Cowboys Draft Needs Analysis: The Offensive Line

romo sacked
Last year too often it seemed the middle of the offensive line was playing like they were on skates instead of cleats as they would get pushed back into Romo’s lap and he then would scramble trying to salvage the play. So I have to start with the offensive line when looking at draft needs.

Pro Football Focus ranked the Cowboys 2012 offensive line 22nd down from 15 in 2011. They allowed 36 sacks which wasn’t even the weakest part of their game. The Cowboys rushed for only 79 yards a game which was 31st out of 32 teams. That was the weakest rushing performance in the history of the franchise.

To say the least. the Cowboys must get better at rushing the ball and protecting their QB Romo.

Guards:
Last season Jerry Jones plugged in Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernedeau who he got from the Bengals and Panthers. These two do not appear to be long term solutions at all. Jerry Jones liked the way undrafted guard Ron Leary moved in preseason camp HERE Leary spent 2012 on the practice squad. Leary will be expected to compete for a guard position next year however, he has yet to play in an NFL game and has knee issues.

I believe the Cowboys need to come out of the draft with a guard that can start on day one. There are three guards that meet that criteria but one of them, Chance Warmack of Alabama, is expected to be long gone off the board when Dallas picks, so I’m going to focus on the remaining two.

1. Jonathan Cooper, UNC- Expected to go off the board right about 18 (according to CBS Sports rankings) where the Cowboys happen to be making their first pick. Cooper is very athletic for a guard, and his strengths are pulling and moving out on screens. If you are running a finesse offense, Cooper is your guy.

I watched a lot of video of Cooper and his pass blocking looked solid but I think he gets a little too high upon contact and that could use some coaching at the NFL level where it’s not as easy to out muscle pass rushers. While Cooper does a nice job of pulling and getting out in front of the runner, occasionally I saw him run past defenders and not block anyone.

2. Larry Warford, Kentucky– Expected to go in the 2nd round and his stock is on the rise after a strong Senior Bowl performance that really got him noticed. Russ Lande of National Football Post said of Warford, “After his display this week, there is no doubt that Warford will be a first round pick because he will be a day one starter.”

Warford was an all SEC guard in a conference that has some of the best defensive linemen in college football.

Warford is a smash mouth guard that demonstrated some of the best pass blocking I have seen of a prospect. In fact, he didn’t allow a sack last season. He’s the kind of guard you can get behind in short yardage situations and pick up that needed yard. That’s been a problem for Dallas.

Watching video of Warford, he displays a bit of a nasty streak as he runs down the field, looking for players to blow up in the open field. Cooper in comparison, was caught running down the field watching his running back, run. Against Florida, on one run play, I saw Warford block 4 defenders on the same play.

I don’t think Warford will be as good on screens as Cooper but he will be very good in the pass and run game. He is just more physical and delivers knee buckling hits on defenders.

Warford in my view, is the better selection particularly if you can get him in the 2nd round. Besides, the Cowboys could use a mauler on the line. My conclusion is that Cooper appears to be a “show horse” while Warford appears to be more of a “work horse.” Both would be a great pick and could immediately be the best guard Dallas currently has on the roster.

Tackles:
Tyron Smith moved to left tackle and had mixed results last season but he is not going anywhere. Doug Free on the other hand, had an awful season at right tackle. Pro Football Focus gave Free a very low rating of (-10.1) because defensive ends beat him on a regular basis.

So far, Free has proven he can’t hold down either side of the line, so the next logical spot for him would be the bench. But things in the NFL aren’t so simple. Free has a big contract and he may not be going anywhere just yet however, I think Dallas needs to get a tackle at some point in the draft. Serving up Free again will not get it done.

Eric Fisher and Lane Johnson would be great draft picks but they are not likely to be around at 18 when Dallas picks. So I will focus on picks within the Cowboys reach.

Offensive Tackle Prospects:
1. DJ Fluker, Alabama– Expected to go late in the first round. A pure right tackle prospect that is an excellent run blocker. Earlier, I pointed out Dallas had about the weakest rushing year ever. They could use a big maulin’ tackle (6-5, 355) leading the way for Murray, like Fluker.

Fluker will need some development at pass blocking but he will likely be a very good NFL lineman. I like this pick for Dallas who needs to move on from Free and get more physical in the run game.

2. David Quessenberry, San Jose State– An intriguing tackle that converted from TE. Moves very well and was a team captain in college. He performed well in the Senior Bowl and I noticed that he actually is moving up prospects ranking boards. David can also play guard which adds value to selecting him.

I’m not convinced he is ready to start day one but he looks like he could provide depth and develop into a starter after a season. A solid mid draft selection.

3. Justin Pugh, Syracuse Pugh also played well in the Senior Bowl and is expected to go around the 3rd round. He is a left tackle that some think may end up at guard but in the Senior Bowl, I think he actually proved he can play tackle in the NFL. If he can play the left tackle, then Dallas could consider moving Smith back to right tackle where he is at home.

Center:
The Cowboys found themselves auditioning centers during the season after injuries. They found Ryan Cook who was cut by Miami and he played decent but is not likely a long-term solution. Phil Costa had a very tough season in 2011 but when he returned from injuries in 2012, he played better than 2011. I think the Cowboys plan to keep Costa at center although he is an unrestricted free agent. It just makes sense for the Cowboys to get a center in the draft if possible.

To be honest, there aren’t many centers to get excited about in this draft but one did catch scouts attention at the Senior Bowl.

1. Brian Schwenke, California– Expected to be picked in the 4th round according to some rankings. Schwenke displayed an ability to block some good defensive linemen in the Senior Bowl. He held his ground nicely in pass blocking and in run blocking, he did a nice job of getting to the next level. Moves his feet real well.

Schwenke could provide Dallas depth at center while perhaps developing into the middle anchor, their offensive line desperately needs.

Conclusion: Back when the Cowboys were winning super bowls, they had a dominant physical offensive line that crushed opponents. If Dallas is ever going to get their swagger back and move into the post season again, it will likely come through a physical and dominating line.

I don’t think anyone could fault Dallas if they were to use their first two picks on offensive linemen in the draft. Not saying they will as there are other needs, but if they took OT Fluker in the first, then OG Warford in the second, and placed them on the right side of the line, I could picture Murray having an all pro season running behind those two big guys.

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How Will Ratliff’s Arrest Impact the Cowboys Draft?

ratliff
Dallas Cowboy Jay Ratliff was arrested Tuesday for a suspected DUI after crashing into an 18 wheeler. A particularly disturbing event having just recently buried a teammate killed from a drunk driving accident involving another teammate Josh Brent.

Ratliff has been a Pro Bowl defensive lineman in the past but in recent years, his productivity has fallen off and he has missed a lot of games from a variety of injuries. Ratliff was only able to play in 6 games last season for Dallas.

It was thought that Ratliff would play DT in the new 4-3 defense the Cowboys are putting together but will Dallas now consider cutting Ratliff? He is not getting any younger at age 31, he has had a difficult time staying healthy enough to be counted on to play, and he had an incident with Jerry Jones in December where they exchanged words in the locker room.

Even before this recent DWI accident, Ratliff was becoming more trouble than he is worth. The scales were tipping toward the cold fact that Ratliff isn’t worth his pay any longer. But this DWI could be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back for Ratliff.

By cutting Ratliff before June 1, Dallas will free up some much needed salary cap room. They may use that to sign Spencer but at this point we don’t know if Spencer is returning next year. Spencer had a good season but he may come with a higher price tag than Jerry is willing to pay.

DRAFT: How does it impact the draft if they part ways with Ratliff? Then adding depth at defensive tackle will become more urgent. Before this incident with Ratliff, I felt the Cowboys would draft either a defensive lineman or an offensive lineman with their first pick. My personal preference would have been an offensive lineman but now I think it may be leaning toward a defensive tackle for their 4-3. And they need someone who can play right away.

Options: The Cowboys do have Lissemore and Bass that can play DT. Also DE Hatcher could possibly be moved to DT. But still, the Cowboys will need to add depth at defensive tackle.

Prospects in the draft? Dallas will select at number 18 in the draft and to be honest, I actually think there are better DE prospects at that point in the draft but let’s look at the DTs thought to be available around 18 in the first round:

Johnathan Hankins, Ohio State– Solid run defender and can also pressure the QB as well. Not to be counted on to play every down as he gets noticeably tired. Could add depth right away at the DT position for Dallas.

Jesse Williams, Alabama– Very strong and a solid run defender but doesn’t offer much in a pass rush. Is probably more of a NT in a 3-4 defense.

Shariff Floyd, Florida– There are mock drafts that have Dallas drafting Floyd. A nice combination of quickness and hand use. He played DE in the past but is built for DT in the NFL.

John Jenkins, Georgia- In my view, Jenkins will be best at the next level as a NT in the 3-4. He is without a doubt a big wide run stopper in the middle but is not going to blow past offensive tackles to get a sack. If Dallas were staying in the 3-4, I like this pick but since they are going to a 4-3, he may not be their best option. Considered a “boom or bust” pick by most experts.

If Dallas parts ways with Ratliff and they do look for DT help early in the draft, I think Hankins and Floyd may offer the best fit in a 4-3. There are also solid DT prospects available in the mid rounds of the draft as well.

Cowboys’ Bruce Carter Project Just May Be a Success

Bruce Carter returns INT for 55 yard TD against Rutgers. Cowboys could use a play maker like this next season.

Based on how LB Bruce Carter looked in OTAs recently, the Bruce Carter project is appearing to be a success. It’s true that OTAs are players running around in shorts making little contact so it remains to be seen how he plays in games. But it was nice to hear that he looks healthy again.

When the Cowboys drafted Carter with the 40th pick of the second round in 2011, it was an easy pick to criticize. Carter demonstrated outstanding ability while a North Carolina however late in his senior season he tragically tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. A serious injury that can take quite a while to recover from if ever.

The Cowboys certainly could have instead selected a healthy player in the second round. Someone who could help them right away. But the Cowboys were willing to take on a project which meant Carter would spend the 2011 season rehabbing and they would have to wait and see if he could contribute later.

Like the scene in the movie “Seabiscuit” where Smith meets the Colt for the first time. “There was a limp in his walk, a wheezing when he breathed. Smith didn’t pay attention to that. He was looking the horse in the eye.”  The Cowboys were looking past Carter’s injury and focused on his eyes where they saw something they liked. A determination to fight back from the injury and be a winner.

No doubt the Cowboys realized that Carter was an exceptional athlete. At Havelock High in Havelock NC, Carter played QB and RB where he was an outstanding performer. As you can see from this video, Carter was clearly the best athlete on the field in high school.  As a senior he rushed for 1,063 yards with 15 TDs as a running back and threw for 585 yards and five touchdowns as a quarterback. He ran the 40 in 4.39 seconds and benched 440 pounds. Nothing that big and strong should move that fast. When it comes to Carter’s athletic ability, the word “freakish” comes to mind.

In college, UNC converted Carter to OLB where his athletic ability served him well. On the defensive side of the ball, Carter seemed determined to get his hands on the football every opportunity he got. Bruce had 3 interceptions in college which he returned for 162 yards. On special teams he blocked 7 kicks including three punts in a row, all in the second quarter, in a game against 24th ranked UConn. That set an ACC record! He blocked a total of 5 kicks in 2008 also setting an ACC record. Carter finished his college career with 9.5 sacks showing that he knows how to blitz the QB too. Coverage or blitz? He does both.

Carter is a play maker. He uses his athletic ability to be very disruptive to offenses and special teams. That’s why he was a Butkus finalist in 2010 and projected to be a first round pick in the NFL draft before his untimely and unfortunate knee injury set him back his senior year.

So as the Cowboys OTAs got under way last week, understandably all eyes were on Bruce Carter. The coaches, media, fans and certainly team Jerry/Stephen Jones wanted to know how the Bruce Carter project was progressing. Was he healthy and could he move like he had in college before the injury? Or was this going to be a wasted second round pick that would no doubt be heavily scrutinized by the media even drawing comparisons to LB Bobby Carpenter? Egg on the face of the Dallas leadership once again?

The reaction of coach Ryan and Stephen Jones told us that they were feeling good about how things were going.

It left Ryan saying, “I’m seeing a real player now.” “He’s the guy we thought he was when we drafted him.”

A sigh of relief from the leadership that decided to gamble on this prospect and a reason for optimism next year for the fan base. Now it’s not to imply that Carter has no areas where he needs to improve because he could become a better tackler particularly in space. But seeing him run again sideline to sideline was enough to initiate some smiles around Valley Ranch. Maybe he is ready to play along with LB Sean Lee and form the one-two punch of “Bruce-Lee” next season.

Cowboys stadium may be filled with “Bruuuuuce!” next season as it was in Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill when he made game changing plays.

Back when Bruce learned that the Cowboys were taking a chance on him by drafting him in the 2nd round, he said,

“I have been through a lot,  I feel like everything was taken away from me. But I kept fighting, kept battling and I am just happy to be here. I am happy to be a Cowboy.”

Bruce Carter’s battle back to playing football isn’t complete yet but based on the OTAs Bruce, I think Cowboys fans will be  happy you are a Cowboy too.

CB Mike Jenkins Could Be Odd Man Out in Cowboys Revamped Secondary

Jerry says of Jenkins, “He’s taking care of business, and we need him back here to get to work with the rest of his teammates.”

After the Cowboys spent $50 million to sign free agent CB Brandon Carr, there was little doubt they intended to fix the weakest part of the defense. Newman, now with the Bengals, was let go so it became clear that Carr is replacing Newman at one corner and Jenkins would be the other corner.  Scandrick was signed to a long term deal prior to the 2011 season to cover the slot. The secondary appeared all locked up but then there was Thursday night.

That’s when Jerry traded up to draft the top corner in the draft Morris Claiborne which may change everything. Did Jerry trade away a second round pick so that Claiborne could provide depth in the secondary? Not only no, but heck no. Claiborne is going to be on the field. And he is likely to be on the field playing corner along with Carr. Where does that leave Jenkins? Well that is the big question.

Jenkins who is entering the last year of his contract, actually had a pretty good season last year in fact better than Scandrick which I discussed in an earlier blog.  Scandrick. However Jenkins was injured for most of the year and is recovering from shoulder surgery currently.

What the Cowboys plans are for Jenkins are unclear but it appears clear that they aren’t real thrilled with his offseason as Jerry Jones mentions of Jenkins, “[He’s] taking care of some business, and we need him to get back here and get to work with the rest of his teammates.” Not sure what business Jenkins is tending to but I get the impression the boss ain’t real happy about it.

Trade Jenkins?

There are reports that the Cowboys are interested in trading Jenkins. TRADE  It isn’t real clear if that is true but I have to think they would entertain any legit offers without a doubt. If the team can get value for Jenkins then it just makes sense. After all his health is questionable and his play has been inconsistent. Now that you have Carr and Claiborne (sounds like a law firm), Jenkins is kind of the odd man out anyway.

Wake Up Jenkins

Whatever Jenkins fate is, eventually will be determined. But for sure, Thursday night Jones sent a message loud and clear to both Scandrick and Jenkins. The level of secondary play last year is not going to get it in 2012. Jerry replaced Campo with a new secondary coach Jerome Henderson  immediately after the season ended, released Newman, signed Carr in free agency and then traded up to draft Claiborne.  Jerry ain’t playing around, Jenkins. If I were you, I would wrap up “business” in Florida and get up to Valley Ranch right away.

Jerry Jones Shocks the world and Picks LSU CB Morris Claiborne with 6th pick in draft

Morris was just as shocked as the rest of us. Welcome to Dallas Morris we have a secondary that could use your cover skills.

WOW Not even Morris Claiborne saw this one coming. Shocked.

With all the combines, pro days, visits and mock drafts you think there can’t be any surprises on the first day of the draft but boy were there. We knew the Cowboys wanted to improve their secondary and they did just that when they spent $50 million to sign CB Brandon Carr in free agency.

At that point things looked better back there in the secondary so no one predicted they would move up (lost their 2nd rd. pick) to get the highest rated CB in the draft. So where does that leave Jenkins and Scandrick? Jerry didn’t reach up to grab Claiborne so he can back up one of those two CBs. No way.

Jenkins has one more year on his contract and Scandick was just signed to a big contract before the 2012 season. Carr is coming in to replace Newman and start at one corner so where does Claiborne fit and what happens to either Jenkins or Scandrick? That will be a story to watch unfold.

I have mixed feelings on this move.

  • On one hand you picked up a really good press coverage shut down type CB for sure.
  • On the other hand you gave up a second round pick where you can get a player that can help your team right away
  • Also there were good defensive players that can fill needs available at 14 where Dallas was before. (Brockers and Ingram for example).

It’s early but this pick feels impulsive to me.

The RG3 Factor: Does He Affect the Cowboys Draft?

The Redskins have traded up to the 2nd pick in the draft to take Baylor’s talented and very athletic quarterback Robert Griffin III. It’s pretty much a given that he is their guy. Does that affect who Dallas will select with their first pick at number 14 in the draft?

According to Stephen Jones, the answer to that question would be “yes”. That makes sense to me as RG 3 is a game changer and probably a division changer too. The Cowboys will face the Redskins twice a year and also play Vick of the Eagles twice a year too. Another athletic QB that Dallas has had trouble defending.

Looking at the prospects that are on the Cowboys radar screen for the first pick, which one helps them the most to defend against a QB that can pass and runs a blistering 4.41/40 time? Stephen Jones indicates that he is interested in getting help to pressure the QB which is a good place to start. Pressuring the QB is definitely an area that Dallas could improve in however will that be enough?

Can a big defensive lineman chase down a guy like RG 3? I don’t think so and that is what is frustrating about defending a QB that can run. You get the pressure on him then in a blink of an eye, he is running down the field for big yardage. To defend RG 3 you will need guys who are very fast and are outstanding open field tacklers. (Mostly you need speed because these QBs usually take the slide anyway).

Last year the Cowboys open field tackling, to put it nicely, left a lot to be desired. Some may say it stunk or was non existent. The Cowboys brought in free agent CB Brandon Carr which should be a big help in improving the tackling in the secondary. I was not impressed with Jenkins tackling last year which too often consisted in a back pedal, then a long pursuit angle that pushed the runner out of bounds 50 yards down the field. That is not going to get it with RG3 who will put it in the end zone before you can say “Holy crap he is fast!”

Looking at who Dallas can draft at 14, here are the guys who can help keep this RG3 guy boxed in a little bit anyway.

DE/DT Fletcher Cox– A guy who can definitely help pressure the QB and disrupt a QB’s timing. His relentless pursuit and light feet will help make RG3 feel uncomfortable. May not be around when 14th pick rolls around however.

Safety Mark Barron– The safety on college football’s best defense is an impressive open field tackler who likes to hit. I think this is the kind of guy that can spy a running QB and effectively minimize his yardage running with the ball. Has the kind of speed to get up field in a hurry. I just think RG3 finds that sideline a little bit sooner with a guy like Barron running up. He is speculated by many mocks to be the Cowboys pick. Is it because he can help defend RG3?

CB Dre Kirkpatrick– Alabama’s shut down corner with good size and a reputation as a sure tackler. He could be much better at coming up to tackle than Jenkins and he can cover too. With the signing of Brandon Carr, some think Dallas will not pick him. But when you think about the passing teams Dallas faces and now the running QBs, I like this pick.

LB Luke Kuechly– No indications that Dallas is interested in the leading tackler in the ACC but he is expected to go around 14 in the draft. Luke is a tackling machine and has good LB speed as he ran a 4.58/40 time at the combine. I think Luke is a good pick and if Dallas doesn’t take him then the Eagles at 15 just might. Luke could help spy a QB like RG3 and minimize the run damage.

With the Redskins making a big move to get their franchise QB, Dallas will be wise to make sure they draft defenders that can help keep this type of QB in check.

Who Will Be Cowboys First Pick? Visits to Valley Ranch Offer Key Clues.

Figuring out who the Cowboys will draft in the first round has been a lot like solving a mystery. You gather all the clues, quotes and evidence that you can then start eliminating some of the possibilities in an effort to narrow the choices.

Based on recent discoveries, I will boldly make the following predictions regarding the Cowboys first pick in the 2012 NFL draft.

1. They will pick a defensive player.

2. They will pick one that played in the SEC.

3. They will probably pick a player that was coached by Nick Saban at Alabama.

Here is why I have come to this conclusion:

1. Since 2006, the Cowboys have not drafted a first round player that had not visited Valley Ranch. David Decastro and Dontari Poe have not yet visited the Ranch so I’m ruling them out. Besides Dallas brought in 2 guards during free agency and they perceive that the position is now all good. I’m not convinced of that but we are going on their perceptions.

Four guys did visit Valley Ranch recently and three of them were from Alabama. More on that later.

2. The one Pro Day Jason Garrett visited was the one at Alabama. Last year he visited Tyron Smith and that was their first pick. Nick Saban is a coach that the Cowboys have ties to and have a great deal of trust in his opinion.

OK let’s narrow it down to four possibilities of the guys that we know visited. 

Alabama defensive players Dre Kirkpatrick, Mark Barron and Courtney Upshaw. Fletcher Cox from Mississippi State also visited.

DL Fletcher Cox: I would love to see the Cowboys draft who I think may be the next “Big Cat” to replace Leon Lett. Leon is now on the Cowboys coaching staff and I imagine he would like working with the very quick and athletic Cox who has a non stop motor. Problem is teams are becoming very bullish on Fletcher Cox so it just isn’t likely he will still be available when the Cowboys pick at 14.

Solution: The Panthers draft at number 9 and are wanting to pick up a 3rd round pick they gave to the Bears for Olsen last year. The Cowboys picked up an additional 4th round pick and could offer a 4th round pick to switch places with the Panthers at #9. That would get them a very good defensive lineman in Cox. Not a likely scenario but possible anyway.

CB Dre Kirkpatrick: Based on prospect rankings, Kirkpatrick just may be the one most likely to get picked before 14 of the three Bama guys. The Cowboys signed CB Brandon Carr so CB is not as huge of a need now. I think Kirkpatrick would be a good pick but I doubt Dallas will pick him and he may be gone anyway. Also Kirkpatrick comes with slight character issues and Jason has said he wants high character players.

We have it down to two! Upshaw and Barron. Both are expected to be available at 14.

Safety Barron: Word is the Cowboys really like this guy based on their conversations with Saban. Safety has been a need for Dallas in the past although they secured things by signing Pool from the Jets in free agency.  However he was only signed for one year. So it is possible they will draft a safety with the first pick but I have a little bit of doubt about it. Character wise, Barron scores high!

OLB/DE Courtney Upshaw: One thing Dallas seems interested in is improving their pass rush and Upshaw may be the one who helps that the most out of the guys we have discussed. He did not have an outstanding pro day and his explosiveness is questionable.  Ranked at 22, he would be considered a bit of a reach at 14.

At this point, I’m not certain which Dallas will take but hey I have a little more time to gather additional clues. If Fletcher Cox should fall to 14 then I think he is the Cowboys pick. If not, then I think it is one of the three Bama guys. I’ve narrowed it down to Barron or Upshaw for now