I'm thrilled to present to you the first in a series of interviews with Longball of Drafttek.com. He's living the dream, parlaying a long-time love affair with NFL football, and the draft in particular, into a position as one of Drafttek's resident experts. Longball started grading college players as a hobby during the 70's and, after years of film study (when he was getting whacked by my coaches), has trained his eyes to focus on line play. As you'll see, Ol' Longball is strictly old school. Not only does he still keep all his player grades on index cards but also, when grading them, uses an old school rubric:
The game is still played on the field and I place a large emphasis on technique and fundamentals because it doesn't matter how much of a "stud" a particular player may be, he will eventually get his posterior kicked. And when a player is tired and beaten down, that's where fundamentals and technique will take over and help him survive the onslaught.
More importantly, he's an unabashed, long-time Cowboys fan--his hometown was also home to Cowboys Hall of Famer Bob Lilly; he's missed viewing (either on TV or in person) less than 10 of their games since the inaugural year of 1960. That's dedication. The cherry on the sundae? Longball is a BTB member!
Longball has been happily working with Drafttek for over three years now, where he has been given scouting department and Big Board responsibility. So, lets start the interview there, after the jump:
BTB: Tell us about your big board. What are the positions of strength in the 2011 draft? Where are they strong—i.e., excellence at the top? Strong in the middle rounds? Deep in the late rounds?
Longball: The defensive line position is strong at the top through the first 4 rounds (depending on position, of course), the offensive line prospects while lacking a true "stud" as in the previous few years, may in fact be deeper and starts mid to late 1st round and runs maybe through the 3rd round (once again, depending on position), wide receivers are not deep this year but running backs (being the "commodity" position it has become) will have value picks throughout the draft. There are questions about every QB prospect and they have been discussed ad nauseum on other sites; needless to say, the class is neither high quality or deep (now that doesn’t mean a good QB will not come out of this class – this is strictly a scout’s grade based on a projection of potential). Value in the linebacker position (other than pass-rush specialists) can be found starting late in the 2nd round on through the draft and the cornerback position, while not exceptionally deep, is far superior to the safety class.
BTB: One of the aspects of the pre-draft process that I’ve been talking about on the blog is the notion of "clustering," wherein a team will look at, say, all the available running backs to determine where there is a distribution bulge. Let’s say there are a lot of backs with mid third-round grades; a team could be confident that they could pick up value at RB in the mid-to-late third.
Clustering can help make decisions about what positions to pursue when. If the offensive line value begins in the mid-first and maybe extends until the third round, its pretty clear that if the Cowboys want to take an OL in the first couple of rounds, they’ll need to do so at # 40, unless somebody like a Tyron Smith grades out high enough to warrant the ninth pick. Assuming they don’t trade back, of course…
So, if we can accept that Dallas’ primary needs are OL, DL, DS and ILB, in roughly that order—and assuming that you had to pick up one of each--what positions would you be targeting in each round?
LOT Cluster: 12-84
ROT Cluster: 22-84; 112-190
OG Cluster: 37-69; 89-176
OC Cluster: 27-97
DE Cluster: 2-47; 104-207
DT Cluster: 64-83; 126-216
CB Cluster: 1-9; 20-78; 85-124; 131-165
FS Cluster: 63-124; 162-180
SS Cluster: 30/75/109-181
SILB: 21/35/5-115; 204-272
Based on the clusters, 1st round would be CB or DE, 2nd round would be OL, 3rd round would be FS/SS (if DE in 1st), DL (if CB in 1st) or ILB. After the first 3 rounds, you would need to see what combinations you had at that point.
BTB: Nice. Okay, now I’ll invite you to throw out a couple of mock drafts using the above and focusing on players that you think fit Dallas’ criteria or in whom you have heard the Cowboys express interest.
Longball: Based on the clusters, a Dallas mock might be one of the following:
1. Prince Amukamara, Nebraska - CB
2. Marcus Cannon, TCU – ROT/OG
3. Mason Foster, Washington – SILB
4. Lawrence Guy, Arizona State – DE34
5. Tim Barnes, Missouri – OC
6. Chris Neild, West Virginia – DT34
7. Chris Conte, California – FS
Or going the other route:
1. Cameron Jordan, California – DE34
2. Aaron Williams, Texas – CB/FS
3. Benjamin Ijalana, Villanova – OG/ROT
4. K.J. Wright, Mississippi State – SILB
5. Dom DeCicco, Pittsburgh – SS
6. Joseph Barksdale, LSU – ROT/LOT?
7. Charlie Bryant, Memphis – DE34
BTB: I must admit that I’m not in love with either of those possibilities, largely because of where the O-linemen come off the board. This appears to be the result of the fact that no OL currently merits the pick at number nine.
Longball: Now, keep in mind if the Cowboys stay at #9, not only do they expect the player to be a starter, but an impact starter – so, if DE34 is the position, the expectations will be for pass-rush pressure as well as "holding ground" against the run. A potential shut-down CB would be acceptable – but what about OL? Jerry’s track record has not been drafting OL in the first round...it has been signing free agents to ridiculous contracts. Just for the sake of argument, if Jerry was going to spend a 1st round choice on OL, the only one I believe he would consider at #9 is Tyron Smith of USC.
BTB: I know Cowboys fans have been hearing a lot about Smith of late, but some are still hesitant about him—largely, I think, because he came on the scene later than the senior OL candidates. Tell us more about him.
Longball: Before we start the Bruce Campbell comparisons from last year, Smith has good game tape. I have it from 2 different sources (one from USC) that Dallas has requested more film on Smith than any other NFL team. If that were to happen, a mock might look like this:
1. Tyron Smith, USC – LOT/ROT
2. Cameron Heyward, Ohio State – DE34
3. Curtis Brown, Texas – CB
4. Chris White, Mississippi State – SILB
5. Clint Boling, Georgia – OG
6. Jermale Hines, Ohio State – FS
7. Harold Ayodele, Emporia State – DT34
BTB: This certainly feels more reassuring. I’d be happy seeing these players on board when all is said and done—although I suspect not drafting a safety until the sixth round will make Cowboys fans a bit anxious.
Longball: Now we don’t know what positions will be addressed in free agency – quite frankly, I would prefer a veteran at safety and a rookie at CB, but you can see in every mock I believe the Cowboys need to select 2 OL prospects (based on their track record of drafting OL, you could make a case for 3) and 2 DL prospects (I personally believe that they will keep at least 1 of the 3 F/A DE’s if not 2, but they need to get back to a solid DL rotation to keep the Big Uglies fresh!)
BTB. Indeed. The other competitive teams in the division (in other words, not Washington) tend to build from the lines back, and that philosophy has been a key to their success.
Tomorrow, we’ll hear more of Longball’s insight about the positions that are dear to his heart: the "Big Uglies" on the offensive line.