As is the case every February, the NFL's annual scouting combine is the place where millions are both made and squandered by NFL hopefuls. Every year a few virtual-unknowns improve their draft futures with impressive workouts, and a few household names see their stock plummet after a week of poking and prodding. Though individual workouts and pro-days still lie ahead, this draft class has now at least begun to take shape. Now, for the first time we can begin to apply some educated speculation to the Dallas Cowboys' 2009 draft plans.
Inside linebacker is a glaring need for Dallas, but if Wake Forest's Aaron Curry and the almost equally impressive Brian Cushing (USC) create an early run on linebackers, the Cowboys may be forced to try to fill the need early on in day two. One player to watch in that situation is South Carolina inside linebacker Jasper Brinkley. Brinkley certainly did not hurt himself at he combine measuring out at 6'2" and 252 lbs., yet still managing a 4.72 forty. Most importantly, Brinkley displayed good strength (26 reps) and short area quickness (4.32 sec. 20-yard shuttle). Other second day options may include Pittsburgh linebacker Scott McKillop, LSU's Darry Beckwith, and UCLA's Zach Follett.
With Greg Ellis' future in question and incumbent Anthony Spencer still unproven, the Cowboys would be wise to add some depth at outside linebacker. Despite 11 sacks last season, Cincinnati defensive end Connor Barwin (6'4", 256) was a projected mid-to-late round selection prior to the combine. He would have a been fantastic middle round steal for the Cowboys but a stellar workout has almost certainly pushed him out of that range. Barwin logged the second fastest 40-yard dash (4.66) among defensive ends and showed the best short area quickness (4.18 short shuttle). Barwin is now probably the fourth or fifth rated 3-4 outside linebacker prospect in this years class, and with more teams moving towards the scheme, he may now be gone as early as round two. With many other more pressing needs, the Cowboys may not be able to justify selecting a non-starter with their first pick. Fortunately, this is an extremely deep year for hybrid linebackers so Dallas should be able to bag at least one in this year's draft.
During the combine the Cowboys were reportedly showing interest in Penn State wide receiver Derrick Williams. Once a second round projection, Williams has hurt himself drastically by posting pedestrian 4.58 and 4.67 forties. Meanwhile former teammate Deon Butler saw his stock rise after logging a 4.38. There are simply too many burners at the wide receiver position for the Cowboys too ignore the position in yet another draft. The ideal situation would be to grab a guy like Ole Miss' Mike Wallace (6'0", 199, 4.33) who can provide a spark in the return game while honing his craft as a wideout. The 2008 draft saw no wide receivers selected in the first round. 2006's wide receiver class had one first rounder. The position is trending downward as far as perceived value so the Cowboys should be able to land a solid prospect whenever they decide to take one.
We are finally beginning to learn a bit about this year's crop of defensive backs. One thing is for certain, they must eat good at the Davis house. Illinois cornerback Vontae Davis, younger brother of San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, carried on the family tradition of blowing up the combine with a ridiculous workout. After a poor showing by Ohio State's Malcolm Jenkins, Davis is sure to be the first corner to come off the board.
Safety is a major area of need for the Cowboys, but the picture is still cloudy at the position. No prospect has separated himself from the group and there may not be a first rounder in the bunch. One guy who really helped himself has been Notre Dame's David Bruton (6'2", 219), who turned in a 4.46 forty and finished at or near the top of his group in all other tests. He is a realistic possibility for the Cowboys first pick, but it is tough to imagine feeling too great about selecting anyone from Notre Dame's 2008 defense. The Cowboys may have to take a long look at filling this need via free agency as the value simply may not be there by the 51st selection.
A few things really stood out at this year's combine, one being the lack of speed at running back. It is hard to imagine that not one running back was able to run under 4.45. Not one! Not even Georgia's Knowshon Moreno. Another thing that became evident at the combine is the fact that this is a great year for offensive tackles. If you were watching the individual drills you saw a lot of really good hand and footwork. The Cowboys are set as far as the starting five along the offensive line, but we learned last season the Cowboys don't have anything better than a warm body for a first alternate.
Say what you will about the overemphasis on the combine. It's true that you don't know who can really play until the pads go on, but even in a T-shirt and shorts, you can find out who can't play in a hurry. Game film is still the key, but the battery of physical and psychological tests at the combine give teams a way of comparing college hopefuls with certified NFL talent. With the combine coming to a close, we can now begin to develop a clearer picture of what the 2009 NFL draft may hold for the Dallas Cowboys.