Narrowing down the choices for the Cowboys

The most overanalyzed NFL draft in history will begin Thursday in New York. Pushing the draft back two weeks has caused high stress among gurus who are trying to generate bogus mock drafts.

A nation breathlessly awaits the Houston Texans’ first overall pick. Texans GM Rick Smith has kept his options open, although he admitted to knowing exactly which player he will select if there’s no trade down. I’m being told by people familiar with Smith’s thinking that Houston will remain "flexible" right up until the final hour. If there’s not a team that wants to bestow the Texans with a bevy of picks, then it’s pretty clear they will select South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

The Dallas Cowboys aren’t nearly as flexible in this draft. There’s been talk of an offensive lineman such as Zack Martin landing at No. 16, but scouts across the league don’t see that happening. The Cowboys are in desperate need of help along the defensive line, and they need an impact player. I’ve seen UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr’s name come up at No. 16. The Cowboys would convert him to defensive end and let him chase the quarterback. This thought that re-signing Anthony Spencer has provided the Cowboys with flexibility is a joke. I think it’s 50-50 at best that Spencer is able to return to form after microfracture surgery.

There’s a good shot that both Barr and Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald are off the board by the time Dallas picks at No. 16. I think Donald would be worth trading up a couple spots, but the Bears would be a really good fit for him at No. 14. One high-ranking AFC scout very familiar with the Cowboys’ defensive scheme had some reservations about Barr.

"Barr is a SAM linebacker I think in that defense," said the scout. "I don’t see the transfer to D-line. I didn’t see a deep D-line draft in the fall in first round, and I still don’t see it being deep."

Perhaps the Cowboys could trade down a few spots and take Minnesota defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman. He’s the type of three-technique player Rod Marinelli covets in this 4-3 scheme. But most scouts don’t believe he’s worthy of the 16th pick overall. Hageman’s one of those players who will benefit greatly from a relatively thin group of talented defensive linemen with first-round grades.

If the Cowboys aren’t able to trade their first-round pick, then Louisville safety Calvin Pryor would be a solid choice. This team has been compromised at safety since the departure of Darren Woodson way back in 2004. If the Cowboys don’t select Pryor, the Ravens will be there to catch him at No. 17.

After polling several longtime scouts, I’ve narrowed it down to three main possibilities for the Cowboys: Donald, Pryor and Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier. The Cowboys might have to trade up to land Donald, but Shazier could be there in the 20-25 range. Shazier would be able to start at weakside linebacker. Dallas thought former second-round pick Bruce Carter would be the long-term answer at outside linebacker, but he was exposed badly last season and lost his starting job.

Jones has traded his first-round pick 20 times during his 25 years as owner. The Cowboys need to be proactive and not get caught flat-footed at No. 16. They have admitted some confusion between their scouting and coaching departments in the buildup to last year’s draft. Something like that can’t happen again.

And who knows, maybe the organization will find a way not to accidentally leak their draft board to the public this time around. If I had to narrow down to one name at No. 16, it’s Donald. He’s the type of player Marinelli would absolutely love.

The awkward part of all this is Jason Garrett going into the final year of his contract. How much say should a head coach have when there’s a decent chance he’ll only have the players for one season?

Of course, the real drama begins if Johnny Manziel starts to slide. Will Jerry be able to help himself?

Hopefully we get to find out Thursday. Finally.