The Dallas Cowboys are currently trying to figure out which player to take with the No. 14 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft. The team has several needs with the most pressing being a solid pass-rusher to compliment DeMarcus Ware. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has been wishy-washy on whether his team will take such a player on April 26, but one the decision would be a lot simpler if Dallas switched to a 4-3 defense.
Currently, the Cowboys have three options for a pass-rusher at No. 14 that will fit Rob Ryan’s current 3-4 scheme: LSU’s Michael Brockers, Mississippi State’s Fletcher Cox and Memphis’ Dontari Poe. These three are the only ones that can play defensive end in an NFL 3-4 defense that are likely to be available in the middle of the first round when the Cowboys are on the clock. In fact, all three could even play defensive tackle if the Cowboys were to move Jay Ratliff to end.
However, neither player is a sure thing. Brockers and Cox are highly touted, but neither is considered a “confident pick” by the draft experts. Poe was average at best in college, but turned in an incredible performance at the NFL Combine. So which player is best? The debate wont’ end until their NFL careers are over.
If the Cowboys switched to a 4-3 defense, the choice at No. 14 would be a lot easier. Jones wants a player to complement Ware and such a player would have to be similar in size and skill. There are five players that fit that model in this year’s draft, which is deep with defensive end talent of the 4-3 brand.
North Carolina’s Quinton Coples, South Carolina’s Melvin Ingram, Clemson’s Andre Branch, Syracuse’s Chandler Jones and USC’s Nick Perry are all projected to go in the first round of the 2012 NFL draft and are all between 6’2″ and 6’6″ tall, 247 and 284 lbs. Ware is 6’4″ and 260 lbs.
All five players turned in solid Combine performances, posting numbers similar to the ones Ware posted in 2005. Of course, these numbers aren’t nearly as important as the ones the players put up on the field. But looking at last year’s top defensive end prospects, this year’s bunch looks promising.
The San Francisco 49ers drafted Aldon Smith 7th overall out of Missouri in 2011 and he turned in a 37-tackle, 14-sack rookie campaign. The Houston Texans took Wisconsin’s J.J. Watt 11th overall and he recorded 56 tackles and 5.5 sacks in his first pro season.
North Carolina’s Robert Quinn was the 14th overall selection to the St. Louis Rams and he tackled 23 ball carriers and sacked 5.0 quarterbacks. The Washington Redskins selected Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan 16th overall and he recorded 63 tackles and 7.5 sacks.
Now these numbers don’t guarantee success to this year’s class because some of those teams ran the 3-4 defense while others ran the 4-3. However, Smith, Kerrigan and Quinn are all very similar to this year’s crop of 4-3 defensive ends and guys like Kerrigan thrived opposite an elite pass rusher in Brian Orakpo.
That means this year’s crop would be successful opposite Ware, who wreaks havoc from the weak side of the Cowboys’ defense. However, that won’t happen because Jones refuses to commit to anything defensively.
The Cowboys foolishly used the franchise tag on Anthony Spencer this off-season, ruling out any chance of switching to a 4-3 defense in 2012. Then right after that, Jones said his team was targeting a pass-rusher in this year’s draft specifically to complement Ware. Then he said his team might not draft a pass-rusher because the Cowboys are “high on Victor Butler.” So in short, Jones is all kinds of confused about how Dallas will approach the draft.
Regardless, the Cowboys would have a stellar crop of defensive ends to pick from by switching to a 4-3 defense and Dallas would be set at linebacker without paying overpaying Spencer his $8.8 million this year and holding Butler back again in what should be his contract year.
Dallas’ recent signing of Dan Connor and drafting of Bruce Carter last year provides the team with a stable group of linebackers that, along with Sean Lee, could start at the three spots in a 4-3 scheme. However, that won’t happen this year because of Spencer’s tag and then Dallas will put off that process even further by drafting a 3-4 defensive end this year.
So the pass-rusher Jones wants to complement Ware will be nowhere to be found in Dallas this year unless Ryan either wises up or gets permission from Jones to start Butler over Spencer and then all is well with the new rookie defensive end. Again, this is all hypothetical because what the Cowboys should do and what actually happens are rarely the same thing.