards per catch.
*2nd Alternative – Baylor WR Antwan Goodley – I’ll tell you why I like Antwan Goodley, because he looks like he can hold up over an NFL career. And I mean that because he’s built like a running back, 210 pounds stacked on top of a five foot ten inch frame. Another reason I like Goodley, is because Dwayne Harris is a free agent, and the way Goodley is framed, would be a perfect supplement for him departing from his special teams duties.
5th Round –Houston DT Joey Mbu – I like the way that Mbu plays his game, constantly on the red-line. He’s got a motor that rivals most funny cars, and he’s got the arm range to bat a ball down or serve up an opportunity for a defender in coverage. Mbu would be a great rotational defensive tackle, with serious upside.
*1st Alternative – Oregon State CB Steven Nelson – Personally, I doubt Nelson will last this long in the draft, but no one knows. Like Kevin White, Nelson’s instincts are very strong, but past that, his game is very well-rounded, strong attacking the ball, and/or ball carrier. He’s overzealous, at times, going after the ball in the air, but I like a corner willing to risk it.
*2nd Alternative – Houston WR Deontay Greenberry – If you didn’t get a chance to watch the Armed Forces Bowl, where Houston came back from 21 points down with a smig over six minutes to go in the game to win the game, you missed Deontay Greenberry catch two touchdown passes and a two point conversion to steal the game from Pittsburgh. Greenberry has a good sized frame, maybe a little slender, but might not be as dependable of a pure hands catcher as one would hope, but in the fifth round, would be another solid addition.
First 7th Round – Memphis DE Martin Ifedi – Another American conference gem. Ifedi has ideal size for a four-three end, a solid power move and that’s about it, but he’s a player that can start the fire. Solid seventh round pick.
Second 7th Round – SMU LB Stephon Sanders – I realize that this is biased, because I cover SMU, but that’s why I can say Steph Sanders should be considered in the seventh round or as a priority free agent post draft. Sanders played outside linebacker in Tom Mason’s three-four, but Sanders has the size and range to be an excellent outside backer in Marinelli’s four-three. He’s got excellent sideline to sideline pursuit and attack of the ball carrier, solid work ethic, and the ability to stay on the field.
*1st Alternative – TCU RB B.J. Catalon – This would be the Cowboys answer to Philly’s Darren Sproles. Catalon is a twitch athlete, with return ability, dual air and ground threat from the back field and lightning quickness. I doubt he makes it to the seventh, given his talent and skill, but if the stars align, he’d be a spectacular Cowboy.
*2nd Alternative – Florida OT Trenton Brown – Senior Bowl standout, and standout is an understatement. Six foot eight inch, 355 pounds of human evolution. Towering just doesn’t quite sum up Brown correctly. He has a better ceiling than a seventh rounder, but his conditioning kept him off the field a lot in the 2014 season, and his actual on field availability will likely make him a late draft choice, but he has buildable assets that can make him a draft-worthy prospect.