As has been recently detailed here on BTB, the Cowboys have done yeoman's work this offseason. Between free agency and the draft, they added ten new players--and then supplemented this haul with 15 or so UDFAs, several of whom look like they have a legitimate chance to make the squad. In the process, they filled key roster holes (backup RB and TE, third receiver, starting SLB, depth at defensive end and safety) that gaped like open mouths in late February. Nevertheless, there are still some evident soft spots on the Cowboys roster, positions that, while not obvious holes, could happily withstand an upgrade: interior offensive line, defensive line, developmental quarterback
How might the Cowboys address these soft spots as the Garrett administration continues to build the roster? Today, I'd like to take a (clearly, premature) look at the 2014 draft, to see what kind of players - and, mostly, at what positions - might be available to Dallas next April. This begs the question: how can we possibly know this when most college teams haven't even established their starting lineups?
I'm glad you asked, faithful reader. In the past few days, a couple draft pundits have come out with early "top 100" rankings of players expected to come out next year. The fine fellows at Football's Future offer up their heroic hundred here; the draft crew at Scout.com (on FoxSports) add one of their own.
A proviso: I don't believe these are particularly useful in terms of individual player rankings (who had Johnny Football starting for A&M at this time last year, much less winning the Heisman trophy?), I do think they are telling about the strength of specific positions. For example, the 2008, '09 and '10 drafts had 3, 4 and 4 offensive guards, respectively, taken in the top 100 picks. In 2012, however, ten OGs were taken by the time the draft wound around to pick 101. Spikes such as this show that a given position is historically strong, which can - nay, should- impact draft strategies: looking ahead at these perceived positions of strength can help an organization make decisions about the current draft.
What I have done is to tabulate how many players at each position are projected to be taken in the 2014 draft's first one hundred picks with the position distribution that has actually transpired in each of the last five drafts. The strongest distributions by position receive asterisks; historic distributions receive the much-admired double asterisk:
A quick perusal of this table confirms that the positional distribution is fairly consistent from year to year, with the notable (and historic) exception of the 2012 guard class. However, there have been a few positional spikes of note: in 2010, fourteen DTs (with Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy leading the group) and 8 safeties (when Eric Berry and Earl Thomas were headliners) were taken in the top 100 picks; 2010 and '11 both saw eleven offensive tackles go off the board in in the same range. In both 2009 and '12, fifteen wideouts were selected in the first 100; last year saw a record 16 CBs taken in the same span.
What might be the positions of strength in 2014? At first glance, there appear to be two or three, depending on perspective: quarterback and pass rusher, where a total of 25 defensive ends and outside linebackers (you'll notice that, while there are year-to-year fluctuations in the number of DEs and OLBs taken, the combined totals remain fairly consistent across years) are projected to far exceed the combined totals from recent years.
As I noted above, positional spikes impact draft strategies. In recent years, the Cowboys seem to have taken this to heart. In 2009, they looked hard at WR, LB and safety - all strong positions in that draft. In 2010, more of the same: OL and WR. In 2011, we again saw them tap three positions of strength: OT, CB, LB. 2012, it was offensive guard, the richest position in the entire shootin' match, and in 2013 they looked at a lot of linebackers and safeties, both strong positions. When a position is strong, and the majority of teams are drafting for need (which they are), it means that at these strong positions good players will drop. When pursued over the long term, a strategy of drafting to positional strength will thus yield greater value. In recent years, Dallas seems to have realized this, and strategized accordingly.
If this holds true, it promises to work out well for the Cowboys: potential positions of strength in 2014 correlate neatly with Dallas' positions of need. To wit: despite the infusion of talent onto the defensive side of the roster, our beloved 'Boys still have a soft spots at defensive end, where Anthony Spencer will once again be a free agent, and where they have not found an adequate back-up to (not to mention a replacement for) All-World
OLB DE DeMarcus Ware. And speaking of aging core players, what better time to begin the annual search for the guy to groom as Tony Romo's replacement than the potentially quarterback-rich 2014 draft?
Who might be some viable candidates at these various positions? In separate posts over the next few days, I'll take a gander at the 2014 draft's top players at a variety of positions, focusing especially on signal callers and pass rushers - and also taking longer looks at positions of continuing need, such as the defensive and offensive lines (OT and OG).
After all, isn't watching other teams play more interesting when the players you watch are potential Cowboys?
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