With Senior Bowl practices just days away, it's time to consider the shopping list for the 2006 offseason. This list will be shorter than the 2005's, which resembled a help-wanted section. Still, it's rather extensive.
Cornerbacks -- No first day needs here. Jean-Jacques Taylor tells the Sporting News that team is "thrilled" with Jacques Reeves progress. He was forced into action when Anthony Henry pulled a groin muscle and was steady. The second-year player from Purdue gives Dallas a quartet of able corners.
Strong safety -- With Roy Williams as starter, this position is set. It might get a late look, but that depends on rookie Justin Beriult's rehab from microfracture surgery. Al Johnson recovered from his procedure two years ago, but the success rate on this rather new procedure is still low.
Free safety -- Keith Davis struggled early and late. His aggresiveness worked against him, as he was frequently caught running up for big hits and looking into the backfield. Teams were able to get receivers behind him with frightening regularity. Keenan McCardell, Randy Moss, Brandon Lloyd and Ricky Proehl all burned him for long touchdowns and long gains. Dallas will look for an upgrade here.
Free agency options include Minnesota's Corey Chavous, who has been playing out of position at strong safety the past two years, Tampa Bay's Dexter Jackson and Pittsburgh's Chris Hope. Miami's Lance Schulters could offer good value. The former Titan was cut for cap reasons and landed in Miami. He finished third on the team with 77 tackles and made four interceptions.
Draft options include Texas' Michael Huff and Alabama's Roman Harper. Huff would be a dandy first round selection but is currently rated anywhere between 8th and 15th overall, depending on the mock draft you prefer. He's not out of reach, but Dallas would need some draft day luck to find him on the board at pick 18.
Prediction: Dallas needs instant production. Since free safety is not a big ticket item, and since Huff is such a long shot to drop, I think the Cowboys will sign a veteran here.
Everything depends on rookie Kevin Burnett's rehab from ACL reconstruction. With Dat Nguyen considering retirement after a neck injury, Burnett is his logical replacement. But the rookie missed extensive time after having a bone spur removed from his hip before training camp and tearing the knee ligament fifteen weeks into the season. Burnett also tore a knee ligament while at Tennessee, so his dependability remains uncertain. If he recovers, he'll likely start next to Bradie James, who blossomed at mid-season.
Should Dallas look for inside help in the draft, they'll find a shallow talent pool. Bill Parcells likes big, physical linebackers who can take on guards. Virginia's Kai Parham and N.C. State's Oliver Hoyte are the only top ten prospects who weigh more than 240 lbs.
If Dallas goes the free agent route, San Francisco's Derek Smith offers a no-nonsense game at a no-nonsense price, but he would be wasted money if Burnett recovers fully.
Probably the biggest defensive need besides free safety. The 3-4 depends on two skilled outside linebackers who can cover and rush. Dallas filled one spot with Demarcus Ware. The rookied faded at mid-season, but rebounded to finish with eight sacks, tying him with Greg Ellis for the team lead.
The Cowboys need a complement to Ware. They traded for Scott Fujita before the deadline, but his game showed limitations. Fujita had his moments; his sack and forced fumble against the Chiefs turned that game in the Cowboys' favor. However, he proved to be inconsistent against the run and was frequently baited on bootlegs. Some readers expressed hope that the Dallas coaching staff could upgrade his game. After ten games, I'd say that's not likely. Fujita is a five year veteran now. To quote the late Flip Wilson, "what you see is what you get."
One of the basic rush packages in the 3-4 has the three down linemen and the weakside linebacker blitzing, producing a four man push. In the second half of the season, teams would dictate the Cowboys' rush by lining up tight ends across from Ware. He would draw coverage responsibility and Fujuta would become the rusher. This hurt Dallas two ways, as Ware was much better rushing than in coverage, having played DE in college. Moreover, Fujita was a weaker option than Ware -- he had only two sacks to Ware's eight -- so the risk of linebacker pressure diminished.
Blue chip veteran 3-4 rush linebackers cost a fortune. Recall the first round-plus price the Jets demanded for John Abraham last spring. Dallas could wait on Washington, to see if they cut LaVar Arrington. The most recent stories from D.C. had the mercurial linebacker apologizing for his petulant behavior and asking to stay. Even if Arrington were released, his play has been inconsistent and his contracts far too rich.
There are plenty of options in the draft, which is why I believe Dallas' first round pick will likely be spent on this position. Iowa's Chad Greenway and Ohio State's Bobby Carpenter both fit the Ware profile -- they're fast, good in coverage, good as rushers and both top 245 lbs. Greenway has been anywhere between 10 and 17 in the mocks I've seen. There's a good chance that he, like Michael Huff, will be selected just before Dallas picks. Carpenter should be on the board at 18, though his stock could rise. He's been listed in the 25 to 35 range most of the year, and Mel Kiper awarded him to New England at pick 21 in his first mock draft this week.
Dallas found a solid four man rotation here last year, using Marcus Spears and Kenyon Coleman at LE and Greg Ellis and Chris Canty at RE. Rumors have surfaced since season's end that Ellis could be moved. Most of them have come from Ellis himself, who has questioned his fit in the 3-4. His reps were reduced for a while in late November, which presents the question of whether the coaching staff agrees with him?
Ellis has a cap-friendly contract. The team does not have to move him. If he was traded, however, Dallas could probably draft another lineman, though rookie Jay Ratliff may offer an alternative. Ratliff is a more prototypical 3-4 end than Ellis, going 6'3" and 293 lbs. He showed promise as a rush tackle in the Cowboys' 4-2-5 package early before landing on injured reserve with a leg injury.
Dallas built a steady rotation here as well, with veterans LaRoi Glover and free agent signee Jason Ferguson. Ferguson missed all of camp with a nagging hamstring injury but played well against the run from October on.
Nose tackle is not thought of as a big ticket position and Dallas has two big contracts here, both over the age of 30. That's why Glover, like Ellis, is considered a tradeable option. Rookie Thomas Johnson opened some eyes in camp and got some playing time in December, showing some fair rush skills. He remains a question mark, though, and Dallas might look at another tackle in the middle rounds if Glover departs.
Some readers have suggested Oregon's Haloti Ngata or Michigan's Gabe Watson as options. I doubt either would be selected, for the same reason that Glover could be moved. It's not likely that Dallas would invest so much money at nose tackle. Watson also has a reputation for taking plays off, which diminishes his chances of being a Bill Parcells' draftee. Stanford's Babatunde Oshinowo, Auburn's Tommy Jackson and Texas A&M's Johnny Jolly are mid-round options.