This is my first attempt to produce a reasonable (as in, not homer-we-get-studs-at-all-positions) NFL Draft forecast. It's free, unlike Mel Kiper's, so you get what you pay for...however the aim is not so much predicting specific picks (which is a fool's errand at this point anyway beyond the top two QBs) but looking at overall trends of positions, schools and conferences historically preferred by front offices, team needs, etc.
I did put together a 'big board' through 4 rounds based on Walter Football and Draftek rankings, as well as the SBN Mocking the Draft page which includes a few 'surprise' late risers like South Carolina Gamecocks safety D.J. Swearinger and Bowling Green defensive tackle Chris Jones absolutely killing it at the NFL Combine. I tried to steer clear of too many physical project picks (i.e. Michigan State's 6"7 DE William Gholston, who looks like another Clifton Geathers), even for teams like the Oakland Raiders known for taking those players...though BYU's Ezekiel Ansah shot into the top half of the first round and SMU defensive lineman Margus Hunt went in the mid-2nd round in my projection.
I also left out a lot of underclassmen who've either said they're likely to return or could return as seniors with very real national championship contenders. That means Texas A&M OT Luke Joeckel goes to the St. Louis Rams or the Philadelphia Eagles in this draft. But for now, fellow Aggie bookend OT Jake Matthews stays in College Station, hoping to get into the top 10 of the 2014 draft instead of being a late 1st round pick. DE/OLB Damontre Moore SAYS that he plans to stay for his senior year in Aggieland, though that could change if the NFL informs him he's a likely top 10 pick. The only way Moore would affect my projection is to allow another pass rushing prospect like Auburn OLB Corey Lemonier to fall to Dallas even if the Cowboys are drafting in the low 20s.
The list of underclassmen with underwhelming junior campaigns who are likely to stay for their senior years includes Alabama G/T D.J. Fluker, Florida DT Sharif Floyd, and a few others. Then there were the injured underclassmen who're likely to return after taking a 2012 medical redshirt like Texas DE Jackson Jeffcoat, LSU OT Chris Faulk, and Florida State DE Brandon Jenkins (the loss of Cincinnati DE Walter Stewart also hurts, I had him as an early 4th round selection before finding out his football career may be over due to a spinal injury).
Along the way of doing my ridiculously premature mock, I remembered that the Redskins had traded their 1st round pick to the Rams to draft RG3, the Raiders had sent their 2nd round pick to Cincinnati, and the Dolphins had picked up an extra 2nd from the suddenly playoff contending Colts in return for CB Vontae Davis. The Saints also forfeited their 2nd round pick per Roger Goodell's punishment for the bounties scandal. [But after publishing this I forgot Dallas traded their 7th round pick in 2013 to the Miami Dolphins, and that we get no compensatory picks until 2014...d'oh!]
Bringing it back home to our Cowboys -- losing Mike Jenkins to 2013 free agency means at least a 4th round compensatory selection, which unlike our regular 4th round pick cannot be traded (hence I allow Jerry and Jason to do some wheeling and dealing with our current and next year's 4th round picks to catch a falling linebacker in the early 4th). Losing both Jenkins and Anthony Spencer could push that compensatory pick higher in the 4th round, though I admit I'm not certain when the compensatory picks begin in any draft.
So without further disclaimers and caveats here's who I have us grabbing (under the optimistic scenario of actually winning the 2012 NFC East title with a 9-7 record and winning one playoff game):
With the top offensive linemen besides Barrett Jones off the board and no suitable outside linebacker candidates left [unless Dallas drops to around 15 with three more losses for an 8-8 finish], it's either Vaccaro or one of the best rated 3-4DE prospects like Missouri's Sheldon Richardson. I take Vaccaro because
A) Matt Johnson can't stay healthy this year and might not be able to stay on the field in 2013 and 2014 as well
B) Barry Church will begin 2013 on PUP if not IR with his Achilles tear and may not be as fast when he returns
C) Gerald Sensabaugh has been a serviceable NFL safety while frequently playing hurt, but he's getting older
In this projection Vaccaro only slips to us at 23 after the Vikings take D.J. Swearinger as the top safety at 18, the Bucs take Florida State cornerback/free safety Xavier Rhodes at 20th, and the Giants upgrade from Antrell Rolle by nabbing LSU safety Eric Reid at 21st (the GMen also go 9-7 in this projection but lose the final wildcard spot to us because of a poorer NFC East record after an embarrassing late season loss to the RG3 Redskins).
After the NFL 2012 season began with some putrid offensive line play across the league, Tennessee's Dallas Thomas, Kentucky's Larry Warford, North Carolina's Jonathan Cooper and all the top tier tackles are already gone by this point in the 2nd round due to high demand for pro-ready linemen. In my projection only the run on cornerbacks that starts midway through the 1st and lasts into the mid-2nd can rival the top OTs and OGs flying off the draft board.
Dallas could take an inside linebacker in the 2nd for the third time in four drafts, but that's only likely if Rob Ryan is seriously switching to the 4-3 (backers likely to be available at this juncture would include Georgia's Alec Ogletree, Florida's Jonathan Bostic, and Alabama's Nico Johnson). Instead I see us cutting Dan Connor and re-signing Ernie Sims as a backup/special teamer -- Sims is only 27 and still has good speed if he can be coached on how to cover. Of course, getting Johnson instead here could give us the best three starting inside linebackers in the NFL. But is that worth relying on mid-to-lower tier guards and UDFAs in 2013 and 2014?
I picked Bailey over bigger maulers Travis Frederick and Ricky Wagner of Wisconsin due to his ability to get out in space and pull. As anyone who's closely watched the Cowboys offense since Kyle Kosier went down knows, the screen pass has been missing in action from Jason Garrett's attack in 2012 even when Demarco Murray started this year healthy. Bailey would be like a younger, stronger Kosier in the run and screen game who could learn to pass protect if necessary by spending a year behind one of our starting guards or Kevin Kowalski (just in case Killer K surprises us all by coming back better and stronger than in late 2011).
3rd 87th overall Christine Michael Runningback Texas A&M 5"11 220
(alternate/or trade back into late 3rd round selection:
Jake Stoneburner Tight End Ohio State 6"5 245 Justin Pugh Offensive Tackle Syracuse 6"5 297)
The rise of Lance Dunbar as a third/fourth runningback and return man doesn't preclude Dallas from taking a running back in the 3rd round for the second time in three years. In fact given both Demarco Murray and Felix Jones' history of injuries combined with the depth of this running back class the Boys would be foolish not to take a back sometime between the 3rd and 5th rounds. This is a good pick even if Felix Jones returns on a relatively cheap one year deal (the Cat still hasn't seen his 26th birthday) and the Cowboys decide to keep Dunbar over Phillip Tanner for four backs after final cuts.
We already know Garrett had his eye on Aggie running back Cyrus Gray in last year's draft but settled for selecting Oklahoma tight end James Hanna instead when the Chiefs nabbed Gray in the 6th round. Michael is almost as fast, bigger, and part of a more dynamic Aggie offense this year. He'll go much higher than Gray did.
The only reason I can think of not to draft a running back here is to get a player you think can be the long term answer at another position, such as (ahem) drafting Jason Witten's successor in a tight end who can block better than James Hanna but still catch...or finding Doug Free's replacement at right tackle.
4th round [SIC Dallas doesn't get compensatory picks for losing top free agents until 2014, so we settle for drafting]
Overall ? Michael "Not Texas Railroad Commissioner" Williams Tight End Alabama 6"6 270
Cowboys draft another Williams after realizing they missed the departed Marty B in the blocking TE role, and to give Doug Free some help when running to the right side. This pick is all about Bill Callahan and giving the running game a fighting chance against the more stacked defenses in the league.
It's a copycat league. This pick may seem like a slight reach from Carder's Walter Football rank of 6th to UDFA. But after seeing the success of third round quarterback Russell Wilson in Seattle guys like Ryan Nasseb of Syracuse and Miami of Ohio's Zac Dysert will be long gone by the 5th round -- along with bigger pocket passers like NC State's Mike Glennon, Florida State's E.J. Manuel and Oklahoma's Landry Jones III. And while third quarterback may seem to be one of Dallas' lowest priorities, former Aggies option quarterback Stephen McGee did have to start a regular season game TWICE during his four year career with the Cowboys.
With Carder, the Boys would be getting a true pro-style passer who lit it up at his level in 2010 and 2011. Carder is likely to slide only due to losing some of his best targets and protectors this season. Carder also according to Walter Football has decent speed if not Romo-esque escapability, something any passer is going to need at times in Dallas. (At this point I'm not saying Carder is going to be Romo's successor, only a good backup in case our top two QBs get hurt).
However, if the Boys think they can find lightning in a bottle twice in a decade with a UDFA quarterback like they did with Tony Romo, the 5th round would be the traditional place to draft a slot cornerback (Orlando Scandrick, 2007) in case Scandrick gets hurt. There should be plenty available at this juncture even after runs on corners in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th rounds.
6 Kenny Okoro Cornerback Wake Forest 6"1 190
4th CB/special teamer with good size/speed combo and 4 years of playing experience if not starting in the ACC. A possible prized UDFA who gets a nice signing bonus like wide receiver Salim Hakim received before training camp this year. Dallas takes a Demon Deacon in this projection thanks to the same scouting/coaching ties that led us to grabbing Kyle Wilber in the 2012 draft.
7 [SIC] With our 7th round pick traded for Ryan Cook in 2012, the Miami Dolphins select: Joe Madsen, Center West Virginia 6"4 305
Dolphins get at least a backup center here and cut Richie Icognito this offseason.
CONCLUSION OF PART ONE
I realize this draft will be controversial because of what it doesn't include -- a second guard to replace Nate Livings and not just Mackenzy Bernadeau, and a higher-drafted corner in case one of our starting corners goes down (a position, like backup linebacker, likely to be addressed through free agency). Have I forgotten anything else? Oh yes...no wide receivers drafted in this class. That can't be a safe assumption, given Miles Austin's injury history and the inability of Danny "Always Open" Coale to stay on the field this season.
On the positive side, this looks to be a fairly deep class for wide receivers, with talent available well into the 4th round in guys like Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis. I also didn't draft a defensive lineman, preferring to rely on the youngsters already in the fold like Sean Lissemore, Ben Bass, Rob Callaway, and Tyrone Crawford. All of whom with the exception of Callaway are more pass rushing DTs in a 4-3 alignment than run stuffers like Marcus Spears.
Nonetheless, I believe the 2013 draft could rival Garrett's 2011 haul for the best draft class since Bill Parcells left Dallas.
In Part II (which I swear will be shorter) I'll look at our NFC East rivals and who they're likely to pick in this upcoming draft. In Part III I'll post my "big board" and look at who's going to get picked by the non-NFC East teams we're likely to face in 2013.