The NFL has become a 365 day a year league in the recent history. No longer do fans just care about the 17 weeks of regular season games and the 3 playoff games plus Super Bowl. The offseason is now something every fan follows closely. Nothing shows this craze more than the interest in April’s NFL Draft process. Sports like baseball and basketball have embraced Sabermetrics as the prevailing wisdom to make choices on draft picks and free agents. Both of those sports met Sabermetrics with staunch opposition from others that did things in a totally different way and did not want to see a change to the way they do business. The same type of debate is seen in the NFL. While there are no Sabermetrics for football, the debate for football management and fans is between drafting for Need versus drafting for Talent. Drafting for Need means that the team takes a look at their roster and decides what their greatest deficiency is and takes the highest rated player at that position, despite where they rank on the overall board. Drafting for Talent means that you take the best player available regardless of their position on the field and how they fit in the current roster. This year the Dallas Cowboys sit at pick number 18 in the first round of the NFL Draft and let the debate begin between Need and Talent.
The Dallas Cowboys are sort of lucky, that they have so many holes in the roster, that they can actually draft pretty much a handful of players and fit not just the best players on the board, but fill needs on the field. The trouble with pleasing Cowboys fans with draft predictions and mock drafts scenarios is that even fans cannot agree on the Cowboys greatest need. Watching the team last year, it is obvious to anyone that the offensive line is in need to an infusion of talent. They need n offensive tackle, a guard and a center to help the offense become better in 2014. The Cowboys also need help on defense as well, as they switch from Rob Ryan and the 3 – 4 defensive scheme to the 4 – 3 scheme under new defensive coordinator Monty Kiffin. The Cowboys have only one real defensive tackle left on the roaster after DUI arrests of Josh Brent and Jay Ratliff. They also need outside pass rushers to play DE if they cannot resign free agent Anthony Spencer. Both sides of the ball have huge needs along the lines and if you polled 10 Cowboys fans you would probably get 4 votes for each with some people throwing in some other answers. Thus the problem exists for Cowboys management on what to do with that 18th overall pick.
In my opinion, the needs for the Cowboys are listed in this order, Defensive Tackle, Offensive Tackle, Guard, Defensive End, Center and Safety, along with the need to get depth at positions like wide receiver, linebacker and running back. When looking at the draft board and watching players at the collegiate all star games and NFL Combine this past weekend, there are plenty of players available for the Cowboys to have on their board. The players available in this years draft are top heavy along the offensive line with 3 offensive tackles and 2 guards in the top 30 on the board. At defensive tackle there are 7 players in the top 30. This means that even if the offensive line is the biggest need, it is most likely that a defensive tackle will be the best player on the board.
On the offensive line, Luke Joeckel – OT – Texas A&M and Eric Fisher – OT – Central Michigan are both considered top 5 picks and even both in the discussion for the top pick overall in the draft. Another player at the top of the draft board is Chance Warmack – G – Alabama who is likely not to make it out of the top 10. The likely options for the Cowboys on the offensive line are Lane Johnson – OT – Oklahoma, Johnathan Cooper – G – North Carolina and DJ Fluker – OT – Alabama. Johnson and Cooper are guys that make sense and are rated higher than the Cowboys 18th overall selection, but both could be gone by the time the Cowboys pick. If they draft just for need on the offensive line, Fluker would be the pick, but that would be a stretch pick, skipping over other players at other positions that may be rated higher but not fit the need for the Cowboys.
At defensive tackle the draft pool is much deeper with top level talent. Players like Star Lotulelei – DT – Utah, Sheldon Richardson – DT – Missouri and Sharrif Floyd – DT – Florida, are all top level prospects and expected to go in the top 10. At the Combine Lotulelei was discovered with a heart condition that may hurt his draft stock, which may cause him to be available, but the health risk will be a major question the Cowboys research team will have to address before using their pick on him. The next tier of defensive tackles consists of Johnathan Hankins – DT – Ohio State, Sylvester Williams – DT – North Carolina and Kawann Short – DT – Purdue. Depending on how teams draft in front of the Cowboys, some combination of the group should be available.
At defensive end again the draft propects are top heavy. Bjoern Werner – DE – Florida State is really the only true 4 – 3 defensive end with a top 30 grade. Unfortunately for the Cowboys he is a top 5 pick so he is unlikely to to be around when the Cowboys draft at 18. Most of the other prospects are defensive end/outside linebacker hybrids and more suited for a 3 – 4 defensive scheme. Players like Damontre Moore – DE/OLB – Texas A&M, Barkevious Mingo – DE/OLB – LSU and Ezekial Ansah – DE/OLB – BYU would fit as pass rushing ends, but all three are likely to be taken in the top 15 picks. When the Cowboys select at 18, Dion Jordan – DE/OLB – Oregon is probably going to be the best defensive end on the board, but again he is a hybrid and not the ideal fit for the switch to the 4 – 3 scheme. Another defensive end on the board with a first round grade is Sam Montgomery – DE/OLB – LSU. As with the other players available he is another hybrid, so a stretch pick is not the best use of the 18th selection for the Cowboys.
As for the rest of the draft pool, the Cowboys could also look at some of the other players available at positions that are not needs, but the players are rated as high prospects on the draft board. Safety Kenny Vaccaro – Texas, quarterback Geno Smith – West Virginia, cornerback Dee Milliner – Alabama, linebacker Jarvis Jones and wide receiver Cordarrell Patterson – Tennessee, are all prospects that are expected to be drafted before the Cowboys select at 18. All those players play positions that Dallas does not have a direct need at this time. Safety Eric Reid – LSU, wide receiver Tavon Austin – West Virginia and linebackers Alec Ogletree – Georgia and Manti Te’o – Notre Dame are players that will be available for the Cowboys at non-need positions.
If the Draft plays out as I predict in my latest mock draft, the Cowboys will have to decide between their biggest need and the best player available. Johnathan Cooper – G – North Carolina is the best offensive lineman available, but I believe that the switch to the 4 – 3 defensive scheme and the lack of defensive tackles on the roster due to offseason events cause the Cowboys to focus their pick in that direction. Kawann Short – DT – Purdue would be the best fit as a pass rushing defensive tackle with a long wing span to bat down passes and disrupt passing lanes for opposing quarterbacks.
Every NFL executive and fan would love for their team’s biggest need and the best available player on their board to match up, but that is seldom the case. That causes the team to make a decision on what best suits their roster and philosophy. The effects of the salary cap in the NFL make the Draft so important to building the future of an NFL franchise. The Cowboys are stuck in that very scenario when they draft at number 18. Hopefully the Cowboys brain trust does their homework and makes an effective choice to get the Cowboys above the .500 mark in 2014 and for the years to follow.