The initial invitee list is out for the NFL Scouting Combine. 335 college players, including a record 85 underclassmen, have been selected to come put on some tight workout clothes and get ogled by a bunch of older men like they were Victoria's Secret models. The NFL has not finalized the list, and it is possible that some additional names will be added (one likely candidate is QB Brett Smith of Wyoming, whose exclusion surprised many), but for the most part, we know who will be in Indianapolis February 19-24.
There will be players who surprise and ones who disappoint. As fans, we will likely react much more strongly to developments at the Combine than the teams will. Most scouting staffs will have a pretty good read already on the players they are interested in, and are looking to refine rather than greatly revise their evaluations. But they also will be looking at players they haven't studied to perhaps add some names.
Of course, all fans see the Combine through the lens of the team they follow. We will view all the numbers and reports with an eye to how it may affect the Dallas Cowboys. This means that we will pay special attention to defensive linemen and safeties, because those look to be our biggest needs. But that is not the only thing that will have an effect on Dallas' draft. Here are some things to keep in mind.
The more quarterbacks who shine, the better. I think Dallas should be looking at a mid- to late-round quarterback this year (one of the reasons why I was hoping Brett Smith would be there), but that is not the main reason that Cowboys fans should want to see as many stellar performances out of the quarterbacks as possible. There are five teams that NFL.com believes have quarterback as their number one need, and they all pick before 16, where Dallas will fall if it wins the coin flip with the Baltimore Ravens: Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns, Oakland Raiders and Minnesota Vikings. Dallas is clearly not in the market for a quarterback with its first-round pick, so the best thing for the Cowboys is to have all five of those teams pick a signal caller (and maybe the Tennessee Titans as well, who need a QB but not as the top priority according to the same list) and push some of those good linemen and safeties down to them.
The problem is that, at the moment, there aren't five quarterbacks that are seen as first round players. Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater seem to be consensus first-rounders. Derek Carr and Johnny Manziel are seen as worth a first-round selection by some (Manziel is being mocked #1 overall in places), but others are not so sure, and many feel they don't belong in the top half. No one else really is in the first-round discussion.
I am hoping both Carr and Manziel improve their stock in Indianapolis, and at least one other player, perhaps an A.J. McCarron or a Zach Mettenberger, emerges. We need a Ryan Tannehill type reach or three to happen. Quarterbacks moving up means likely Dallas targets dropping into range.
Will defense become the new trend? After the Seattle Seahawks sliced, diced and pureed the Denver Broncos' offense, everyone is all hot-to-trot for building a defense just like theirs. Of course, "everyone" means media and fans, not necessarily actual NFL teams, and putting together another defense like Seattle's is going to take a bit more than just grabbing a couple of draft picks and waving a magic wand. However, the league is somewhat susceptible to trends. A couple of years ago, it was the mobile quarterback and read/option plays. There is a chance that teams will be more interested in getting the key elements to try and replicate some of what the Seahawks do. Mostly, that would seem to be defensive linemen that can penetrate and pressure the quarterback, and physical defensive backs to challenge receivers.
This is very bad for Dallas, because their defense is most in need of defensive linemen that can penetrate and pressure the quarterback, and physical defensive backs to challenge receivers.
There are a couple of players that are emerging as favorites for the Cowboys, DT Aaron Donald of Pittsburgh and FS Calvin Pryor of Louisville. They are popular with the writers here at BTB, and they are also showing up on the radar of some of the most credible Cowboys beat writers. Bryan Broaddus has stated in multiple tweets that he sees those two as very good fits for Dallas, preferring them over other players being mocked by some to the Cowboys, such as Ra'shede Hageman and HaHa Clinton-Dix. Bob Sturm makes the same argument in his Draft Notebook series.
The problem for them (or whoever is on the real Cowboys draft board, which is all that really matters) is that they may get snapped up before Dallas goes on the clock. Donald especially helped himself at the Senior Bowl, but all 32 teams had the same opportunity to see what he was doing. The Combine is the same. Everyone is watching, and everyone sees players who stand out. The sad reality is that if Dallas is high on a player, someone ahead of them with the same needs will likely be just as interested. Picking at 16/17 is a tricky situation. You can't always get what you want.
Watch for other positions of need. If you think the draft is an absolute failure if the Cowboys don't go defensive line and safety with the first five picks, then you are in for a miserable offseason. You cannot draft that way. Dallas has other needs, and passing on a player who is more talented and a good fit for your team because he happens to be at the "wrong" position is a prescription for failure.
You have more flexibility in later rounds, but those early picks are too valuable.
If you were an aware Dallas fan last year, you remember the great Sharrif Floyd kerfluffle. This was a case where a draft day disconnect invalidated the board. Floyd was the pick to make, based on that board, but some members of the coaching staff (apparently) had a problem with him. Thus the trade back. I believe Will McClay's mission, that he has chosen to accept, is to make sure that does not happen and that the Cowboys staff will have a board they can believe. If there is a run on the top needs (D line and safety), then the Cowboys need to know if they have a valid first-rounder among the other players. Some names to watch at the Combine that may be first-round material pushed down to Dallas by a run like that:
OTs Taylor Lewan and Zach Martin. Doug Free had a great first half of the season, and started to slide significantly the second half. Get one of these, currently projected in the 10 to 15 range by some, and Free can become a backup. KD Drummond already explained why O line is a good idea early in the draft in the must read above.
OLBs Khalil Mack and Anthony Barr. Are you willing to bet the farm on Bruce Carter playing to the level the Cowboys need? Or if they are more suited for the SAM, would it break your heart to see Kyle Wilber become a depth player?
WRs Mike Evans and Marquise Lee. Both are players that would only have to slip four or five slots, at most, to be there. Both would be huge weapons for Tony Romo and Scott Linehan. If the more apparent options are gone, how could Dallas pass on receivers of this quality?
Those are the three biggest plotlines for Cowboys fans during the NFL Combine, I think. But there are many, many others. What will you be looking for when the college players put the underwear on?
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