Look at any mock draft or "what the Cowboys need" article this offseason and defensive line along with safety are certainly going to be part of the conversation. The Cowboys struggled mightily to stay healthy at defensive line and they face issues with three of their veteran starters. Jason Hatcher is almost certain to leave in free agency. Anthony Spencer is also a free agent and coming off a major injury that could affect his status going forward. And Demarcus Ware can't avoid injuries while his contract has become prohibitive.
If you combine that with the "hopeful but not sure" category of injured youngsters Tyrone Crawford and Ben Bass, you got a shaky situation. In addition, when you hear Willie Clay says things like this:
And for the scheme to work that we're using now - it's very evident when you go back to the Chicago Bears, Tampa Bay Buccaneers of old, Seattle Seahawks now - you've got to have depth. It's all in how you put the pieces together to build that depth of the seven-, eight-man line that you'll need in a rotation during the season if you're going to play fast and do the things that we do. [emphasis added]
If Dallas is looking to get back to a 8-man rotation along the line they're going to have to draft some help. So with all that in mind, let's see what Mike Mayock, a guy I really respect in terms of scouting, has to say about the defensive line candidates this year.
Q. My question was every year we are sort of introduced to someone who suddenly catches fire at the Combine and there's watercooler talk for the next few months. I wonder if there are any players like that you anticipate seeing, obviously you need to see how they perform at the Combine, but guys you think will become sort of emblematic of this draft class.
MAYOCK: It's interesting, because my whole thing is the fast guys run fast and slow guys run slow and it's only a story of if the opposite happens. If somebody runs 4:25 or 4:28, that's awesome, that's fun, but I get more excited about some of the big guys, the 280‑, 300‑pound guys that are really athletic freaks, and I think the kid from Minnesota, Ra’Shede Hageman, he's really going to be interesting. He's 6‑6, he's over 300 pounds, he was a high school basketball player. He's got freakish athletic ability and if he puts up the kind of numbers I think he can, in addition to [Jadeveon] Clowney, we're going to be talking about him. I think he's really going to be an interesting guy to watch. I think …to me is a Top‑10 pick and in today's NFL he might even go in the Top‑10 just because of what he brings to the table.
Q. Kony Ealy from Missouri, what is your projection for what the best fit for him will be at the next level?
MAYOCK: As far as Ealy is concerned, ended up liking him more than I expected to, and I think he's a 4‑3 defensive end. I don't really think he's an outside linebacker. I think to compare him to, say, [Aldon] Smith who came out a couple years ago. He's not quite as athletic as Aldon Smith, but he's a little more physical, a little better against the run. So I think he's probably a base 4‑3 end and I think he'll go somewhere in that 20, 23 range in the first round.
Q. Would 14 be too high [for Ealy]? The Bears need to do something on the defensive threat and with their fast rush.
MAYOCK: No, I don't think it's too high because when you're looking at the pure 4‑3 ends in this draft, they are few and far between. Clowney is going to be gone, and Ealy is there at 14, and if he's there he's a good pick and the second and third round, the logical guys are from Oregon State and maybe even Trent Murphy from Stanford.
Q. You touched on Aaron Donald, and I just wondered, what do you think might push him out of the first round if he doesn't go in the first round...
MAYOCK: As far as Aaron Donald, he's a guy I loved at Senior Bowl and love him on tape and he's explosive and he's quick. Now, the problem with the shorter defensive tackles is that when they don't win with their first move, they don't win with their quickness, they can get stuck on blocks because they don't have the length to get off the block. And that's the concern with Donald. Now, I think this kid's tough enough, quick enough and disruptive enough that he still deserves to be a first‑round defensive tackle, so I'm a believer in the kid, but there are some people that think he's a second‑round defensive tackle, because of the lack of length.
Q. Could you explain your breakdown of the top defensive tackles?
MAYOCK: Yeah, it's mixed bag. The defensive tackles are kind of a mixed bag, for instance, my top two guys, [Louis] Nix and [Timmy] Jernigan couldn't be different, Nix is a typical nose tackle and Jernigan is more of that three technique. I think Jernigan can step in and be special, early. I think I can Nix is a little different kind of player. He's a 330‑pound nose. Aaron Donald from Pitt has three technique, quick, up field penetrator, but I don't think he's going until late one, early two. And I've talked about [Ra'Shede] Hageman as a little bit of a boom‑or‑a‑bust, talented guy, 6‑6, 320, who could play anywhere up and down that defensive line, and then Dominique Easley in my Top‑5 is injured, the second ACL and I don't think he's going to go until about the third round or so. There are two LSU players that are second or third round guys and I think there's some pretty good depth in the first three rounds, and I think Jernigan is a guy that if he's sitting there when the Bears are on the board at 14, I think you'd sprint to the podium.
Q. I wanted to circle back to Kony Ealy, I saw he was your second‑ranked defensive end. What stands out about him?
MAYOCK: I mean, nine-and-a-half sacks this year, three forced fumbles. The tape I really liked on him was Texas A&M. I thought he had a great game against [Jake] Matthews and he was a natural‑edge guy with speed, he had good get‑off, he had natural bend, he had an ability to dip under offensive tackles. He had some toughness. He's physical, he hustles. He played all across the front depending on the game. I saw him play some nose tackle later in the season. So I think he's a ‑‑ hustles, plays hard, has some natural edge ability and in today's NFL, that all adds up to a first‑round pick for me.
Q. Can you speak a little if you have anything more to say about Ra'Shede Hageman...
MAYOCK: The Hageman kid is really interesting and especially given his background and where he's coming from and what he's had to go through in life, and I think the hard part is putting the tape on in one game, you see a kid that can go as a Top 15 pick and then you put the next tape on, and then he disappears for three quarters and that's a fifth or sixth round pick and you have to rectify the whole thing if he blows up the Combine; who are we getting. That's the important thing is trying to understand the kid, because the talent is certainly there.
Q. I think the Patriots two biggest needs are a defensive tackle and tight end, and let's assume they address both of those at the end of the first and second round. Is there a way to maximize the talent that they get, how would you go about that if you were making those draft picks based on how you expect the board to unfold?
MAYOCK: Interesting question, I think they are sitting there at 29 and obviously depending on how you look at this thing and what type of defensive tackle they are looking for, Louis Nix III and [Timmy] Jernigan are probably gone. Then [Dominique] Easley, the kid I really like from Florida, tore an ACL, his second ACL, so he's not going to go. He's one of those picks that the Patriots tend to get in like the third or fourth round for value, a first round guy later on.
I think [Ra'Shede] Hageman from Minnesota is the big question mark there. If he's still on the board, because he's an explosive kid, he could play a couple different slots and Coach Belichick likes those versatile guys. He's had some off the field questions attached to him but he's got a ton of ability and talent. If Hageman was sitting there, I think he'd be really interesting.