Ever since it was announced at the NFL owners meeting that the Cowboys received three supplemental seventh-round picks, giving them six total selections in the final frame, our own Tom Ryle has churned out several helpful articles on seventh-round picks and the players they can bring in. In the post linked above, he sagely noted that these picks allow Dallas to draft their top UDFAs rather than outbid other teams for their services immediately after the completion of the draft. Mr. Ryle followed that up with an analysis piece on the value of a pick in the final frame, given the team's history with such picks and then, after pooling information with O.C.C., completed his trifecta with a final post looking at the league-wide performance of seventh-rounders (not as shabby as you might think; 30 percent of the guys who actually played a snap in 2013, Tom reports, were UDFAs).
With the importance of those six seventh-rounders established, it makes sense that we, as a nation of die-hard Cowboys fans, should begin to bone up on the draft's late round guys. As you might imagine, this is easier said than done. Its a fairly simple exercise identifying the 16-18 players who will receive first-round grades; its another matter entirely to articulate which players might receive late-round grades - especially when we factor in guys with sixth-round designations as well as UDFAs. That's a mighty big pool to choose from.
Since there are so many of them, it might be useful to see what we can do to narrow the aperture; indeed, that's what I propose to do herein. Before I do that, its important to establish this simple draft truism: by the time the draft winds around to pick 200 or so, the sale rack has been picked over; players still on the board in the seventh round all have significant deficiencies. What teams look for, then is an elusive something that will give the player a fighting chance to make an NFL roster and, in a best-case scenario, become a quality starter.
Looking at the players the Cowboys have drafted in the final round in recent years, we see that those "somethings" tend to fall into three general categories. So, let's start by using those groupings to establish three basic players profiles for Dallas' seventh round targets:
1. A proven starter from a BCS school, but with physical limitations: This category is reserved for players who accumulate a great deal of experience playing for a major college team, usually in a premier conference. The reason such a player is still available in the seventh round, however, is because of athletic or size limitations. The poster child for this type of player, although he was a sixth-round selection, is Sam Young, drafted out of Notre Dame. We may not remember this now, but Young was the first true freshman to start a season opener on the offensive line, and made 50 consecutive starts in his career in South Bend.
2. A small-school player with good size-speed numbers and/ or athletic upside: On the other side of the coin can be found comparatively under-the-radar players from colleges in small, non-BCS conferences. Although they have faced inferior competition (and thus carry questions about their ability to succeed against a significantly higher level of opponent), these guys have NFL caliber toolkits: quality size-speed combos, elite quickness, good feet, the ability to "click and close." The Cowboys have drafted a lot of players who fit this description in recent seventh rounds - Sean Lissemore, Courtney Brown, Pat McQuistan, and Patrick Crayton to name a few.
3. A player with a "trait" that will allow him to win one-on-one matchups: This category is reserved for guys who don't fall into either of the first two categories. They are neither long-time starters for major programs nor do they possess prototypical NFL bodies or skillsets. What they do possess, however, is a trait that scouts believe will translate into success at the NFL level. The archetype here is Jay Ratliff, who bounced around several positions at Auburn - tight end, defensive end, defensive tackle - and thus never piled up starts, gaudy stats or really much attention. Nevertheless, he had evident traits, power and quickness, that Cowboys' scouts thought might help him win one-on-one battles in the big leagues. Other guys in this category are Caleb McSurdy (quickness, smarts) and Alan Ball (length and speed)
I think the profile we can eliminate here is the first one; the Cowboys philosophy seems to be to invest in players with growth potential and a higher ceiling (which can be reached with NFL-level coaching, it is thought) than more athletically limited guys who might (thanks to good BCS-level coaching) have approached or already reached their ceiling. This observation is borne out by the players who currently populate the Cowboys' admittedly short list of private workouts and/ or pre-draft visits. Let's begin by taking a gander at the list:
Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA
Aaron Donald, DT, Pitt
Billy Turner, OT, North Dakota State
C. J. Fiedorowitz, TE, Iowa
Howard Jones, LB, Shepherd
Walt Aikens, CB, Liberty
Brandon Dixon, CB, Northwest Missouri State
Davon Coleman, DE, Arizona State
The current list is topped by oft-discussed first-rounders Aaron Donald and Anthony Barr, followed by a couple of guys likely to be drafted on the second day. Beyond them are the four players who prompted this article. Currently, Jones, Aikens, Dixon and Coleman are rated 207th, 215th, 318th and 843rd, respectively, on CBS Sports' big board--all seventh-round or UDFA grades. On Tony Pauline's rankings, which are derived from the information he gleans from NFL front offices, Aikens figures as a seventh-round/ UDFA type, Jones receives a sixth-round grade, Dixon is a seventh-rounder and Coleman is unranked. In short, I think its safe to say that these players belong in the seventh round conversation.
With that said, let's take a closer look at each of them, pieced together from articles and scouting reports.
Howard Jones, LB/ DE, Shepherd (6-3, 235):
Jones, who notched 35 sacks as a collegian, made a big splash at the Combine, showing off elite athleticism with a 4.6 forty-yard dash (10-yard split of 1.68), 40.5" vertical (tops among defensive linemen), 10'4" broad jump and 7.16 3-cone time (5th among DL). Moreover, scouts raved that he "moved like a basketball player" during position drills. While this display probably surprised casual observers, those who had watched him play expected it. "Howard might very well be the best athlete on our team," said Shepherd head coach Monte Cater, "I’m not sure he isn’t the fastest player on our team....He just has great speed and quickness. He can accelerate so quick off the football. He is a gifted athlete, no doubt about it."
Muscular build with long arms [34 1/8"]. Intriguing athleticism. Outstanding straight-line speed and leaping ability. Explosive edge burst. Displays good balance, body control and agility as a rusher. Dips inside suddenly. Closes fast and shows striking ability. Flashes power potential. Has special-teams experience. Durable four-year starter....Lean, explosive, highly athletic rush linebacker prospect who overwhelmed inferior tackles at the Division II level and has clear developmental value and upside potential.
Walt Aikens, CB, Liberty (6-1, 205):
Aikens is a former BCS-level player (at Illinois) who transferred to tiny Liberty after being dismissed from the team after a theft conviction. While his character might be a red flag, his athleticism is beyond dispute. Aikens is a tall, athletic, fluid athlete with an NFL body, long arms (32 1/4"), light feet and loose hips to turn and run with receivers. In addition, he has legit NFL speed; he posted forty times in the 4.37-4.4 range at his pro day on March fourth. These traits were on display at the Senior Bowl, where he wowed scouts and showed no ill effects from the jump in competition:
Liberty CB Walt Aikens is a player to watch. Good technique in press-man. Also showed some speed vs. the deep ball.— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) January 22, 2014
Here's Optimum Scouting's Eric Galko on Aikens (he has Aikens at #6 on his list of top 25 small-school prospects):
One of the biggest NFL Combine snubs this year, Aikens showcased his plus-hip fluidity, athleticism vertically and quick hands on inside reactions. His timing and initial hand use needs some work before he can be a starter, but he has the skill set to be a fringe-top 100 prospect.
Brandon Dixon, CB, Northwest Missouri State (5-11, 203):
Like Aikens, Dixon comes equipped with NFL size and length, had good balance and body control, and quick feet. Most importantly, he, too, can flip his hips and run with receivers up the sideline.Unlike Aikens, he was invited to the Combine, where he posted a 4.41 forty time, which was fifth best among CB candidates.
Good plant-and-drive quickness. Willing to step up and throw his weight around in run support. Has special-teams experience. Tough and durable. Competitive and motivated...Big, athletic, Division II standout and JUCO product whose size, length and physicality will appeal to teams in search of a developmental press corner. Could also be viewed as a potential safety conversion, but does not exhibit requisite instincts and dependability as a tackler.
Davon Coleman, DE/ DT, Arizona State (6-2, 297):
Coleman is the most mysterious member of this group. Despite the fact that he led the Sun Devils with 8.5 sacks in 2013, he's not on anybody's list of defensive line prospects. in small part, that may be because he, like Jay Ratliff, was a collegian without a position. Because of coaching chances at ASU, he was moved around the line, playing both inside and outside. Still, its strange not to see him listed anywhere, as close observers believe a case can be made that he was the best player on a defense that featured two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year winner WIll Sutton, and had six members named to the All-Pac-12 first or second team. Indeed, he finished the year with 15.0 tackles for loss, tied for 26th in the nation and 7th in the Pac-12, and led all ASU defensive linemen on the year with his 58 tackles, averaging close to 4.5 per game.
To my mind, Jones, Aikens and Dixon all fall under the second heading: small-school guys with athletic upside. Indeed, this is the profile from which the Cowboys have drawn the majority of their seventh-rounders in the last decade. The other profile, players with a trait that might help them to succeed, appears to fit the vastly under-reported Coleman. His size fits the Cowboys defensive tackle profile perfectly; perhaps he can be a Jay Ratliff starter kit. Heck, his college career - bouncing around several positions, never quite finding a home - certainly fits Jeremiah's.
So, as you work you way deeper into this year's draft class, play special attention to small-school players with good size-speed combos for their positions, and productive but under-the-radar BCS players who might not boast a prototypical NFL body, but do possess a trait or traits that scouts value. Because its a good bet a few of them are going to end up being Cowboys.