IRVING, Texas – Nine years ago the Dallas Cowboys were heading to the Senior Bowl in search of at least one standup outside linebacker to help with their transition from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4, along with at least one 3-4 defensive end.
As it turned out, they found one of each worth selecting with their two first-round picks in the 2005 NFL Draft:
Troy State defensive end
LSU defensive lineman Marcus Spears.
Just watching the Senior Bowl game that Saturday at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in January of 2005, not even having had the opportunity to watch a practice, two guys immediately jumped out to me, two guys who would fit the Cowboys dire needs.
Ware was one of them, and so was Cincinnati’s Trent Cole. There was a difference between those two and all the rest, and it was quite obvious watching the athletic Ware who lined up at defensive end and linebacker in a 4-3 that he had what it would take to play outside linebacker in a 3-4. And Spears was a beast inside.
Here is how obvious their talent was: Myself and Bill Jones of CBS-11 here in Dallas-Fort Worth, also my former Talkin’ Cowboys partner, both agreed in a perfect world the Cowboys should take Ware with the 11th pick in the first round that year and then come back with Spears on the 20th pick.
Nailed it, or maybe they just listened to us, right?
Well, this week at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., once again searching for defensive help among these seniors had to be sky high on the Cowboys to-do list, especially zeroing in on defensive linemen. Hey, there is a chance three of this past season’s projected starting four up front will not be on the Cowboys 53-man roster in 2014. Jay Ratliff already is gone.
So for three days, watching five total North and South practices, sat there at a chilly Ladd-Peebles waiting for a bunch of candidates to just jump off the screen, potential first-round defensive ends and defensive tackles, just as in 2005. Just a few guys so good even a non-scout or coach like me could spot from a mile away then proudly report about back to you guys.
Like in 2005, when I wrote following the Senior Bowl game: “And two of the tweeners the Cowboys certainly might be interest in if they ended up considering playing a 3-4 are Cincinnati’s Trent Cole and Troy State’s DeMarcus Ware. Now Ware, playing more of his familiar defensive end position in the game, tied for the South Team lead with three tackles. But this Cole guy had to turn some heads, too.”
And get this: Since the Tampa Bay staff of Jon Gruden was coaching the South Team, that meant this guy named Monte Kiffin was the defensive coordinator, and he thought so much of Spears’ versatility he had the defensive lineman standing up in practice at one point as a linebacker.
But me sad to say, this time around, there just didn’t seem to be that many seniors who would satisfy the Cowboys needs in the first round, especially when their pick will be either No. 16 or 17. Just not that many “obvious man” candidates that you came away saying to yourself, yeah, that guy there . . . .
Sort of reminded me of the old Rolling Stones song, No, you can’t always get what you want . . . .
At the very best from this lot of some 110 players participating in practice this week, only a couple of guys jumped out at you, maybe a defensive end or two and really just one defensive tackle.
Of course that doesn’t mean the draft will be totally devoid of what the Cowboys needs are since a record 98 underclassmen not eligible to play in the Super Bowl declared for the draft this year. We’ll get our first look at those guys during the NFL Combine in about a month. And of course, that doesn’t mean defensive ends and defensive tackles were the only guys the Cowboys staff has been concentrating on this week.
But as Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett admitted, evidently not much different from the rest of us, knowing your defensive needs you catch yourself eyeing those defensive linemen just a little bit more.
So having said all this, the one guy who just jumped out at me watching these practices, which means he likely also jumped out at the 32 teams being represented there, has been Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who just happens to be the Outland Trophy winner, along with winner of the Lombardi Award, Nagurski Award and voted ACC Defensive Player of the Year.
What a great first step . . . and second . . . and third. He’s cat quick, and passionate, the Energizer Bunny out there. Was hard to block, no matter if he was playing the run or rushing the QB. A prototype 3-technique 4-3 defensive tackle, with one exception:
He’s not all that big. In fact, would be considered undersized. During Monday’s weigh-ins, his 288-pounds were not as troubling as his height. Just 6-0 7/8. That is short for an inside dude. Think about it, nearly five inches shorter than Hatcher, and even three inches shorter than what Ratliff would have been.
Hey, but look, if the guy can play, he can play. Look for him during Saturday’s game. He’s No. 97 on the North Team.
No. 2 to me was Dee Ford, defensive end, Auburn. He’s the odd No. 30 on the South Team playing with his hand on the ground. He, too, would not be the biggest of defensive ends in the NFL, just 6-2, 243, compared to Ware’s 6-4, 258. There might be a worry a guy his size gets engulfed by these 6-6, 320-pound NFL offensive tackles.
But, having said that, just as Donald, he is really quick, really has a nose for the ball. Maybe best of all, he’s a tad brash, too, and not in a bad way. Just really confident. The Cowboys could use an infusion of brashness on their defensive front. This SEC champ just wants to play, and sort of like the “Honey Badger” before him, he don’t care if it’s as a 4-3 defensive end or a 3-4 standup outside linebacker. To him, football is football.
Now we had heard a bunch of other names to watch out for, and saw a few during Monday’s weigh-ins who passed the eye test, like North Carolina DE Kareem Martin and Minnesota DT Ra’Shede Hageman and Arizona State DT Will Sutton and Tennessee DT Daniel McCullers. But you know what, I’d need a numerical roster to remind me who they are. But I don’t have to look up who No. 97 and No. 30 are. You know. All you had to do was watch.
Now there were two other intriguing guys, Stanford DE Trent Murphy and Missouri DE/LB Michael Sam. Both apparently have size issues. Murphy, came in at 6-5 3/8, 252. He has little ballast, if you know what I mean. Legs might be too spindly to set the edge against the run, and seemed to get engulfed this week trying to do so.
Then there is Sam, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and just the second unanimous first-team All-America player in Missouri history, finishing this past season with 11½ sacks, the final one saving the Tigers Cotton Bowl victory over Oklahoma State here at AT&T Stadium. He came in a 6-1 5/8, 260. The Atlanta coaching staff had him lining up as the first team strongside linebacker in a 4-3.
He’s not a 4-3 linebacker. Too stiff. Has problems turning and running. Darn hips. Lateral movement very limited. And he admits until this week had never played linebacker. Transition likely too great to gamble a first-round pick on for sure, though maybe an eventual fit for a 3-4 defense at outside linebacker or a pass-rush specialist with his hand on the ground.
Because in the abridged words of Bill Parcells, this guy is a pass-rushing dude. During the one-on-one pass-rush drills, after he struggled in one-on-one coverage drills against tight ends, Sam went to the other end of the field to put on a clinic against these offensive tackles rushing around the edge. Couldn’t be stopped, just as he couldn’t in the SEC this year.
Size makes him a tough decision, but as we found out this past year with Cowboys defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, he brings no preconceived size notions to his defensive line. He wants “rush men,” big and tall, short and squatty. Just get up the field to create havoc.
He’ll be No. 52 on the North Team, in the black helmet with the, all bias aside, gold mean-spirited Tiger-head logo. You’ll see him on third down, but keep an eye out for him on first and second. You can better decide for yourself.
Who knows, maybe someone else will jump off the screen come Saturday afternoon. And let’s not forget the under-98 crowd still to jam its way into this draft. There might still be hope for the Cowboys to fulfill their defensive-front needs.
Because as the Rolling Stones have told us, well, no, of course not, you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need.