Cowboys 2014 Draft Targets: Two Small-School Late Round Defenders With Upside

Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Because there has been such a high correlation in recent years between the top collegians invited to Valley Ranch for pre-draft visits and who the Cowboys end up drafting, its important to know as much as possible about these players. As a service to you, BTB offers a series of detailed scouting reports on these players, compiled from the work of top draft analysts. Today, we'll look at a couple of small school defenders with athletic upside: Northwest Missouri State CB Brandon Dixon and Shepherd OLB/DE Howard Jones.

About a month ago, I wrote a piece in which I outlined three possible player profiles for late-round choices: a proven starter from a BCS school, but with athletic limitations; a small-school player with good size-speed numbers and/ or athletic upside; and a player with a "trait" that will allow him to win one-on-one matchups. In recent years, I noted, the Cowboys have selected players from all three categories. The one they seem to prefer, however, is the second - the non-BCS player with an NFL body or deluxe athleticism. Indeed, 2013's draft haul brought in two such players in J.J. Wilcox and B. W. Webb (who, we forget, was arguably the most athletic corner at the 2013 Combine).

Indeed, the Cowboys philosophy in the draft's late rounds 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) be approaching or have already reached their ceiling. This observation is borne out by the players who are the subject of today's profile piece. Although they hail from obscure programs, both Brandon Dixon (from Northwest Missouri State) and Howard Jones (from tiny Shepherd) boast elite athleticism - such that the Cowboys (and others) are more intrigued by their potential ceilings than they are dissuaded by their potentially low floors.

Let's take a look at these two players.

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Brandon Dixon (6'0", 203):

Dixon comes equipped with NFL size and length, (with 32.5-inch arms) excellent speed (his 4.41 forty time was fifth best among CB candidates at the Combine), good balance/ body control, and quick feet. Most importantly, he, can flip his hips and run with receivers up the sideline; in a matchup of future NFLers, Dixon limited WR Jeff Janis of Saginaw Valley State to three receptions for 49 yards. As you'd hope with a player from a smaller conference DIxon earned Third-team Division II All-American honors in 2012 and followed that up by claiming a First-team Division II All-American nod for his 2013 campaign.

Dane Brugler (NFL Draft Scout.com): 22nd-ranked CB; no overall grade

Strengths: Looks the part with good height, long arms and rocked up muscle definition for the position...above average straight-line speed and balanced athleticism, using a strong, decisive plant foot in his movements...plays alert at the snap and won't fall asleep at the wheel...possesses the needed temperament for press coverage...good enough ballskills with solid production making plays on the ball - 22 passes defended in two seasons for the Bearcats...not shy vs. the run with a physical style, playing with a noticeable chip on his shoulder...tough-minded and confident...good head on his shoulders and regarded as a hard worker...durable experience (27 career starts) and reliable starter.

Weaknesses: Lacks initial burst out of his stance with unrefined transitional skills - too high in his pedal and lacks natural flexibility...has some hip and footwork tightness and looks herky-jerky when changing directions...needs to advance his diagnose skills and develop the mental part of his game...will get hung up on blocks and needs to improve his shedding ability...aggressive tackler, but needs to add discipline in run support to be more reliable - average only 2.7 tackles per start the past two years...smaller hands and will fight the ball at times...all of his experience has come at lower levels of competition (JUCO and Division II).

Summary: With academic issues out of high school, Dixon went the JUCO route, enrolling at Joliet Junior College along with his twin brother, [Brian]. He starred for two seasons there, earning All-American honors in 2011 as a sophomore with 39 passes defended and 8 interceptions. Dixon, again with his brother, transferred to Division-II NW Missouri State in 2012 where he started the past two seasons, earning All-Conference honors. He takes a moment to process the action and needs to speed up his reflexes, but never backs down and takes on challenges with noticeable confidence and a physical nature. Dixon has tight joints and needs to work on the positional details, but has the build, length and vertical speed coveted on the outside - size/speed developmental prospect who will require patience and attention from a NFL coaching staff.

Nolan Nawrocki (NFL.com): 13th-ranked CB; no overall grade

Strengths: Excellent size, musculature and body length. Nice balance and body control. Quick-footed to mirror off the line. Can flip his hips and run vertically. 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.

Weaknesses: Has small hands. Lacks elite explosion and top-end speed. Ordinary leaping ability and ball skills to contend with taller high fliers. Faulty diagnostic skills -- processes slowly and reacts more than he anticipates. Gets caught squatting and peeking. Inconsistent tackler. Poor football aptitude -- requires extra reps to grasp complicated assignments.

Draft Projection: Rounds 5-6

Bottom Line: 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.

Howard Jones (6'3", 235):

Jones arrived at Shepherd in 2008 as a 185-pound wide receiver, but redshirted and then lost a season to academic ineligibility, not seeing the field until 2010 when he transitioned to the defensive side of the ball. Jones started all but two games the last four seasons, recording consistent production each year, leaving Shepherd with several career marks, including sacks (34.5). He 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."

Dane Brugler (NFLDraftScout.com): 19th-ranked OLB; no overall grade

Strengths: Athletic build with length and growth potential. Excellent pursuit speed with instant acceleration and impressive quickness for his size. Raw explosion to attack the backfield before blockers can set up. Generates some natural power when he?s able to stay low and burst through his hips. Nice job extending his long arms to engage and force the issue. Very good body control and natural flexibility to dip, sink and flatten. Physical tackler and strikes with purpose through his target. NFL motor and effort with a developed work ethic. Added 50 pounds during his time in college. Confident, tough and durable. Mature and the consummate teammate. Four-year starter (46 career starts) with versatile experience rushing from a two and three point stance off the edge. Consistent and above average production the last four years, leaving college with 71.0 tackles for loss, 8 forced fumbles, 4 blocked kicks and a school-record 34.5 sacks. A finalist for Cliff Harris Award in 2013 (top small college defender).

Weaknesses: Lacks ideal strength and will struggle to disengage blocks, lacking much pop in his hands at the point of attack. Lean build and needs to dedicate himself in a NFL weight room to continue and fill out his frame. Streaky snap reaction and can be a tick late off the line of scrimmage (due to awareness, not natural burst). Inconsistent tracking skills and will lose sight of the ball too easily. Undeveloped pass rush moves, lacking much creativity or depth. Overaggressive and plays too fast, over-pursuing and struggling to collect himself on the move to properly finish targets in motion. Extremely raw mentally with immature anticipation and recognition skills. Lacks a clear mean streak and needs to show more grit on the field. Soft-spoken and lacks an authoritative voice in the huddle. Has had trouble with academics throughout his career and might have some issues adjusting to a NFL playbook. All of his experience has come against a lower level of competition at the Division-II level. Overaged prospect.

Gary Horton (ESPN.com): 15th-ranked OLB; no overall grade

Instincts/ Recognition: Undisciplined eyes.  Flashes quick reflexes.  Gets sucked inside and fails gap responsibility frequently.

Take-on Skills: Must improve hand usage.  Allows pads rise and loses what he has for a power-base too often.  Has long arms and quick hands but must improve technique.  Lean lower body and struggles to anchor.

Range vs. Run: Covers a lot of ground.  Long strider with very good closing burst.  Will pursue and track down RBs from behind.  Struggles to redirect and slow shuttles (4.41 SS, 7.16 3-cone) verified what we see on tape.

Tackling: Tackles high.  Shows some pop.  Has long arms and does a good job of lassoing ball carrier when in area code

Pass Rush Skills: Raw but shows major upside as an edge rusher.  At this point, mostly finesse rusher with very good straight-line burst.  Has some lower-body tightness which shows in his redirect skills, but has a flexible torso to maneuver around edge while engaged.  Flashes ability to convert speed to power....Flashes quick hands but needs lots of work in that area. Improved push/pull move as senior.  Shows good upper-body power and has room to develop.  Doing a better job of locating and tracking QB while working up the field as a rusher.  Excellent production at small-school level: Set school career record with 35 sacks.  Was moved from OLB to DE because he struggled in coverage.  Has tightness and struggles to redirect.  Limited awareness and range in zone and man-to-man cover skills.

Intangibles: Played key role in team's undefeated regular season in 2013, when it lost to West Chester in D-II quarterfinals.  Former WR that moved over to defense early in college career.  Played small high school and had a lot of maturing to do during college career.  Much more mature and much better practice habits than first couple seasons.  High reps type.  Will struggle to quickly pick up new concepts.

Dan Shonka (Ourlads): 24th-ranked OLB; 318th overall

Four-year starter. A talent rich Division II player who was highly productive in college. A backside chase and run down player. Explosive athlete who has a third gear closing burst. Dominant small college player that was tough to block but played out of position as a 4-3 defensive end. Raw and green as spring grass. Needs pro physical development and a position. No question he is a size and speed prospect with inconsistent skills. Has a wing span of 82" and a 40.5/ VJ and 10-4/BJ.

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Every year, teams snap up players like these on the draft's third day, gambling that their athletic upside will compensate for a paucity of experience against top-flight competition. Because of this, I'm inclined to slot both of these guys at the early end of our panelists' ratings, which is roughly rounds 5-7. So that's what I'll do; both go in the fifth round on my "little board."

One of the Cowboys' objectives in the draft has to be to add speed to the roster's depth. In other words, they need fast guys manning roster spots 25-53. Players like Dixon and Jones, although unpolished, provide instant upgrades to the team's overall speed and athleticism. If the Dallas coaches can harness that raw talent so they can compete for starting jobs in future? Well, that's just gravy...

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Tomorrow: Notre Dame OG/ OT Zack Martin

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