Will New Cowboys Coaches Draft Familiar Faces?

Might new wide receivers coach Derek Dooley bring in any of his former players? - Kevin C. Cox

When NFL teams overhaul coaching staffs or switch schemes (or both), they often bring in former collegiate players who can help to ease the transition. With six new coaches on the Cowboys coaching staff and a schematic overhaul on defense, might the team draft players from Tennessee or Southern Cal to help pave a smooth road?

When Jimmy Johnson came to the Cowboy in 1989, he inherited a roster that was devoid of talent. He remarked, only half-kiddingly, that he thought his University of Miami teams might well have beaten the '89 Cowboys. So, when he was tasked with rebuilding that moribund Dallas roster, Johnson imported a lot of former Hurricanes; in five seasons, Johnson drafted eight players from "the U" and traded for or otherwise acquired five others. He also inherited Michael Irvin, who the Cowboys drafted the year before Johnson arrived.

By the time the team was rolling, only four of these guys were still on the roster. But all of those Hurricanes helped Johnson (and his coaching staff, which was largely comprised of men who had coached with him in Miami) turn the thing around. Not only did these players upgrade the talent level, they also helped add stability. While not all of them were the most talented guys (three of his draftees never made the team), they were known commodities: Johnson knew exactly what he was going to get from them in terms of buy-in, determination, and perseverance.

We've seen a similar operation more recently in Cowboys history. In 2009, tight ends coach John Garrett, who, before coming to Dallas coached at the University of Virginia, persuaded the team to draft Cavaliers tight tend John Phillips in the sixth round- and was instrumental in bringing wide receiver Kevin Ogletree, another UVA alum, into the fold as an undrafted free agent. Given the cost, both ended up offering the team good value.

Because the team doesn't tend to hire coaches fresh from the collegiate ranks, such "insider trading" doesn't happen with great frequency. When it does, it often happens in the later rounds. In 1989, for instance, Johnson drafted Miami linebackers Rod Carter and Randy Shannon in the tenth and eleventh rounds, respectively. In the seven-round era, as we have seen,Phillips was a late-rounder and Ogletree was an UDFA.

In the early rounds, its important to pick the best possible players. On day three, when teams are drafting players who are far less likely to make an impact, getting a known quantity, when he's a "team-first" guy who you know will work hard, can make the difference between a mediocre and a good draft.

This season, the Cowboys have six new coaches, two of whom were coaching in college in 2012. New wide receivers coach Derek Dooley was the head coach at Tennessee; new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin held the same position at USC. Because of this, they have deep knowledge of the draftable players from those schools. Might that be enough to persuade the Cowboys to take a late-round flyer on a former Volunteer or Trojan? In answering this question, lets take a look at the draft-eligible players from those two schools:

Tennessee
Cordarrelle Patterson, WR
Justin Hunter, WR
Tyler Bray, QB
Dallas Thomas, OG
Da'rick Rogers, WR
Herman Lathers, OLB
Mychal Rivera, TE
Ben Bartholomew, FB
Darrington Sentimore, DT
Marsalis Teague, CB
Prentiss Wagner, CB

USC
Matt Barkley, QB
Robert Woods, WR
Khaled Holmes, OC
T.J. McDonald, S
Jawanza Starling, S
Wes Horton, DE
Nickell Robey, CB
Curtis Mcneal, RB
Andre Mcallister, S
Isiah Wiley, CB

I'm only going to focus on late-round types, guys who are likely to be drafted in rounds 4-7. So players who are expected to go in the draft's first two days are eliminated, as are guys who have little to no hope of being selected or making an NFL roster. Of the rest, several names intrigue. Lets take a look at some of them:

Tennessee TE Mychal Rivera: Rivera emerged as one of the Volunteers' top offensive weapons in 2012, finishing third on the team with 36 receptions for 562 yards and five scores, a performance that earned him Second Team All-SEC honors. He's a smooth all-around athlete with good body control, good hands and sneaky speed. One draftnik compares him to former Brown and Bucccaneers tight end Kellen Winslow, Jr. Although Rivera has some toughness and willingness as a blocker, he's not a prototypical in-line "Y" type. Rather, he's undersized, and more of a receiver prospect who adds position versatility with the ability to line up at different spots on the field and make plays on special teams, at which he excelled in college.

Likely draft spot: rounds 5-6

Tennessee LB Herman Lathers: Lathers has battled adversity for much of his life. At the age of ten, he was diagnosed with bone cancer, survived that and went on to play SEC football. In 2011, he suffered a severely broken ankle wrecked season that caused him to miss his junior year. Up to that point, Lathers had been an impact contributor and shown steady improvement: improving his tackle and sack totals in his redshirt freshman and sophomore years. As a senior, he compiled 108 tackles, seven sacks and five forced fumbles, adding a rushing touchdown and a pick-six. His medical history will concern NFL teams, but Lathers is a terrific athlete with smarts (two time All-Academic SEC with a 3.9 GPA) and mental toughness. He's undersized (6'0", 230), which might actually be of benefit in Monte Kiffin's defensive scheme.

Likely draft spot: round 6

Southern Cal Safety T.J. McDonald: McDonald is the son of former San Francisco 49er Pro Bowl safety Tim McDonald (T.J. stands for Tim, Jr.). McDonald enjoyed the best season of his career in 2012, leading the team with 112 tackles, including 6.5 for loss, a sack and another two interceptions. Like his father, T.J. is an aggressive defender who attacks the line of scrimmage, takes on and shed blockers and is a lights-out hitter. Indeed, Scouts compare him to Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor an enforcer against the running game who is athletic enough to handle the NFL's bigger hybrid receivers. Like Chancellor, McDonald's best fit in the NFL would be as an "in the box" type. Finally, he wasn't the best fit in Kiffin's Cover-2 scheme at USC.

Likely draft spot: round 4

Southern Cal DE Wes Horton: Horton looks the part of a high round prospect, with an ideal frame and length for the defensive end position (not to mention 34.25" arms!), but his game never really developed since emerging as a redshirt freshman starter in 2009. Although Horton has started at least six games in each of the last four seasons at USC, he put up middling numbers over the course of his collegiate career (as a senior in 2012, he did have 5.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss), and never displayed sufficient aggression at the point of attack. That said, Horton will intrigue teams, because he has tremendous upside as a pass rusher: he has all the requisite attributes: an above-average first step, active and quick hands, and the ability to dip and bend around the corner.

Likely spot: rounds 5-6

Southern Cal CB Nickell Robey: Robey is an excellent all-around athlete who earned all-state honors in football and baseball in high school and was a long jumper and sprinter for USC's track team. Unlike Horton, Robey translated his athleticism into high production at USC, starting all 13 games as a true freshman in 2010 and then 13 more in both his sophomore and junior campaigns. Robey boasts quickness, ball skills, and tenacity. So, what's keeping him from being an early-round pick? He's tiny; USC officially lists him at 5-8, 165 pounds. Although he's much tougher than his size would seem to indicate (Robey has averaged nearly 55 tackles a season over his career), his small stature will scare off most teams until the late rounds.

Likely draft spot: rounds 5-6

Southern Cal Safety Jawanza Starling: Starling is a former dual-sport athlete that was a member of the Trojans' baseball team in 2010. He has good size and speed, and is an "RKG" type: he was one of the One of the hardest workers in the weight room on the Trojans squad. That said, he is only an adequate athlete, with limited speed and range - he doesn't possess that extra gear that NFL safeties need. In addition, he has only average "football smarts": his anticipation and route recognition skills need polishing and hasn't shown that he possesses the playmaking gene.

Likely draft spot: round 7-UDFA

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So there you have it, BTBers, a handy-dandy list of possible late-round "insider" picks. Anybody from the list above who you'd add to the list of likely lads? Any players here who caught your eye? Go to the comments section and make yourselves heard!

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