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Cowboys Offseason Plan: What We Learned At The Combine

Now that the NFL has wrapped up its annual Underwear Olympics, aka the Combine, all 32 teams' scouting types have rushed back home to digest all the information (and misinformation) they gleaned in Indianapolis. Yes, it's a bad idea to allow Combine results outweigh--or even seriously affect--the tape review that is the basis for establishing player grades. Nevertheless, a lot can be learned from watching guys run around in skin-tight Under Armour togs. For Cowboys fans, some players at positions of interest emerged, secured their draft status, or presented questions that must be answered.

Most importantly, the Cowboys' organizational triumvirate met seriously with the media for the first time since the Senior Bowl. On Friday, aboard the Cowboys team bus, Jerry Jones held court with Dallas area reporters, and said quite a few revealing things, several of which contradicted earlier Senior Bowl utterances; Jason Garrett stood before the national media, adding a couple of tidbits; Stephen Jones gave some gave some time to the FW Star-Telegram's Calvin Watkins. What happens when we parse some of their quotes and mix them up with a heapin' spoonful of Combine test results? The latest edition of the "Offseason Plan" series, of course!

Post-Combine goodness after the jump...

Let's start by reviewing what we learned from Dallas' organizational triumvirate:

Jerry and Stephen Jones disagree about the level of talent on the team. Jones said (and subsequently received a lot of heat for saying) that he thought the Cowboys had sufficient talent to compete for a Super Bowl. To be fair, what Jerry meant was that they were good enough to get into the tournament at 9-7 and then cross their fingers for a string of good luck similar to that recently enjoyed by the Giants. In his interview, Stephen pointedly said what we have known since the Arizona game: our brave 'Boys don't have enough talent on defense.

A sidebar: Frankly, it's the level-headed Stephen (and Jason Garrett), and their potential to counterbalance the Pollyanna-ish Jerry that gives me hope the organization can erase its sixteen year run of mediocrity.

Jerry Jones claimed that the Cowboys' biggest liability the past two seasons has been a moribund offensive line (and admitted that it was his fault both years). In 2010, this meant trying to squeeze another season out of too many aging vets; in 2011, it meant the opposite: putting too much responsibility on a group of rosy-cheeked cherubs who weren't ready for prime time. Since those young'uns still sit atop the depth chart, I take this to mean that interior offensive line upgrades are on the way. Jerry's got to fix the problem he admitted to creating, no?

After declaring that the defensive line is a strength in Mobile, Jones reversed directions, telling reporters that he's looking to upgrade by adding a "significant" pass rusher this offseason--by which he didn't mean re-upping Anthony Spencer. Sure, he likely watched the Giants playoff run and reached the same conclusion that most eight year old fans did: the New York pass rush can take over a game. But, New York had been doing that by the time of Jerry's Senior Bowl assessment; I suspect that it was Jones' sitting in on subsequent scouting and team evaluation meetings that propped his eyes open.

After making it quite clear in Mobile (in the typical Jerryspeak, read-between-the-crooked-lines sort of way) that veteran cornerback Terence Newman was a sure-fire offseason goner, he backtracked a little in Indy, asking rhetorically: who might replace him? This also smacks of more recent roster evaluation meetings, in which the defensive coaches determined that Orlando Scandrick makes a better slot corner (which they call the "star" position) than a starter on the outside. If this is true, then they're looking for a starter. As Bill Parcells might say, you can't just drive down to the A & P and find a starting corner; the Cowboys might get priced out of the free agent market and might pick up BPAs at other positions in the draft. I think they have realized this, and have determined that they won't extend themselves to fill a position at which they already have a veteran under contract. If they can't find a new one, they might just keep Newman.

Jerry also suggested that we shouldn't lump Bradie James and Keith Brooking into the same category. In other words, one or the other might return in 2012. To anybody reading BTB, this shouldn't come as a big surprise. At present, Dallas has only one starting-caliber ILB and a schoolbus full of question marks. Bringing back a veteran who knows the system as a "bridge" player makes a lot of sense. The question is: which one? I've thought it would be James; yesterday, ESPN Dallas' Todd Archer wondered whether it might be Brooking. Either way, expect one of them back in 2012.

In praising punter Mat McBriar, whose game fell off a table late in the season due to a bizarre drop-foot injury caused by a cyst in the nerve ganglia around his knee, Jones indicated that the Cowboys value him enough to pay to bring him back. If so, this would be a departure from previous Cowboys practice, which has been to cycle through young kickers and punters, paying them the NFL equivalent of minimum wage. I had assumed that McBriar was a goner: age and injury questions at a kicking position? See ya! But perhaps he has received such a reassuring bill of health that the triumvirate has reconsidered his value to the team.

Outside of the interview room and onto the field, where we learned other valuable tidbits:

Perhaps the strongest position in the 2012 draft will be defensive tackle. Draftniks have been talking up the cornerback and offensive guard positions in recent weeks; in Indy, the defensive tackles showed themselves to be a force. Since we seek to apply all NFL news immediately to the Cowboys, the question that had to be asked was: might Dallas take one of these monsters in the first round. Unless they trade back, I think this will be highly unlikely. The fat middle of the DT class (even the shockingly athletic Dontari Poe, whose tape is underwhelming) should be located in the last third of the first round, in the 20s. So, unless Trader Jerry rears his wrinkled head, those of you who are hoping for a beefy nose tackle might have to wait.

Related: Cowboys Draft Prospects: Would They Regret Drafting Dontari Poe?

On Monday, another top position emerged, the "4-3 DE-to-3-4-OLB conversion type"--defensive ends likely to convert to outside linebacker in the NFL. The familiar names are Courtney Upshaw and Bruce Irvin, but a slew of undersized DEs, such as Oklahoma's Ronnell Lewis, Virginia's Cam Johnson, Marshall's Vinny Curry, Troy's Jonathan Massaquoi, Illinois' Whitney Mercilus, Oklahoma State's Jamie Blatnick, Arkansas' Jake Bequette and Miami's Olivier Vernon will have to get their hands out of the dirt to make it at the next level. This bodes well for the Cowboys who, as we know, want to add pass rushers, but also want to follow a BPA draft philosophy as much as possible: they will be able to find quality guys beyond the first round.

That said, I heard talk that the guys we have been talking about at pick # 14, Upshaw and Melvin Ingram, didn't universally overwhelm. Although Ingram looked more fluid that Upshaw, who really struggled in the linebacker drills, neither is the kind of elite, quick-twitch athlete that promises a certain upgrade over Anthony Spencer. More on Spencer below...

Similarly, the cornerback class is very deep: a scouting type I respect a great deal said that the depth he sees this year at corner is deeper than he can remember ever seeing. That certainly is good news in Dallas, where upgrades at corner are a certainty. That said, my impression (not necessarily that of the scout in question) from the Combine workouts was that there is a bit of a soft spot from the middle of the first to the mid-second round. It wouldn't surprise me to see Janoris Jenkins taken from Dallas' board, and the long, lanky Dre Kirkpatrick didn't look as fluid as might be hoped in the first half of round one. Thus, unless the football gods grant a miracle and Morris Claiborne falls from the heavens, Dallas may not be able to add a corner until the third round or so.

How might all of this info affect our prognostications about the Cowboys offseason plans?

It makes a great deal of sense that Dallas is looking at FA corners. If, as Jones suggested, Scandrick is best as a "slot starter" and that, other than Claiborne, the corners in the draft all have questions and will likely be projects, such that there aren't any guaranteed "plug-and-play" types, then, if Dallas wants a surefire starter so that they can dump Newman, that guy will have to arrive via free agency.

I've been saying this all along, but Spencer will almost certainly be returning to Dallas, for at least 2012, if not for much longer. That said, my first offseason speculation post suggested that the Cowboys should franchise Spencer and draft his replacement or a complementary rusher. I subsequently backed off of that, but increasingly--and, most recently, buoyed by Jerry Jones' comments that Dallas must add pass rushers--I think this is what they'll do. Seeing what the Giants did with their depth at DE, having three quality OLBs no longer seems a waste or a luxury; rather, it appears to be a necessity, especially with mad scientist Rob Ryan at the defensive helm.

David DeCastro might be the safest player in the draft; indeed, much-respected draftnik Rick Gosselin went on record this weekend as thinking so. Sure, guards have not historically been highly valued, but DeCastro might be different. Consider this: Wes Bunting maintains that he's the best guard prospect since Steve Hutchinson, who had a stellar career playing next to perennial All-Pro tackle Walter Jones (Wes says he'd be comfortable using a top-ten pick on Decastro). When Shaun Alexander ran for over 1,800 yards in 2005, a sizeable portion of that total was run behind Jones and Hutchinson. I don't think it would take too long for us to get used to seeing DeMarco Murray doing his best Alexander impression--and suspect Tony Romo would adjust pretty quickly as well.

Looking at the players we have been considering as possible Dallas picks at # 14, DeCastro looks even better. Peter Konz? Too high, by about 10-15 picks, and that's if he checks out medically. Janoris Jenkins? He doesn't meet Dallas' size requirements for the position, and isn't a "clean" enough player to make an exception. Dre Kirkpatrick? Still a possibility, but he seemed to exhibit the traits that all tall DBs do: he's a strider, isn't as sudden as shorter guys, and has trouble sinking his hips; like the Saints' Malcolm Jenkins, another tall corner, I think Dre's NFL future might be at safety. I've already talked about Upshaw and Ingram, both of whom look to me like Spencer v. 2.0; Michael Brockers didn't appear to be anywhere near as athletic as advertised, and there are still too many unanswered questions surrounding Mark Barron. Who is left? Here, on the last day of February, it's DeCastro.

Unless a blue-chipper falls, DeCastro is my guy. Who are the blue chippers? Funny you should ask, as that's the topic for my next post, so stay tuned.

Until then: Go COWBOYS!