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NFL 2011 Combine: Cowboys Draft Strategy Taking Shape?

Tyron Smith's Combine weigh-in should make the Dallas Brass breathe a little more easily.
Tyron Smith's Combine weigh-in should make the Dallas Brass breathe a little more easily.

To my mind, a couple of pieces of news have emerged in the past week that served, at first, to muddle, and then to clarify, Dallas' draft strategy. The first of these is the contention, uttered by several scouting types, that there will be a significant run on offensive linemen in the first round. Indeed, Wes Bunting's most recent mock draft has seven big uglies going in round one; Pro Football Weekly's mock has tabbed eight first round O-linemen. As a result, players such as Villanova's Ben Ijilana, Danny Watkins of Baylor and Florida's Mike Pouncey, who once stood a good chance of being on the board when the Cowboys picked at # 40, now seem as if they will already be on charter flights to their new team's training facilities by the time the Dallas is on the clock.

The problem here is that the top offensive line candidates are currently being slotting neatly between picks 15 and 33 (PFW has the first OL snapped up at 13; Bunting has Tyron Smith going at 10, but the next OL doesn't come off the board until pick 19). In other words, all the top players at Dallas' most alarming position of need aren't grading out high enough to justify picking with their first pick but aren't likely to be available at their second. For a team that simply must draft a quality offensive lineman--preferably in the first couple of rounds--this is an unwelcome development.

Many draftniks have suggested that Jerry Jones should try to trade down, into the realm where the dancing elephants are likely to be picked. This, of course, is based on a couple of assumptions: that a willing trade partner is available, and that they wouldn't be turning their backs on a blue-chip player (or players) at #9 just to get an O-lineman. Three weeks ago, I was sure that the optimal strategy would be to go for one of the blue chip defensive lineman (or, if by some miracle he was available, LSU's Patrick Peterson) at #9, and try to get the best available OL at the top of the second round. Now, because so many of those top-of-the-second-round OL types have risen, this strategy seems less tenable.

But, so does trading away a chance at a top-tier player. What to do?

Well, another piece of news had me wondering if this might shake out in Dallas' favor after all. The aforementioned Tyron Smith has, as the blogosphere has incessantly reminded us for the last 36 hours, showed up at the Combine at a ripped 307 pounds, up from his collegiate playing weight of 285. At that weight, many expect him still to run in the 4.9 to sub-4.9 range and to bench press 225 pounds at least 25 times, which, with his Pro-Bowl caliber 36 3/8 inch arm length, would be phenomenal. Although Smith has been off of many people's radar, scouts absolutely love him, especially his feet. Bunting, for example, claims that he's a significantly better prospect that Baylor's Jason Smith was when he came out in 2009 (J. Smith, you'll recall, was drafted #2 by the Rams). In short, T. Smith may very well be a consensus blue-chipper by the time the draft rolls around.

The fact that a blue-chip offensive lineman likely exists takes a lot of pressure off of the Cowboys war-room. One of the practices in which they will engage as they gear up for the draft is to look at where clusters of players at the same position are grouped. As the above example suggests, there are a lot of offensive linemen with late first round grades, but very few with high first or high second round grades. Thus, a team that, like the Cowboys, needs a position so much that they simply MUST draft one has to be prepared either a) to trade into that sweet spot; b) wait until a lower-round cluster accords with one of their picks, or c) hope a player they like falls to them. As we know, hope is not an effective strategy, and the Cowboys probably cannot afford to wait until the later rounds to draft an OL. An absence of blue-chip (top-ten pick) offensive linemen thus reduces Dallas' options to letter a)...

...unless, of course, a blue-chipper emerges. Assuming they like Smith and can get him at #9, the rest of the draft could play out quite well. Defensive end is by far the strongest position in this draft, in terms of both quality and depth. Given that Dallas' other areas of need, in order of extremity--safety, corner, ILB--don't have much to offer in the 35-45 range unless, in another miracle, UCLA safety Rahim Moore falls (and, given that he's the only quality free safety in the draft, why would he?), DE seems like a good second round possibility. If the dropoff in OL talent is going to create a run, the surplus of DE talent is likely to have the opposite effect. As a result, a player like Ohio State's Cameron Heyward, or even Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan, might still be floating around when Dallas picks at # 40.

Let's assume the first two Cowboys picks are going to be an OT and a DE, and that the mockers cited above are correct, so that none of the top OL candidates fall to # 40. Which combination would you be happier with: a blue-chip OT and a solid starter at DE, or a blue-chip DE and a reach for a mid-to-low second round OL? The third option, trading down, means that neither position is staffed by a blue-chipper.

The first choice should be the obvious favorite--and the emergence of Tyron Smith makes it an actual possibility. If I'm a member of the Dallas braintrust, T. Smith's Combine weigh-in makes me feel considerably less hamstrung by the position need-versus-availability equation.

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