Cowboys Mailbag: Closing down draft options

Today’s Cowboys mailbag is being written high above the Atlantic Ocean as I am on my way to a long weekend in England where I will watch 4 English football matches in 4 days and then will be back and ready to consume the NFL Draft next week.  I think on Monday or Tuesday, I will write a nice long recap of the adventure as I do believe that more American sports fans are watching the world game than ever before, but you don’t check out a Cowboys mailbag to read about soccer or my thoughts on Chelsea at Arsenal, so let’s stay on point today and continue to zoom in our focus for arguably the most important weekend of the year – the NFL Draft.  

The following are several of the emails that you sent in this week looking for answers:


Bob,

First thanks for all the great information and insight.  Love your blog analysis on the Cowboys draft options.

My question is, assuming Fletcher Cox is off the board (consensus feeling is he will be by #14) if Dallas comes down to a decision between David DeCastro/Mark Barron who, is the better pick?

I dug a little deeper into drafts of the past 10 years expecting the guard position to prove out to be the safer option.  I was surprised to learn that data proves quite the opposite.  Consider this:

In the past 10 NFL drafts 12 safeties have been selected in the first round.  They are Eric Berry, Earl Thomas (2nd team All Pro 2011), Kenny Philips, Laron Landry, Michael Griffin (2nd team All Pro 2010), Reggie Nelson, Brandon Meriweather, Michael Huff (2nd team All Pro 2010), Donte Whitner, Jason Allen, Sean Taylor (2nd team All Pro 2007), and Troy Polamalu (All Pro 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011).

In the past 10 NFL drafts only six guards have been selected in the first round.  They are: Danny Watkins, Mike Iupati, Ben Grubbs, Davin Joseph, Logan Mankins (All Pro 2007, 2009, 2010, 2nd team 2011), and Kendall Simmons.

5 of 12 (42%) safeties have made an AP All-NFL teams while only 1 of 6 (17%) guards have.

Even if you consider those drafted 2008 and earlier to allow for player development, that 4 of 10 (40%) safeties have made an AP All-NFL teams while 1 of 4 (25%) guards have.

I’m feeling much better about the possibility of a Barron selection.  But I’d still rather have DeCastro.

I think you said you expect the Cowboys to take Barron if faced with this choice.  Based on your analysis who would you take?

Thanks,
Wayne Smith
P1 from Maryland

First off, Wayne, nice job on the research.  I like a fan who obsesses about these choices to the point of building a case in one direction or another.  

I like the use of All Pro teams far more than Pro Bowls to determine who is a strong player at their position.  The trouble is, All Pro teams take only the top player at each position or in the case of guards and safeties, we are talking the top 2.  Consider the odds:  32 teams, 2 guards each team start.  Of the 64 starting guards, only 2 will be recognized as 1st team and 2 more as 2nd team.  That means about 6% of starting guards or safeties will ever make the Pro Bowl.  

So, while that is a very nice bar that we should shoot for, we should also keep in mind that 94% of the starters in the league will not make the All Pro team.  That is a very high bar.  

That being said, it does appear that if you want an elite safety, very few of them leak down the draft very far.  When I think about the best safeties in the game, many of them went in the 1st round.  Guards, of the top quality, often can be found all over the draft board.  The point is that if you want elite, you better get the elite safety right away.  You can find solid interior offensive lineman later.  And that is the case this year, too.  There are a number of guards who are thought of as starters.  Not Decastro quality, but very, very good guards.  Conversely, if you don’t take Mark Barron, then you might not find a stud safety in the draft (the reviews of Harrison Smith from Notre Dame are all over the board).

Wayne asked what I would do and I have been consistent on this.  I have to get this pick right.  The Cowboys are at a critical time in personnel and I have to err on the side of caution.  With that in mind, I feel DeCastro is more of a slam dunk and would lean in that direction.  I think both would be great picks and Barron would be the type that might dramatically change the team right away, but if I am looking for a strong pick that I am confident is a leader on the team in 2016, I will roll with DeCastro.


QB of the future as early as Rd 3?
With Romo in his prime, it feels more sensible to strengthen around him, but is there ever a “convenient” time if you hope to avoid earning a top 5 pick?
-Jonathan

This comes up every year in the draft and for good reason.  Since Tony Romo has become this team’s QB, the backup situation has remained in a constant state of “upgradeable”.  I would love for this spot to get settled with a Matt Flynn type that the team feels is a starter-in-waiting.  And that was why we all relaxed for a second when the Cowboys targeted and picked Stephen McGee with a premium pick to start Round 4 in 2009.  

But, somewhere between the scouting process of McGee and today, he has fallen out of favor for reasons that seem somewhat unclear to me.  I thought he did a real nice job at Arizona at the end of the 2010 season, but the next week at Philadelphia, the Cowboys selected one of the most absurdly conservative game plans ever when they could have asked more of McGee and seen what he was capable of.  The success stories of developing QBs in Dallas begins and ends with Romo in the last couple decades since Troy Aikman was selected #1 overall in 1989.  They have tried again and again to find a kid and try to grow him, but it seems that the Cowboys don’t have much of a knack for it.  

As for this coming weekend and the idea of even a 3rd round pick, I would not encourage it because of the immediate needs in the following areas:  Guard/center, corner, safety (multiple), defensive line (multiple), 3rd WR, 3rd TE,  outside linebacker, and perhaps a punter.

However, by the 3rd round, you should be trusting your board and operating under the heading of drafting the best player available.  If the Cowboys look up and see a QB who has a grade high above the other spots, they should grab him there and feel good about that.  But, don’t force that shot.


Bob,

I know the vast majority of fans aren’t sad to see Martellus Bennett go, but what type of impact will his loss have on the offense?  I know he was inconsequential in the passing game, but isn’t he generally regarded as one of the better blocking TE’s in the league?  Jason Garrett likes to run two TE sets and I assume Bennett played a relatively high number of snaps last year so can John Phillips capably replace Bennett or should adding a TE (in what looks like a weak class) be a priority in the draft?

Jason Lustig

Jason, that is a solid observation.  Martellus Bennett was overdrafted and a failed experiment in Dallas.  But, the Cowboys did use him more and more as a tight end that could serve as a very capable blocker in both the run and pass game.  He would often stay in and help pass protect which took a load of Jason Witten’ s plate, which should not be undersold.  I remember the dying moments of the 2007 playoff loss to New York as Witten should have been the primary target on the final play of the game as he was in Detroit in a similar spot early that December on a post route that won the game.  But, Romo and the OL were so battered by the Giants front that the Cowboys felt compelled to keep Witten in to block with their Super Bowl dreams on the line.  That was a crime that your #1 option as a receiver was taken out of the play because the Cowboys had no option in pass protection.  Martellus changed that for several years.  And although that is way overpriced to find a blocking TE in the 2nd round, his strength at the point of attack in the run game was always undervalued.  I don’t think Phillips is nearly as strong and versatile on the line of scrimmage and therefore, I do expect the Cowboys to block a much stronger option deep in the draft.  They need to address it for sure to keep their “12” and “22” personnel options in the mix.  Otherwise, without a strong blocker like Bennett, you lose your ability to force the defense to keep an extra LB on the field as opposed to a corner when they change up personnel.  The LB stays on the field because they didn’t want to get steamrolled in “12” personnel (1 RB, 2 TE).  Without a strong TE, the opposition might be comfortable matching up with the extra DB and sit pass in nickel or dime.


I’m torn Bob.  I think we all agree that the Cowboys will likely go defense with their first round pick.  With that in mind, I don’t know what will help the defense more in 2012: finally establishing some much-needed physicality to the secondary with Alabama safety Mark Barron?  Or, getting some consistent pressure on the quarterback outside of Ware with help from one of the front-seven targets (Cox, Upshaw, Ingram, Poe, etc)?  Which way would you go?

I’m beginning to lean towards Barron.  I recall watching the 49ers in the NFC Championship game this past season and drooling about how physical their defense played.  Dallas doesn’t have that.  I know big-hits is only a small part to playing safety, but I think we could use some physicality to set the tone for the rest of our defense.

Russell Giles
Newark, DE

The great question of the entire defensive quandary; what is more needed – pressure up front or coverage in the back?  Secondary or front 7?  You can argue this point for hours either way and have a very difficult time finding a definitive answer either way.

I am a huge believer that the game is won in the trenches at the line of scrimmage.  And, since the gold standard in the NFL at the moment is the NY Giants, we should zero in on a few elements of what made them great.

They dominated the Cowboys at the line of scrimmage.  Lasting memories of 2011 include the OL (Doug Free, in particular) having no answer for Jason Pierre Paul at Cowboys Stadium.  Further, in the rematch in NY, the entire OL was under siege with the Cowboys young, undersized interior being thrown aside with ease by the Giants’ deep DL rotation and battering Romo play after play.  

Then, the Giants OL kept the Cowboys defense from touching Eli Manning in the game in Dallas to a point of sheer madness.  50 drop backs without a sack or hardly a hit?  In retrospect, the fact that the Cowboys were a Miles Austin moment of losing the ball in the lights away from winning that game and by extension the division is still a point of some amazement.  Dallas was simply defeated badly at the line of scrimmage.  And if the Giants are the champs and in your division, well, then you best figure out how to fix that as soon as possible.  

That is why Tyron Smith means so much to the future of this franchise, and that is why the free agency period focused on bulking up the guard spot with the signings of Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau.  

So, if you want to continue to close that gap and keep up with the champs, you can’t go wrong by targeting the OL or DL again.  Do you get Fletcher Cox in the 1st and a guard in the 2nd?  Do you take DeCastro in the 1st and then go get DL help at pick #45?  I don’t think you can go wrong.  

The question remains that if you think Mark Barron is a game changer (and he is) and a physical presence (and he is) then do you pull the trigger and ignore this “line of scrimmage” issue at the top of your draft?  If you do, you better make your subsequent picks matter in a hurry up front.  Especially that DL that scares nobody.


Could you do a comparison of Carr vs T. Newman

At first I thought we cut T New to save money, however were paying Carr more than we would of paid T New

Do you think V Butler and B Carter will see a good amount of playing this year

Overall, do you think our defense and secondary will be better


Thank you
Jeff

Jeff, to compare Carr and Newman is rather easy at this point.  Newman can’t stay healthy, can’t cover like he once could, can’t tackle like he once could, and has lost a step.  He also is almost strictly an “off and soft” cover guy and at $8 million was among the more overpaid players in football last year.

Carr, on the other hand, is a larger, younger, and healthier corner that should be able to play as much “press” coverage as you desire.  This will help your pass rush because the QB will have to wait longer to have his man pop open if Carr is in his face.  He is just 26 years old and while his salary will raise expectations to unrealistic levels as a guy who should never concede a completion, he will instantly be the Cowboys best corner.  And in a passing league, feeling good about having a strong top corner is very valuable (and quite expensive).

As for Bruce Carter and Victor Butler’s prospects for 2012, I would suggest that Carter needs to play a major role.  The Cowboys invested a very high pick in him last year and received nothing from it in his rookie season with his health concerns.  The signing of Dan Conner does raise questions about how inside linebacker playing time will be allocated, but one would assume that Sean Lee will play in every situation, Conner will be more run downs and Carter will be more of a 3rd Down LB who will anchor your special teams and grow into a bigger role.  

Victor Butler is a very interesting question, as he has flashed many times as a capable pass rusher, but clearly has not earned the faith of the team as a versatile every down OLB because of questions of holding up against the run.  I think they see him as a reasonable weak-side backup for DeMarcus Ware and beyond that, a crucial special teams piece while he is still under his 1st contract.  But, that changes when he hits free agency next winter and will likely be replaced with another cheap option unless he can prove capable of a bigger spot.


Hey Bob,

Just came across your blog on the potential draft picks you like for Dallas.  I really liked your ideas and plan to keep up with you blog.

Question:  Why doesn’t Dallas copy the draft strategy of successful drafting clubs like New England and Philadelphia?  New England almost always has two number ones and trades out of one of them for a two and a one next year.  If one continued to do this, they would always have two number twos each draft year.  What a plan!
Also, those two teams trade players before they loose them in free agency or before they lose their trade appeal.
I think Jerry is too short sighted and always planning for now, unlike the teams mentioned.

Keep up the good work.  I enjoy your show and your blog.

Thanks,
Larry Gray
Hurst

Larry, we could ask “why don’t the Cowboys copy the Patriots and Eagles” in many categories these days.  Those two franchises have done a great job in managing their franchises since the turn of the millennium.  Neither are perfect, but they both are model front offices that are always looking for chances to get ahead.  

The Cowboys have tried trading down a few times, with very mixed results.  The first one that pops quickly to mind is the 2004 debacle when they elected to pass on Steven Jackson of St Louis and take Julius Jones because “they had similar grades” and they were able to pick up an additional #1 (which was Marcus Spears).  If they would have stayed put and taken their guy, who knows how history changes over the last 8 years?

Those franchises can move up and down the board because most years they do not have glaring needs all over.  When you have options on draft day, you can think with a bigger vision.  But, this is a simple case of the rich getting richer.  If your roster is set, you can take advantage of desperate teams on draft weekend.  And for a while the Cowboys have played the role of the desperate team.  You can tell that when you see a team trading up quite a bit and tossing in later picks to do so.  Anthony Spencer, Mike Jenkins, Sean Lee, and Dez Bryant were all trade ups that cost extra picks to do so.  Not saying those were poor ideas, but I am saying they come at a price that does need to be paid.