There's no question that the Dallas Cowboys continued their recent trend of alternating emphasis in the 2013 draft. 2011 was heavy on offense, using six of the eight picks on that side of the ball. In 2012, they went the other direction, picking five defensive players with the eight picks they came into the draft with, including the trade up for Morris Claiborne, which ate up the original first and second rounder. They went back to offense this year, although getting four out of seven offensive players may not look as heavily slanted. But the first three picks were all offense, putting a very heavy qualitative advantage in that direction.
Given the myriad problems that the defense had last year, that seems a bit odd at first glance. True, the offense had its issues as well, but they were pretty much summed up by the words "offensive line". The defense had problems, particularly in depth, at safety, linebacker, defensive line - basically everywhere except the cornerbacks, where Claiborne and megabucks free agent Brandon Carr carried the load almost the entire season.
So how could the Cowboys not put more into addressing the defense outside of a few FA/UDFA signings? They seem to be putting a huge amount of faith in the ability of Monte Kiffin, aided and abetted by his trusty wingman Rod Marinelli, to get better play out of the team.
Not a good idea. Or is it?
In a general sense, there is some reason to think that Kiffin can pull it off. His famed Tampa 2 defense was scheme, not player, driven. Instead of having to go out and get superstars to shut down the other team, he used the players he had and got the most out of them.
The defensive group that raised the most concerns this offseason, the safeties, is a prime example of how that worked. Tim MacMahon, in a rather uncharacteristically positive take, outlined how Kiffin did not need stud players at safety to make his system work.
As he describes, there has been some cringing at the way Jerry Jones has been affirming that the team is in good shape at safety, despite both the projected starters, Barry Church and Matt Johnson, coming back from injury. The most annoying thing he said was his rather awkward description of Johnson as the best player the staff had never seen play. Add in the less than impressive job Danny McCray did filling in, and you would think there would be more concern about this. Initially, the owner/GM had those concerns. McCray had shown he did not have the range to be effective, and the injury history raised some questions in that area about Church and Johnson as well. Jerry wound up getting an answer he did not expect.
"The coaches told me (with) the scheme, ‘Don't worry as much about range.' I said, ‘What? Don't worry as much about range?'
"(Kiffin) said, ‘No, our scheme gives them the angles. It gives them the angles. Get us somebody that is young. Don't worry as much about experience as you have in the past. Get us some young players with instincts and let us go from there with them.'"
That seems a bit counter-intuitive. I was sort of under the impression that you needed really salty safety play to make the Kiffin defense work. But as MacMahon points out, history supports what Kiffin says.
John Lynch was the star at safety for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the early years under Kiffin, but he was drafted in 1993 and only emerged after Kiffin arrived in 1996. Outside of him, Kiffin used mid-round draft picks (sort of like, oh, third round pick J.J. Wilcox, perhaps) and cheap free agents (maybe Will Allen) to make things work. In that light, Kiffin is not coming into a situation that is any worse than he had back then, and arguably he is a good bit better off. He certainly has some young players, and hopefully they will bring the instincts with them.
He's done it before. Now Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett have gambled that Kiffin can do it again. And they do have history on their side.