After the horrific meltdown that was the Dallas Cowboys' defensive line situation in 2013, it is easy to figure out how the Cowboys need to spend their first-round draft pick. They need a defensive tackle, although a defensive end will do in a pinch. It's a no-brainer. And there are going to be a lot of unhappy people if it doesn't happen.
Well, if you count yourself as one of those who will be in the comment threads and on Twitter blasting Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones, and every other Jones you can think of if the team fails to grab that all important defensive lineman in the first round, you might want to start thinking about what you are going to say, because it probably is not going to go the way you want. It is more likely that the Cowboys will pick something other than a defensive lineman in the first round. Either that, or they will have to trade back.
There are a few simple explanations for this. First and foremost: The 2013 draft.
How many here can remember what the number one, all important priority for the Dallas Cowboys was going into last year's draft?
Offensive line. That was it. The Cowboys had tried to survive 2012 with Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau as guards and Doug Free as right tackle, and things did not go so well. Everyone was convinced that Dallas had to get one of the top guards or tackles in the draft. With the nineteenth pick, this was going to be fairly easy, because it was a good draft class for tackles and guards, and guards never went early. With maybe six good candidates on the board, the odds were all in Dallas' favor to find someone to help shore up the line. There was no way the two top guards and four top tackles would be off the board before the Cowboys had a chance to pick.
By the time the San Diego Chargers turned in their card at pick 11, it was all over. Six offensive linemen, four tackles and two guards, were taken before the twelfth pick came up. It had never happened before, it was ridiculous, guards never went in the top 10. But now, the Cowboys had to come up with plan B, which became the trade back that netted them Travis Frederick, a center they had as a second rounder on their board. But picking at 31, the Cowboys were pretty much into second round options anyway. (Plan B was actually set up in advance, and not any kind of last minute panic move. But it was not where the Cowboys expected to be when the first round started.)
You cannot control who is taken by the teams ahead of you. And looking at the numbers, I find that things do not look good for a defensive lineman in the first round.
Before I consider the available players, I want to go over a little bit about how Dallas builds its draft board. While there have been some changes, notably Will McClay taking over responsibility for the building of the board, the people involved in scouting and evaluation the players are largely the same as last year. As the now infamous leaked 2013 Cowboys draft board revealed, the Cowboys only gave a first round grade to 18 players. Once those players were pretty much exhausted (for all intents and purposes, Sharrif Floyd does not count, because in the minds of at least half the people present in the Dallas war room, he did not belong on the board in the first round), then Dallas was stuck with making a bad reach (never a good idea) or trading back, which is the path they chose.
I would guess that this year, the Dallas board is going to be similar, with about 16 to 20 first round grades. This looks good for them using the first round pick, since with pick 16/17, there has to be a player from their first-round group left.
But that player may be an offensive tackle. A wide receiver. Even a tight end. OK, maybe not a tight end. The real issue is this: There may not be enough good defensive linemen to go around this year, just as there weren't enough offensive linemen in 2013.
It is still early, and numbers are going to shift a lot, but I looked at two draft boards, from Drafttek and CBS Sports. These are both "big boards", reflecting an overall rating of the talent of players, but give a pretty good idea of how many players at what position would likely be in the first round. I looked at the top twenty-five players overall in each to make a bit of an allowance for the fact each team has its own grading criteria and people applying the same. According to Drafttek, there are six defensive linemen in the top 25 players: DE Jadeveon Clowney, DT Louis Nix, DE Trent Murphy, DT Ra'Shede Hageman, DT Stephon Tuitt, and DE Trevor Reilly (positions based on where they would fit in a 4-3). CBS has five, with DE Kony Ealy making their list (he was 26th on Drafttek's), but Murphy and Reilly not.
That is no better than the situation was last year for offensive linemen.
Of course, the demand in 2013 was very high for O line. So I took a look at how many teams who draft ahead of the Cowboys have a high need for D line this year. Again, I relied on Drafttek, which has a chart of team needs. According to them, there are four teams picking ahead of Dallas who need starters at DT as badly as the Cowboys, and four others who need starters at DE. (Three of the teams that need DT also need DE, but I did not count any team under both categories).
Eight teams could take D line before Dallas gets on the clock. Defensive end is one of the high priority positions for many teams, and DT is usually seen as more crucial than guard, so the demand should be high for both, higher than it was expected to be for O line last year. And we don't know how many defensive linemen the Cowboys will actually give a first round grade to after the Senior Bowl and the Combine.
It doesn't look good. There is good talent in the draft, but it tends to be a bit further down the board. And if you want Dallas to take a defensive tackle or end in the first round regardless of the grade they have on them, then you are advocating the team reach. That is never a good idea.
It is all about numbers, the number of quality players available, the grades the Cowboys assign to them, and of course that number 16/17 draft slot. The only way that Dallas could be sure of getting a quality defensive lineman may be to trade up, and that is a whole other can of worms. I heartily recommend against opening that one.
So don't be surprised if Dallas picks an offensive tackle or a wide receiver in the first round, or trades back. The numbers are stacking up that way. I just wanted to warn you.
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