With the 14th pick, the Cowboys select...

BY foxsports • March 31, 2012

One of the interesting things about NFL teams losing their minds over Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill's recent pro day is that it means the Dallas Cowboys have a better shot at landing an elite player. Of course, owner Jerry Jones is still capable of undermining the entire process if he takes a last-minute call from one of his cronies and big-foots his hard-working scouting department.

But even Jerry could have a hard time screwing up the No. 14 overall pick in this draft, what with all those Alabama players likely available at that point. Head coach Jason Garrett, the master of meritocracy, made a trip to Tuscaloosa for the Crimson Tide's pro day, the only such event he's scheduled to attend in the buildup to the draft. Garrett's only pro day visit last year was to USC to see offensive tackle Tyron Smith in person.

As some of you might recall, FoxSportsSouthwest.com was the first site to predict the Cowboys would select Smith with the ninth overall pick. Yes, I bailed on the pick at the last minute, but let's not dwell on that in this column. This is the point in the pre-draft process where I give you three "locks" for the Cowboys' selection at No. 14. One of these three players will almost certainly be drafted by the Cowboys based on numerous conversations with sources across the league.

For starters, let's eliminate Alabama safety Mark Barron from the process. It's a position of need for the Cowboys, but they'd much prefer a pass-rusher, cornerback or guard. They haven't selected a safety in the first round since Roy Williams in the 2002 draft. Williams got off to a strong start, but his development was stunted by the retirement of his mentor, Darren Woodson. The Cowboys have made it pretty clear to me that Barron's not a priority for them at the No. 14 pick.

So now that we've eliminated Barron from the process, it's time to focus on another Alabama player, defensive end/outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw. He's been falling in some mock drafts, but that's not happening on the Cowboys' board. It did raise some eyebrows that Upshaw seemed a bit heavy at his recent pro day, but the Cowboys are convinced he could be extremely effective as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme or a defensive end in a 4-3. One veteran NFC scout reminded me that folks tried to pick Terrell Suggs' apart because of his relative lack of prototypical size and speed. But Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome simply said at the time, "The guy's a football player," and the rest is history. That said, there are some scouts leery of Upshaw regarding some off-the-field baggage and his ability to grasp new defensive concepts.

"Upshaw's a real hard fit," said one longtime AFC scout. "He played in a 3-4, but I don't see a first-round pass-rusher. He's a good run defender, but do you take that type of guy in the first? The mental side's not the greatest, but he does have good football instincts."

My second "lock" for the Cowboys is Boston College inside linebacker Luke Kuechly. The Cowboys already have former second-round picks Sean Lee and Bruce Carter in the fold. And they picked up former Panthers inside linebacker Dan Connor in free agency. But the Cowboys think the world of Kuechly and would have a hard time passing him up if he's still on the board at No. 14. He's basically a Sean Lee clone, and that's one of the reasons the Cowboys love him. He had a 33-game streak of double-digit tackles. As far as safe choices go in the first round, Kuechly's near the top of the list.

If you kept up with the combine at all, you know that Memphis defensive tackle Dontari Poe made quite an impression. Some scouts worry that he's more of a workout warrior than a football player, but he was extremely productive for the Tigers. For a 346-pound man, he has great agility and quickness. The only thing he's missing is that true nasty streak that you see in some players.

Poe (6-3 ½) could play nose tackle in the 3-4 and could also be highly effective in packages that include two defensive tackles. The Cowboys were intrigued with Poe before he put up jaw-dropping numbers at the combine, so that only reinforced their interest.

Poe and Kuechly will likely be gone before No. 14, but there's a good chance Upshaw will be available. The Cowboys could select him and never look back. He could replace Anthony Spencer when the Cowboys allow him to walk following the 2012 season.

The Cowboys also have a strong interest in Stanford guard David DeCastro, Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and North Carolina defensive end Quinton Coples. But at this point, none of those players are vying for "lock" status. That could certainly change in the coming weeks, though.

We'll play close attention to who the Cowboys bring in for visits because that's often a good indication of what they plan to do on draft day. Feel free to share these "locks" with your friends upon returning to the workplace Monday. It's the sort of inside information that will wow most, if not all of your colleagues.


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