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Spagnola: Making My First-Round NFL Draft Sense


IRVING, Texas – My gosh, is it really here, the NFL Draft, just a measly six days away, waiting around for this three-day event starting Thursday evening worse than goose-necking down the tracks for the next train to arrive.

         Seems like we've been waiting on this forever, the anticipation building way back at 10:24 p.m., Dec. 29th, the minute after the Cowboys dropped the final game of the schedule, 24-22, to the Philadelphia Eagles, finishing 8-8 for the third consecutive season, failing to clinch the NFC East title in the last game for the third consecutive year and missing out on the playoffs for the fourth consecutive time – their longest postseason absence since failing to qualify five straight years from 1986-1990.

         Just pensively waiting out those 130 days to hurry up and get better, come on just add at least a player or three to push the Cowboys over the proverbial hump that seems to be compiling into their very own Mount Everest. [embedded_ad]

         And to make matters even worse, the Cowboys don't pick until No. 16 in the first round, meaning if the 15 teams ahead of them each take their allotted 10 minutes, you'll have to wait approximately another two and a half hours before the Cowboys actually go on the clock. That is if (insert shudder) the Cowboys don't trade that pick up or down, as they have in seven of the past 13 drafts.

         With more than four months to deliberate, everyone and their brother has an idea of what the Cowboys should do or will do, although all contingent on properly predicting what the 15 teams drafting ahead of them will do. If we knew that, this would be easy. But we don't. Heck, we don't even know – yet – what the Houston Texans will do with the very first pick in the draft, and if they wanted to, they could say, but all they are doing is teasing everyone by saying, well, we know who we will pick if we make the first pick in the draft.

         Gee, thanks.

         So having said that, here is my two cents on what the Cowboys should do with their first-round pick in a prefect draft, which we know it won't be: Select a pass-rushing defensive end to replace DeMarcus Ware or add a three-technique defensive tackle to ease of the loss of Jason Hatcher. No brainer, even for me.

         Big problem, though, first with the defensive end. Unfortunately, there aren't that many first-round quality weakside defensive ends, and the consensus best one, Jadeveon Clowney, might also be the first pick in the draft. So out of the Cowboys range.

        Next are guys, but no one with the potential close to Clowney's. I know there is this rising clamor for the Cowboys to then turn their attention toward UCLA's Anthony Barr. But I would have reservations, since you are asking a 3-4 outside linebacker in college to change positions to a 4-3 defensive end at the NFL level. Yes, he can rush the quarterback, but you also have to hold down the edge against the run, maybe one of Ware's best yet overlooked attributes. Not sure I want my No. 1 pick to be a one-trick pony or someone who has to grow into the position. I need help now.

         Another name gaining traction is Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy, who is quite raw, and at 6-4, 273 – meaning by next year he'll be 280 – might be a better fit as a 3-technique defensive tackle than a weakside, pass-rushing defensive end, so hold that thought.

         After that, taking another defense end at No. 16 would be forcing the issue, and hopefully the Cowboys learned their lesson back in 1994 when they forced the issue at the very same position, so desperately in need of a defensive end with Charles Haley's balky back making them so, they reached badly for Shante Carver, actually trading up from 28 to 23 to do so. Yikes.

         Here is another scary stat from over the past 40 drafts: Going back to 1974 the Cowboys have selected a true 4-3 defensive end in the first round nine times, starting with Ed "Too Tall" Jones with the very first pick in that '74 draft. Six of those guys have turned out to be at the very least productive players, starting with Jones, Jim Jeffocat ('83), Greg Ellis ('98), Ebenezer Ekuban ('99), Ware ('05) and Anthony Spencer ('07). Three did not, Carver, Larry Bethea ('78) and Kevin Brooks ('85).

         But now the scary part: Of the 14 defensive ends taken anywhere from the second to the 12th rounds over those 40 drafts – and I'm counting Chris Canty, Jay Ratliff and Marcus Spears as 3-4 defensive ends – only one really became a bonafide player, that being Tony Tolbert, a fourth-round pick in 1989. That's it, leaving you scratching your heads over the likes of Peppi Zellner, Tony Hill, Kevin Harris, Victor Butler, Kavika Pittman, Bill Purifoy and Al Cleveland.

         So then, and let's throw out my next first-round draft two cents: Ideally first-round draft choices should be guys who I can either get the ball to or guys who can go get the ball for me. And for the incumbent worse defense in the NFL, let's continue to try to go get the ball, right? That means the 3-technique defensive tackle.

         But I'll be darn, again there just isn't that many true first-round candidates for that position either. More 1-techniques than 3s, and as we found out last year, the Cowboys don't want to put a first-round value on those guys, figuring you can find those types 2-7.

         The best 3-technique, and maybe the only one worthy of a first-round pick, is Pitt's Aaron Donald, a guy identified with the Cowboys over and over, and for good reason. He was the best defensive linemen in college football this past season and fits Rod Marinelli's scheme to a T. Great character. Great motor. Great production.

         Only one problem, and no, not that's he's just 6-1. He might not get to 16 if another team or two don't devalue him because of being just 6-1, not the prototype height for an NFL defensive tackle, unless of course you are a 6-1, 330-pound nose. Would ya trade up a spot or three if he was there? Needs consideration.

         Because after Donald, there really isn't another 3-technique defensive tackle worthy of the 16th pick in the draft. Now, Florida's Dominque Easley is intriguing, but coming off his second of two ACL surgeries in the past three years, that's a tad high for a guy still not quite ready to resume playing football just yet. Maybe in the second. And a guy such as Penn State's DaQuan Jones is more of a third-round type, as would be some of those 1-techniques, which would be just fine then. Or, maybe the Cowboys consider Ealy as a 3-technique defensive tackle, someone you might be able to pick up after a trade back.

         But if the Cowboys are right on Henry Melton, and he successfully returns from his surgically-repaired ACL, there is no need to reach here for a defensive tackle either that high in the first round.

         So, let's move on. Most would like to now take a safety, a cover safety, one who can roam from sideline to sideline. But to me, if the Cowboys don't get more or better pressure on quarterbacks than they did last year, I don't care if you have Everson Walls and Darren Woodson back there, not even they can cover forever.

         Plus, take a safety in the first round, and that means you basically have given up on J.J. Wilcox ever becoming a starter, Matt Johnson ever becoming a player if he happens to stay healthy and relegating Jeff Heath to no more than a special teams/backup player after investing so much time in him last year. Or that means admitting a mistake, that Wilcox isn't who you thought he could be after just one season and a training camp interrupted.

         Next, well I hear offensive line. Really? Do you really want another first-round pick on the offensive line? Isn't two enough? At some point you have to develop those guys, find those guys in the middle rounds, or take a chance with rookie free agents, say like Ronald Leary.

         Linebacker? Well maybe, and I mean a true 4-3 linebacker, so I'm not counting Ware or Spencer, having been drafted to play a 3-4 outside spot, with hand on the ground on the nickel. Or Bobby Carpenter. So if we discount those guys, the Cowboys haven't put a first-round value on a linebacker since 1992, taking Robert Jones with the second of their two first-round picks. And if you strap Jimmy Johnson to a lie detector, he'd tell you he wished he hadn't. Before that, Billy Cannon, 1984, and Hollywood Henderson, 1975 with the second of two first-round picks.

         And the only other linebacker the Cowboys have ever selected with a first-round pick is … Lee Roy Jordan, 1963. Not much precedence there, or a high value on the linebacker position, regardless if it was Gil Brandt running the draft, Jimmy Johnson or Jerry Jones.

         Then, of course, quarterback. But how does that get me better this year, or even next? For salary cap reasons, Tony Romo better be this team's starter for the next three seasons or the Cowboys will be even deeper in cap hell with all the signing bonus and guaranteed money in his recently-signed deal.

         So, how about someone I can get the ball, too? Someone who can bring value to a team likely needing once again this year to outscore the opponent to win, as has been required the past couple of seasons? Someone I can hand the ball to, throw the ball to or have the ball kicked to?

         Someone like Odell Beckham Jr., LSU's nifty wide receiver, who can play either outside receiver spot, can jump in the slot and can return kicks. Oh, did I mention he turned a 4.40 in the 40? Or that he won the 2013 Paul Hornung Award for being the most versatile college player?

         Crazy? Well, we know this: Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams are the projected starters. After that, now that Miles Austin is no more, that leaves just two more receivers from the 53 last year: Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley, nice role players.

         But guess what, and remember, for a team that must be offensive-minded to win, who steps into the starting lineup as the team is constructed now if Dez or Terrance go down for like three weeks with an injury? Beasley is a fine role player, not a guy ready to line up outside for 50 snaps a game. And Harris could fill in nicely but at 50 snaps then you'd lose your best special teams player, not only as a return man, but a coverage guy who tied for second last year in special teams tackles, only one behind the leader Heath.

         So Beckham, but not just any wide receiver at that point, unless one of those guys projected in the top 10 tumbles.

         And look, if you can't get what you want, if you trade back sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need, say Travis Frederick and Terrance Williams, huh.

         What ya think? Who knows, this all might make perfect sense.

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