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Spagnola: Earth Movers Rarely High Draft Priority

Posted Apr 12, 2013


IRVING, Texas – The earth must have moved in 2011. That’s when the Dallas Cowboys selected an offensive lineman with a first-round pick for the first time since 1981.

         That selection at No. 9 of Tyron Smith then brought their grand total of offensive tackles taken in the first round over their 51-year draft history to two: Smith and Howard Richards in 1981. That’s it. No, that’s it, seriously.

         The earth must have moved again in 1966, because for the only time in their now 52-year draft history the Cowboys selected a guard in the first round – John Niland.

         And there must have been some seismic movement in 1979 when the Cowboys used a first-round pick on center Robert Shaw, the only time they’ve ever drafted a center in the first round.

         These four guys, Niland, Shaw, Richards and Smith, represent the only four offensive linemen the Cowboys ever have selected in the first round of an NFL Draft.

         But now some suggest the Cowboys should use their first two picks, and maybe the first three, of this 2013 draft on offensive linemen to bolster what they’ve struggled bolstering through the draft over the past eight years.

         Judging from history, we should all be put on sinkhole alert if that unreasonable request occurs.

         Oh, and while I’m at it, let me give you the rather humble list of offensive linemen taken in second rounds over all these years. That would include all of one center, Al Johnson, in 2003. That would include all of four offensive tackles – Bob Asher (1970), Flozell Adams (1998), Solomon Page (1999) and Jacob Rogers (2004). And get ready for this veritable plethora of guards: Burton Lawless (1975), Jim Edison (1976), Larry Allen (1994), Shane Hannah (1995) and Andre Gurode (2002).

         And it’s not mattered if Texas Schramm or Jerry Jones was the president/general manager of this team, or if Tom Landry or Jimmy Johnson or Barry Switzer or Chan Gailey or Dave Campo or Bill Parcells or Wade Phillips or Jason Garrett was the head coach. Those are the totals.

         So what are the odds that on April 25 the Cowboys select just their third offensive tackle in the first round? Or just their second offensive guard or center in the first round? Vegas might just take all of that off the board.

the new rookie salary structure makes it more palatable to select offensive linemen higher in the draft since previously you just didn’t get enough impact bang for your buck

         Hey, and it’s not as if the Cowboys have loaded up on offensive linemen in the second round, either. What’s that total? Like all of 10 in 52 years? (The NFL did not allow the expansion Cowboys to participate in the college entry draft that inaugural 1960 season, and I’m not counting G Steve Wisniewski in 1989 since the Cowboys selected him for the Raiders with their second-round pick to facilitate a trade down that wasn’t completed in time so they could select Daryl Johnston and get extra picks.)

         Now I’m not advocating the Cowboys ignore their immense offensive line needs in this draft. Not at all, although not exactly a fan of selecting guards in the top 18 of the first round, probably this team’s biggest need unless they part ways with Doug Free over his rather expensive $7 million 2013 base salary. In that case, then offensive tackle vaults to No. 1 need. And please, don’t even mention Jermey Parnell. I mean 60 snaps a game of him at right tackle might have Tony Romo throwing in the towel.

         I do understand times have changed, and obviously so have immediate needs. Also understand that the new rookie salary structure makes it more palatable to select offensive linemen higher in the draft since previously you just didn’t get enough impact bang for your buck. So if that’s what you need, go get it.

         But let’s not say the Cowboys have not made the offensive line a priority in the past eight drafts. They’ve selected nine offensive linemen. The problem has been they have not selected particularly well when you give this list a once-over: 2005 – Jacob Rogers (2) and Stephen Peterman (3); 2007 – James Marten (3) and Doug Free (4); 2009 – Robert Brewster (3); 2010 – Sam Young (6); 2011 – Tyron Smith (1), David Arkin (4) and Bill Nagy (7).

         That turned into just two fulltime starters for the Cowboys, Free and Smith, although Peterman after two years and three starts with Dallas has gone on to start 87 games with Detroit, including all 16 in each of the past three seasons. Not remotely good enough.

         But you know what? The Cowboys weren’t exactly draft wizards when it came to offensive linemen when building that three-time Super Bowl championship run, although I guess selecting now Hall of Famer Larry Allen in the second round of 1994 probably overshadows all the other warts.

         Check this out: From 1989 when Jones and Johnson first arrived, through 1995, the Cowboys used 13 drafts choices on offensive linemen back when the draft consisted of 12 rounds instead of the current seven. They really only hit on only three fulltime starters: G Allen (1994), OT Erik Williams (1991) and C Mark Stepnoski (1989). That’s it.

         But because of those three, no one remembers the likes of James Richards (3) in 1989 or James Brown (3) in 1992, neither of whom even made it out of training camp their rookie seasons before getting cut. Or how about Hannah (2) in 1995, a guy offensive line coach Hudson Houck got so upset with one morning during his rookie training camp over weight (uh, too much) that he slapped his dish of pancakes off the mess hall table. (Ah, those were the days when something like that was funny, not the national controversy it would be today). He was another who didn’t make the team.

         Of the 13 OLs selected in those seven drafts, six didn’t even make the team and three others never got a second contract: Mike Sullivan (one season), Ron Stone (one start three seasons) and George Hegamin (10 starts four seasons).

         See, I generally laugh when I hear people insist the Cowboys, back in those days, made a priority of drafting offensive linemen, that they wisely used their resources. Oh yeah, well here is the gospel truth behind the 1992 season starting five up front that led the Cowboys to the Super Bowl XXVII title and Emmitt Smith to his second straight NFL single-season rushing title and to the second-most rushing yards (1,713) in club history.

  • LT Mark Tuinei, acquired in 1983 as a rookie free agent defensive tackle out of Hawaii. Made transition to starting offensive tackle in 1986. Not until his sixth year at OT (1991), which was his ninth with the team, did the Cowboys have a winning season.
  • LG Nate Newton, acquired in 1986 as a free agent after having played two seasons for the Tampa Bay Bandits in the USFL. Initially signed with Washington in 1983 as a rookie free agent out of Florida A&M and was released after training camp. That made 1991 his first season with a winning record, too.
  • C Mark Stepnoski, 1989 third-round pick from Pittsburgh, a collegiate guard the Cowboys transitioned to center, where he took over for aging Tom Rafferty in the final four games of his rookie season.
  • RG John Gesek, originally a 1987 10th-round pick of the Raiders, acquired by trade in 1990 for the Cowboys’ 1991 fifth-round choice.
  • RT Erik Williams, 1991 third-round pick out of Central State of Ohio. The Cowboys were so clever that year, Williams ended up being their third, third-round selection, drafted after LB Godfrey Miles and the aforementioned James Richards, who didn’t even make the team.

And the backups?

Why none other than 1987 eighth-round pick Kevin Gogan; Alan Veingrad, now known as Shlomo Veingrad, a Jewish Rabbi, initially entering into the NFL as an undrafted free agent signed by Green Bay in 1986 and claimed by the Cowboys in 1991 as a Plan B free agent; and Frank Cornish, a 1992 Plan B signing by the Cowboys.

So if you are scoring at home, two of the five starters on that 1992 Super Bowl championship offensive line were undrafted leftovers from the Landry era, and a third, Gesek, was acquired by trade. The other two were no more than third-round draft choices. And as for the backups, two were Plan B free-agent signings and the other (Gogan) was a one-time starter acquired during the Landry era before Williams was inserted into the lineup in 1992.

Talk about using your high draft resources to stock an offensive line?

There then is the real story about how those Cowboys in the 1990s stocked the initial Super Bowl championship offensive line before hitting the mother lode with Allen in the second round of the ’94 draft (without Jimmy by the way) and replacing free-agent defector Stepnoski in 1995 with free-agent Ray Donaldson, one of the very best free-agent signings the Cowboys have ever made.

And to think, all that time, and the Cowboys accounted for selecting only two of the handful of offensive linemen they’ve ever selected in the first or second rounds of the past 52 drafts, Allen in 1994 and in 1995 the forgettable pancake-less Hannah, who didn’t even make the team.

Yet somehow their play certainly caused the earth to move under the feet of those rampaging Cowboys.

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