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Cowboys 2012 Draft: Whither A First Round Defensive Lineman?

Yesterday, the big Cowboys news was that Jerry Jones dropped a couple of news bombs while holding court at the owner's meeting. One of Jerry's most incendiary devices was his claim that the team will be looking at a slate of defensive players in the draft's first round and therefore (horror of horrors) likely won't take Stanford guard David DeCastro. Although I certainly like DeCastro, I'm not at all surprised by Jones' news.

Allow me to illustrate why with a brief review of last year's draft. In 2011, the draft's positions of strength were offensive tackle and defensive line. There were a handful of first round tackles: Tyron Smith, Anthony Castonzo, Nate Solder, Gabe Carimi and Derek Sherrod, all of whom were consensus first-rounders. After these players, there was a precipitous drop-off; if a team wanted to ensure that they would walk away from the draft with top-tier O-tackle, they'd have to spend a first round pick. Indeed, all of them were snapped up in round one, with Sherrod going to the Packers with the final pick of the round.

The defensive linemen, on the other hand, offered a much steadier talent drop-off. After the elite defensive ends (J.J. Watt, Aldon Smith, Robert W Quinn, Adrian Clayborn) could be found another layer of very good players, guys like Cameron Jordan, Muhammad Wilkerson, Cameron Heyward, and Jabaal Sheard. Because the elite group (which was joined by other pass rushers like Von Miller, Marcel Dareus and Nick Fairley) was so deep, the likelihood of a player or players from the second tier being around when the Cowboys second round pick rolled around significantly higher than that of an equally talented offensive tackle remaining on the board.

More unfounded pre-draft speculation after the jump...

The Cowboys, sitting at the ninth spot, had one player from each category--Smith and Watt--on their short list. Given the drop-off in talent at tackle, the choice was a no-brainer: Smith had to be the pick. If the Cowboys had taken Watt, they might have had to reach for a Marcus Gilbert type to fill the hole left by Marc Columbo's departure at right tackle. As it turns out, the defensive linemen were snapped up by the time Dallas was on the board in round two, so they turned to Bruce Carter, to whom they had given a first round grade. But that doesn't mean Dallas was wrong to play the OT-DE percentages the way they did.

In 2012, they will face a similar OL-DL situation, with the positional drop-offs reversed. In a recent post, O.C.C. wondered aloud whether the Cowboys might take a pass rusher in the first round. The Cool One was generous enough to provide us with a handy chart listing where the leading draftniks currently have the top pass rushers ranked. Note the average rankings: Qunton Coples (10.6); Melvin Ingram (14.3); Michael Brockers (15.1); Fletcher Cox (15.4); Courtney Upshaw (17.0); Whitney Mercilus (18.8). If these evaluators are to be trusted, and their assessments run anything close to those of NFL scouts, then these D-linemen will all be gone by the end of the first round - much like the offensive tackles were in 2011 (Cool points out that there may be as many as nine teams between picks 7 and 27 looking for pass rush help). If the Cowboys want one of these guys, then, they'll have to get him in round one.

I think that's the soundest strategy. At the tail end of our recent roundtable free agency wrap-up, our in-house draftnik, Long Ball, opined:

The 2012 guard class is deep, deep, deep (part of that is due to the number of OT prospects who will kick inside as pros), and the fall-off in talent is not as severe as it is for talented pass-rushers (whether DE or OLB). So, while DeCastro will most likely earn multiple Pro Bowls during his career, maybe the second, third, fourth, or fifth best OG’s are not as big a "fall-off" in talent as the second or third best pass-rushers may be when compared to the best (once again, whether DE or OLB).

I agree with Ol' Long Ball; some top-notch offensive guards figure to be on the board as the bell rings on the draft's second day. BTB favorite DeCastro is a sure-fire first rounder, and will be picked some time Thursday night, but there are four imposing characters--Amini Silatolu, Kevin Zietler, Brandon Brooks and Kelechi Osemele--who present excellent value and, as Long Ball suggests, represent less of a drop-off from the Stanford guard than do the second round pass rushers (this is most clear when looking at the 3-4 down linemen who follow Cox, Brockers and Poe).

Last year, the draft plan maximized the Cowboys's chances of coming away from the first two rounds with the strongest OT-DE combo platter--something like Smith and Cameron Heyward, which would have been a tastier twosome than Watt and Orlando Franklin. Although this didn't materialize, the strategy was sound. A similar plan in 2012 would see a Brockers-Brooks or a Cox-Silatolu combination as helping the team more than a DeCastro-Jared Crick duo. DeCastro is probably the safest pick in the first round but, frankly, I think the more naturally powerful Silatolu and Brooks might just have more upside.

I suspect that Jerry has been sitting in on meetings in which this scenario, or one very like it, has been discussed. I for one don't think his recent public declaration is a smokescreen; because Jerrah simply cannot pass up an opportunity to show reporters he's in the know, I believe he has gifted us with a wee nugget of real insight into the Cowboys plans. In less than a month, we'll know for certain.

Later in the week: thoughts on Jerry's other potential owner's meeting interview nugget - that the Cowboys might trade down in the first round.

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