COWBOYS’ Draft Needs Analysis: THE DEFENSIVE LINE

Will Anthony Spencer be a Cowboy next season?

Will Anthony Spencer be a Cowboy next season?

Earlier, I blogged on the needs of the offensive line. HERE. Next I want to look at what I consider to be the next big need for the Cowboys in 2013, the defensive line.

The Cowboys had 34 sacks last year which was down from the previous season, and one of the least productive seasons in franchise history. At this point, it’s uncertain if Jay Ratliff and Anthony Spencer will return to the defense next year. Also new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is transitioning the defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense which will have an impact on the draft too.

DEFENSIVE ENDS: Anthony Spencer is a free agent now after having the most productive season of his career which was good enough to earn him a trip to the Pro Bowl. He had 11 sacks in 2012, which is almost twice as many as any other season as his previous best ever was only 6 sacks.

Funny how that goes isn’t it? Guys play really hard in a contract year. After that, not so much. Just want to ask Spencer, “where has that been in the past big fella?” I think Dallas wants to sign him to a new contract but I have doubts that it will happen. Spencer played DE at Purdue so he should be able to convert to the new defense. That’s not the issue.

It remains to be seen if Dallas is able to sign Spencer, but it is this blogger’s humble opinion that they will not be able to keep Spencer. Similar to WR Laurent Robinson last year, who went to the Jags after a very productive season. In the open market, another team will likely make Spencer an offer that Dallas simply can’t or is not willing to match due to salary cap restrictions. The Cowboys could put the franchise label on Spencer again too.

I think there is a significant possibility that Dallas will select a defensive end with their first pick in the draft. They can find a player in the draft equal to Spencer who will cost a lot less under the new players agreement for rookies. Besides, if you resign Spencer, you are in essence paying him for what he has done in the past more so than what he will do for Dallas in the future.

There happens to be about 8 DEs that are expected to go in the first round and when Dallas picks at 18, there should be a good selection of DEs on the board. In other words, if you need a good DE, this is a good draft to get one.

Last year Dallas drafted DE Tyrone Crawford, Boise State in the 3rd round and his productivity last season was OK (20 tackles and 0 sacks). Crawford was drafted as a 3-4 defensive end which Dallas will not be playing, next year. By adding about 10-20 pounds, I think Crawford would make a better transition to a 4-3 defensive tackle than a pass rushing DE. The Cowboys are going to need a DE and they really need one that can get after the QB even better than what Spencer or Crawford offer. DeMarcus Ware is going to be at one DE in the 4-3 but the question is who will play the opposite DE?

THE DRAFT: Currently it appears the top three ranked DEs in the draft Werner, Moore, and Mingo will be off the board by the time Dallas picks so, I am going to focus on the ones that Dallas will have a good shot at drafting at the 18 spot.

Ezekiel Ansah, BYU– At first, I considered him a bit of a project but now after watching him in the Senior Bowl where he had a monster game, I think Ansah will be able to help an NFL team quickly. His athletic ability as a track star is obvious and he displays great quickness. What is surprising is that he has an effective bull rush and uses his arms well to get off blocks and move down the line to make tackles against the run. In video, I was impressed when I saw Ansah recognize screen passes quickly and pull out of his pass rush to pursue the screen. There are veterans in the NFL that don’t do that well.

BYU moved Ansah all over the place and even had him lined up as a NT at times. He was relentless as a pass rusher who even when double teamed, kept going after the QB. I like his motor a lot. Against the triple option of Georgia Tech, Ansah was able to make the QB pitch the ball back to the RB, and then quick enough to chase down the RB on the sideline. That kind of skill could be very helpful against RG3 and the Redskins.

Ansah basically has no ceiling and may become a very special pass rusher in the NFL. He is expected to go about 16 in the first round (CBS Sports rank of prospects) so there is no guarantee that he will be there when Dallas picks at 18. But if he is available, I think Ansah could be a real difference maker for the Cowboys pass rush that is in need of help.

Datone Jones, UCLA– Jones also had an impressive week at the Senior Bowl. Very solid frame and is quick and strong. In my opinion, Jones will be better as an OLB in a 3-4 defense at the next level than as a true pass rushing DE in a 4-3 defense. At UCLA he also played some DT and can provide depth at either spot. Jones is going to be a good one but I just don’t think he is the right fit for the Cowboys. He is expected to go around 21 in the draft.

Alex Okafor, Texas– Okafor had a good week at the Senior Bowl but was quiet during the game. If Dallas is looking for a DE in the draft in the same mold as Spencer, Okafor would be that guy. He plays the run real well like Spencer does, and yet offers a decent pass rush too. I think Okafor would compliment Ware nicely as the DE on the opposite side that stuffs the run. He displays nice quickness and is a true 4-3 type defensive end.

Okafor had an impressive 12 sacks at Texas last season and is expected to go at about 25 in the draft.

MY TAKE for defensive ends: If Dallas doesn’t sign Spencer, then it makes good sense to get one in the first round. Drafting Ezekiel Ansah could really provide the pass rush spark in a 4-3 that the Cowboys defense desperately needs. However, if Ansah is off the board by 18, I think Okafor represents a good option that could prove to be a solid replacement for Spencer.

DEFENSIVE TACKLES: Ratliff’s health kept him from playing in several games last year and recently we find he has off the field issues too after being arrested for a DUI accident. Many wonder if he will be kept on the team but for now, I am going to assume that he returns because this is Jerry Jones and the Cowboys and unless you are locked up in a jail, you get to play. Not saying I agree with it, but that’s just how it seems to go.

Ratliff will be expected to play the 1 technique in a 4-3 defense and he should be able to do that well if he is healthy and not locked up. Ratliff is better suited for a 4-3 than as a NT in a 3-4 anyway. Still Dallas needs depth at the position and I think they will draft a DT as a 3 technique but just not in the first round. The good news is, this draft is deep at the DT position and the Cowboys should be able to find good options even after the 2nd round or so.

In my view, most of the top rated defensive tackles in the draft are going to be better as NTs in a 3-4 defense. They are huge and will be effective run stuffers in the middle of the line however, the Cowboys really could use a DT with enough athletic ability and quickness to effectively pressure the QB as well.

Some mocks have Dallas selecting DT Sheldon Richardson and that would be a good pick however, I think he will be taken in the first 10 picks or so based on prospect rankings.

PROSPECTS at DT:

Shariff Floyd, Florida– If the Cowboys do decide to go DT in the first round, then I think Floyd could be the guy. Floyd was asked to play DE at Florida because of a lack of depth but he will be a DT in the NFL. He brings the ability to stuff the run and provide a pass rush. He will be a good fit in a 4-3 defense as the 1 or 3 technique defender. Floyd displays a good motor and uses his hands well against blockers.

Floyd is expected to go right about where Dallas is picking, at 18.

Kawaan Short, Purdue– Although projected as a 2nd round pick, there are mocks that have Dallas picking him in the first round. Short had a very good senior bowl week as he was difficult to block one on one. He even beat guard Walford, who I think is an excellent prospect for the Cowboys offensive line, to make a tackle for a loss. Short is quick and appears very strong. At times in video, I have seen him ease up a bit in effort. But over all he will be a very good DT prospect.

Sylvester Williams, UNC– Williams was impressive at the senior bowl and represents a nice mid draft option for the Cowboys. He displays quickness and is an ideal fit as a DT in a 4-3 defense. He was named all ACC and provides a good ability to stop the run and get to the QB on passing downs as well with 6 sacks last season.

Williams is expected to go in the 3rd round and represents nice value in my view.

MY TAKE Defensive Tackles: If the Cowboys don’t have Ratliff, then they should consider taking either Floyd or Short in the first round. However if they do have Ratliff next season, then Sylvester Williams will be an excellent pick in the third round as a solid DT in the 4-3 defense.

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