Dallas Cowboys Targeting A Pass Rusher With Their First Round Pick?

One constant theme from Jerry Jones this offseason has been the need for an improved pass rush. And while the Cowboys did tag Anthony Spencer, this is widely seen as a stop-gap measure that shouldn't preclude the Cowboys from going after more edge rushers.

Per Rainer Sabin of the DMN, Jones reiterated that the Cowboys are "always looking for a pass rusher":

"Real impressive pressure from someone other than Ware would be a dramatic influence on this defense," Jones said. "It would actually impact how we play the defense. So, we're always looking for a pass rusher."

"I wouldn't want to get into it," Jones said Friday, when asked about the players the team is eying. "But certainly there are some people that can help teams in the NFL as an outside linebacker-type pass rusher. Yes, there are those."

Josh Ellis from dallascowboys.com recently noted that Jerry Jones wasn't sure an elite pass-rusher would fall to the Cowboys at No. 14 overall, but the way the consensus mock drafts are lining up right now, that 14th spot could be just the right spot to grab an 'outside linebacker-type pass rusher'.

And earlier in the year Jerry Jones talked specifically about the pass rush and made it clear that the Cowboys' don't need to be cavalier about passing on a significant pass-rusher in a draft:

"For defense, I'm into the pressure for us right now, above the corner, even if we franchise Spencer," Jones said. "I think we've got some good players in the secondary, though we need another good player there, and we don't need to be cavalier about passing on a significant pass-rusher in a draft.

When talking about an improved pass rush, the discussion has traditionally tended to be about outside linebackers. Especially in Dallas, where defensive ends have been more about stuffing the run and less about rushing the passer. But if you could add players like Arizona's Calais Campbell, San Francisco's Justin Smith or Houston's J.J. Watt to your line, your pass rush would most certainly improve as well.

In order to understand the Cowboys' options for improving their pass rush, either with an OLB or a DE, I took a look at a couple of mock drafts to better understand where the draft analysts are slotting which players. Here are the results:

Mock Draft Defensive Ends Outside Linebackers
Name Date Coples Brockers Cox Ingram Upshaw Mercilus Branch
Nolan Nawrocki (Pro Football Weekly) 3/26/12 15 - - 6 20 16 - - 28
Wes Bunting (Nat'l Football Post) 3/21/12 19 11 15 7 16 12 - -
Russ Lande (Sporting News) 3/22/12 19 14 - - 13 27 16 - -
Dan Shonka (Ourlads) 3/24/12 7 19 9 27 16 20 18
Scott Wright (Draft Countdown) 3/5/12 8 18 9 16 10 20 31
Mel Kiper (ESPN) 3/7/12 7 15 25 10 16 18 - -
Todd McShay (ESPN) 3/11/12 9 22 21 7 10 27 28
Rob Rang (CBSSports) 3/26/12 7 14 20 13 29 18 28
Drafttek 3/27/12 12 15 9 26 16 19 28
Walter Football 3/21/12 10 20 15 8 16 18 37
Great Blue North Draft Report 3/26/12 7 11 14 13 16 19 27
Mocking The Draft 3/20/12 7 14 27 20 16 19 - -
Don Banks (SI.com) 3/23/12 14 9 15 7 18 19 28
Draft Ace 3/25/12 8 14 15 13 16 19 42
Average Position 10.6 15.1 15.4 14.3 17.0 18.8 29.5

If these mocks are anything to go by, Quinton Coples looks like the only player on this list whose chances are pretty high that he'll be gone by the time the Cowboys are on the clock.

Based on the average across all mocks, there's a logjam of prospects between the 14th and the 19th pick, which is good news for the Cowboys if they're looking to improve their pass rush. The challenge for the Cowboys will be to figure out which of these prospects is best suited to their scheme.

Dan Pompei of the National Football Post wrote an article on Sunday in which he summarized what he'd heard about OLBs/DEs from some front office people. Here's what he heard about the four OLBs on our list:

Melvin Ingram, South Carolina - He moved around a lot in college and has experience playing OLB, but NFL teams have struggled finding a position for him in the pros. At 6-1, 264, Ingram may be too short and compact for outside linebacker. He has 31 ½ inch arms. That’s trouble. "Big tackles and tight ends will be able to get their hands on him, and then he’s done," one personnel man said.

Courtney Upshaw, Alabama - Multiple scouts said they believe the 6-1, 272 pounder can play outside linebacker or defensive end. Upshaw plays with fine power and leverage. One scout said you wouldn’t want to make a living dropping him, however.

Whitney Mercilus, Illinois - He has looked outstanding in outside linebacker positional drills and is a special athlete. Mercilus is a complete package who can play either outside linebacker or defensive end, assuming he can hold his weight (6-4, 261, 33 7/8 arms)

Andre Branch, Clemson - At 6-4, 259, Branch has the athleticism to stand up. He can bend, turn and burst to get to the passer. He is similar to Whitney Mercilus, except not quite as dynamic. However, instincts could hold him back at OLB, according to one front office man.

If Pompei's glowing endorsement of Mercilus is shared by NFL teams, Mercilus could be head-to-head with Ingram as the number one OLB prospect on the draft boards of 3-4 teams. But regardless of who's where on the Cowboys' draft board, the Cowboys will not be the only team looking to improve their pass rush.

Based on the aggregation of the 14 mock drafts above, below are the teams most likely to pick one of the seven pass rushing prospects.

Selection
Team # of mocks with pass rusher
#7 Jacksonville 8/14
#9 Carolina 5/14
#14 Dallas 6/14
#15 Philadelphia 7/14
#16 New York Jets 11/14
#18 San Diego 6/14
#19 Chicago 8/14
#20 Tennessee 6/14
#27 New England 5/14

These are the nine teams that the 14 draft analysts think will be in the market for the seven pass rushing talents we looked at in this post. What's a little worrying is that stretch of teams from #14 through #20, all looking to improve their pass rush. Any of these teams could move up ahead of the Cowboys to nab their pass rusher of choice.

All of this could make for a very interesting first round on draft day.

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