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Defense, Offensive Line Help Highlight Cowboys' Blue-Collar 2015 Draft

IRVING, Texas – For an organization defined by glamorous tradition, the Cowboys' 2015 draft could be categorized as (silver and) blue collar.

Five of their eight draft picks, including first-round cornerback Byron Jones and second-round defensive end Randy Gregory, were dedicated to defense. Their three offensive selections were two tackles and a blocking tight end.

And, for the first time in Jerry Jones' tenure as owner/general manager, the Cowboys did not select an offensive skill player – a quarterback, a wide receiver or, as most expected, a running back to replace All-Pro DeMarco Murray.

Instead, they stayed patient in each round, drafted the best players on their board and focused on enhancing their strengths (their blocking up front) and improving their weaknesses (their depth at cornerback, linebacker and pass rusher) from a 12-4 season.

The result is a potentially stronger offensive line even without a clear-cut every-down running back at this point.

And on defense, Jerry Jones believes they have greatly improved the talent level with the signing of Greg Hardy, the improvements of young players such as Tyrone Crawford, a returning Sean Lee, and two high-profile draft picks in Jones and Gregory.

"This is very significant – a sea change of what we're doing on defense, and it's all for the better," Jones said Saturday night. "We're dramatically improved personnel-wise (compared to) even the team that was on the field (in the playoffs) against (Aaron) Rodgers and Green Bay."

The draft upgrades began in Thursday's first round with Byron Jones (No. 27), a productive four-year starter at Connecticut who's known best, at least for now, for breaking the world broad jump record at the NFL Scouting Combine in February.

Jones provides insurance at cornerback while Mo Claiborne recovers from knee surgery and the Cowboys potentially address the contracts of Brandon Carr and Orlando Scandrick. At 6-0, 200 pounds, Jones has the size, length and recovery speed to be an effective press corner at the NFL level or transition to free safety if needed.

"This league is getting so many tall, big receivers," defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. "He's a guy that's got the speed and the range and he's a very high-intellect guy."

Jones was ranked among the top 15 players on the Cowboys' draft board. Gregory was also highly rated – when he slipped to No. 60 overall in the second round Friday, roars of excitement erupted in the hallways near the coaches' offices.

Between Gregory and Hardy, a 2013 Pro Bowl selection with Carolina, the Cowboys' mission has been clear: They've set out to upgrade a pass rush that produced only 28 sacks last year, the fifth-lowest total in the league.

"They're elite pass rushers," head coach Jason Garrett said.

Both come with off-the-field baggage. Hardy is appealing a 10-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the league. Gregory might have been a top-10 pick if not for a failed drug test at the NFL Scouting Combine in February which he later acknowledged in an interview.

The front office believes they have the structure in place to help both players. Gregory said he told the Cowboys on his official visit that he would benefit from an internal support system.

"I think anybody who knows the guys on our team and understands the culture we've created here, understands that that's an important thing for us," Garrett said. "Our team is made of up those kinds of guys. Nobody up here is perfect. So what we try to do each and every day is be our best, create an environment for our players to be our best and we do believe we do have high character people around them that can help some of the people grow and be their best both on and off the field."

The Cowboys grabbed another defensive end with pass rush potential in the fifth round Saturday (No. 163). Purdue's Ryan Russell, a Dallas area native, started four straight years with 25 total tackles for loss and 10 sacks.

They also added two linebackers – Minnesota's Damien Wilson in the fourth round (No. 127) and Wyoming's Mark Nzeocha in the seventh round (No. 236) – to bolster the roster's most depleted position in 2014.

The Cowboys didn't make their first offensive selection, Florida tackle Chaz Green, until the third round (No. 91) Friday. Green projects as the replacement for departed swing tackle Jermey Parnell and should get extensive offseason reps at right tackle while starter Doug Free recovers from foot surgery until the start of training camp.

In the seventh round the Cowboys also took Virginia Tech offensive tackle Laurence Gibson (No. 243), who went through a private pre-draft workout with Cowboys offensive assistant Marc Colombo. The club also traded a 2016 sixth-round pick to San Francisco to move back into the seventh and take Texas tight end Geoff Swaim (No. 246).

Running back was the most surprising omission from the 2015 draft class. After Murray signed a free-agent deal with division rival Philadelphia in March, the Cowboys held official visits with several top prospects, presumably with the intention of drafting his replacement.

However, Jerry Jones said last week they were content with the current group that includes free agent addition Darren McFadden, Joseph Randle, Ryan Williams and Lance Dunbar. And executive vice president Stephen Jones said they'll keep their eyes peeled for free-agent help throughout the year, pointing out that the Patriots signed their go-to rusher in the Super Bowl, LeGarrette Blount, in November of last season.

"Every step of the way here, we've not tried to, at the end of the day, really push for a particular need," Stephen Jones said. "We kind of let the draft come to us, in a good way, and we were able to solve a lot of things and take care of a lot of things that we felt we were short in. I think we really improved our football team."


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