The Cowboys need to seriously consider the offensive side of the trenches early in the 2014 draft. Very early. Yeah, I said it.
There are several reasons to believe that the offensive line is the team's most important unit. Dallas has a quarterback recovering from a herniated disc in his back. In a league where playoff caliber quarterbacks are few and far between, protecting one that you've given $55m in guaranteed money to makes plenty of sense. Also, a high-quality, young offensive line greatly increases the productivity of Romo's replacement, whenever he joins the team. No group of players depends on the quality of their unit-mates more than the offensive line, even more so in a zone blocking scheme (ZBS), where blocking concepts have to be executed in unison.
As often as I could, I've stressed the edict that drafting based on descending need is a strategy only existing in mock drafts; first round- biggest need, second round- next biggest need, third round- next biggest. Real NFL teams don't function this way. If the best value meets your biggest need, sprint around the bases because you've hit a home run, but that isn't the norm.
Statements such as "For 2014, Dallas most needs a defensive tackle, then a defensive end, then a safety, and then also need to consider O-line, receiver and corner depth and maybe a backup QB" do hold merit. It is very important to know what the biggest holes are.
The important concept to remember, though? Just like prospects, team needs are distributed onto tiers as well. Those tiers aren't necessarily limited to one need per level. The team may say "DT is a bigger need than DE and FS"; however they may place them on the same tier, meaning all would be eligible should a prospect at that position be rated at a point that drafting them would make sense.
More to the point, these positional tiers are not limited to needs for the upcoming season alone. The front office of a team is (should be) always concerned about the long-term view of the franchise. We know that the Cowboys are at least aware that a long-term future exists, as witnessed by their unique approach to navigating the salary cap post-lockout.
Dallas structures contracts with the idea of using every inch of available cap space each season, and having the flexibility to use accounting magic to work their way under the cap. To this point, they have not had to walk away from any player they reasonably wanted to keep in the fold, though we'll never know if there were free agent targets they would have liked to shop for.
2013 was a "dire" cap situation, yet they were able to make enough room to have Anthony Spencer count $10m+ against the cap. The litmus test will be what Jason Hatcher receives on the free market this off-season and if they try to compete, but we digress.
Dallas has a serious long-term need along the offensive line, and as such, draft prospects at the guard and the tackle position should be given serious consideration in the early rounds. If the value is better, take him and don't look back.
Let's take a look at what Dallas has on the Offensive Line, and more importantly, for how long.
So to summarize our current state, Dallas has two fixtures (Smith/Frederick), a player with one great 8 game-stretch over 3 seasons on an expiring deal (Free), an oft-injured journeyman coming off a career year (Bernie) and a UDFA with questionable knees under team control for two more seasons (Leary). There is not a single player of pedigree in the pipline behind these guys. Immediately, the Cowboys are on sturdy enough ground to enter 2014 hopeful things turn out well. Long-term? This is a dire situation. Dallas simply has to feed this monster in this May's draft.
The reason this has to be addressed early in the draft is due to the uncertainty that comes along with the middle-to-late rounds. There is such a premium placed on offensive tackles, the middle rounds are normally only going to have project players as opposed to ones that can be thrown into the fire.
That is not the case with the defensive line positions, where the guys beyond the top tiers will have the opportunity to be thrown into a rotation and be serviceable immediately. The offensive line doesn't rotate. Barring injury, you're either starting, or riding pine.
Also, Dallas does have some young hopefuls along the defensive line. Ben Bass and Tyrone Crawford are legitimate entities. DeMarcus Ware is still here, George Selvie is more than solid and there is a plausible outside chance that either or both Anthony Spencer and Josh Brent could be factored into the 2014 equation before it's all said and done. This isn't to say the defensive line doesn't need to be addressed, that would be ridiculous. There is a shortage of talent on this side of the ball, too. I'm only saying the need to spend each and every early pick on this unit might be a tad short-sighted.
Oh, and if you wanted to argue that the SB champion Seattle Seahawks were successful because of their stout D-Line and Dallas should mirror it? You'd be right. Except, Seattle's line rotation consists of mid-round, late-round, and UDFA guys. Only Bruce Irvin, who really plays LEO, the fifth DL on occasion, has first-round pedigree. In his second season Irvin amassed only 513 defensive snaps; less than Michael Bennett, Chris Clemons, Chris Avril, Clinton McDonald, Brandon Mebane and Tony McDaniel.
Just some food for thought, if you're hungry.
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