For this edition of the draft mailbag, we'll be switching gears a bit. Typically, I send your questions to Longball of Drafttek; however, I recently received a question that I though might more fittingly be forwarded to some of BTB's lead writers. This is largely because it is only peripherally a draft question; in may ways it's a "State of the Cowboys" question. As such, I wanted to hear what my fellow scribes had to say on the matter. Not to worry, we'll resume you regularly scheduled Q & A with Longball in the next couple of days. So, be sure to send in your can't-wait draft queries to BTBmailbag@gmail.com so I can pass them along the proper channels. Now, without further ado, here's today's conversation:
Staubachfan: In addition to what I think will be a very good coaching staff, do you see a scenario in this draft that allows the Cowboys to be a real contender this year? If so, what 2 or 3 positions do we have to hit on to put us over the top.
O.C.C: To understand what the Cowboys need to be a "real contender" we first need to understand where the Cowboys are coming from. Under Garrett, the Cowboys were 5-3, with the three losses coming by a combined seven points. If we simply multiply that by two, the Cowboys effectively played like a 10-6 team last year. This is of course sugarcoating a lot of issues the team had last year. A slightly more precise projection can be made using the Pythogorean Formula. With 233 points scored versus 204 points allowed, the formula suggests the Cowboys under Garrett were a 9.2 win team.
As such, I don't believe the Cowboys are as far away from a playoff spot as their 6-10 2010 record suggests. Like most observers, I feel the biggest needs are at free safety, defensive end and right tackle. I believe free safety will need to be addressed via free agency, which leaves two key positions that the Cowboys need to upgrade via the draft:
1) A defensive end who will help improve the overall pass rushing performance of the front seven. Sandwiched between an effective pass rush and a veteran free safety who can actually make some plays, the corners will find their way back to 2009 performance levels
2) A right tackle to replace Marc Colombo and open up the running game. This will allow Garrett to be as balanced as he wants to be and thereby make both the air and ground game much more effective.
If the Cowboys get these three positions right, they will be a contender. Getting a guard, perhaps a corner and some solid depth at other positions would be very nice as well, but they will not make as much difference to the Cowboys' game as the first three positions will.
See what Dave and rabble have to say after the jump...
Dave: An offensive tackle and a secondary player are key picks for me in the draft. It would be nice if we could get someone who could challenge for a safety spot out of the draft, given the uncertainty about free agency. Unfortunately, this year's safety class at the top appears weak. Maybe we can find a gem in the mid-rounds. I would like to get a guy out of the draft who could challenge Colombo at RT, given his big drop-off last year.
But to me, I think you actually hit the nail on the head with the first part of the question in terms of the Cowboys contending in 2011. You mentioned the coaching staff, the biggest key is how Rob Ryan can get the defense to play as a unit. They basically fell apart last year, even though we know there's some talent on that side of the ball. For whatever reason, they collapsed under Wade Phillips' tutelage. Ryan needs to reinvigorate the defense, making them a fearsome unit that is physical, and gets turnovers. His emphasis on pressure by mixing up looks and moving guys around the field might be the ticket, but will they have time to implement it? Will the players be able to execute it in 2011?
The Cowboys offense should keep rolling with Tony Romo's return and the development of Dez Bryant. It's the defense that's the big issue. Ryan needs a few picks in the draft (DE, CB/S, another linebacker), but the key is what he can get done with the veterans. If he can get them playing at a high-level again, then the Cowboys will contend.
Rabblerousr: While I admire my colleagues' optimism, I'm not quite as enthusiastic about an immediate return to the playoff picture as they seem to be. While I do think the Cowboys are better than a 6-10 team, and may well contend in 2011, I think making that a goal when it comes ot the draft leads to faulty thinking and poor choices.
Why? I fear that Dallas, as presently constituted, is a declining team.
To me, this is not a question of coaching. I think Garrett is an excellent coach, and has assembled a first-rate staff. To me this is a question of talent and age. Are the Cowboys talented? Yes, at several positions. Is that talent young and getting better? Other than the members of the 2010 draft class (and they are all open questions), I'm not sure they are.
I worry that this team has lived too long off of the success of the 2003 and 2005 draft classes: Terrence Newman, Jason Witten and Bradie James (as well as UDFA Tony Romo) in 2003; Demarcus Ware, Marcus Spears, Marion Barber, Jay Ratliff in 2005.
From this core group of guys, who is improving? I can't say any of them. In fact, most are declining. Newman and James are clearly on the downside; Spears is unlikely to wear the star again; Barber is finished; and all the physical pounding inside has evidently taken its toll on Ratliff.
NFL teams must stay young, both because of salary cap ramifications and because older players tend to miss more games due to injury. To do so, a team must hit on at least three of their picks every year. The best teams do this year in and year out. To fail to "hit three" in a given year sets the team back in direct proportion to the failure. The poor drafting teams are constantly obsessed with the "now," scrambling to fill roster holes, and ignoring the future. The top drafting teams are perpetually investing in the future, which allows them to draft good players at positions of perceived strength.
Since 2005, the only year one could argue the Cowboys have managed to replenish their talent is in 2008, when they brought in Felix Jones, Mike Jenkins, Martellus Bennett, Tashard Choice, and Orlando Scandrick. 2006 was a washout; 2007 brought in Anthony Spencer, Doug Free and Alan Ball. 2009: David Beuhler, Victor Butler and John Phillips, none of them starters on the "22."
Think about what must be done over the next two to three drafts: both offensive and defensive lines need to be retooled; of the eight starters on both of those lines, only Doug Free is likely to be in a Cowboys uniform in three years. Three of the positions in the secondary will need to be filled. There's only one ILB on the roster who might be on it in 2014-and he's yet to prove he can stay healthy.
And I don't even want to think about what will happen to Ware, Witten and Romo by then...
The upshot is that I think the Cowboys, and their fans, must avoid thinking in terms of one-year solutions. Talent acquisition is a perpetual, multi-year rebuilding process; the idea that they must acquire three starters in this draft is likely to lead to poor decision-making. I'll be happy if Dallas acts as if this coaching staff is going to be here for a while--and thus doesn't overreact to the most recent input, as they usually do. I'd like to see a quiet, consistent, steady investment in the future.