You kind of have to wonder whether, as the the Dallas Cowboys assemble their war room for the 2011 NFL draft, they will hang a few “Most Wanted” pictures up on the wall. After the Great Collapse of 2010 (a name I just made up for the disaster that was last season), this team has been shown for what it is: A team with the potential to be a contender, if they can fill a few gaping holes.
Obviously, there are not ten gaping holes on this team. They are not the Carolina Panthers. Still, the way drafts go, you cannot always address your greatest need with a given pick. For instance, you may need a safety really, really bad, but if there is not one on the board that warrants being taken with the pick in hand, you turn your attention to other things.
So, here we go: My version of the Dallas Cowboys top 10 positional needs this off-season, from greatest to least.
Number One: Strong Safety— The Alan Ball experiment at free safety was an unmitigated disaster. His inability to be a play-maker back there put immense pressure on the cornerbacks and even brought Gerald Sensabaugh’s effectiveness down a notch.
Sensabaugh could be more than serviceable as a free safety, if he is next to a run-supporting, ball-hawking, play-making whirling dervish as strong safety. If you want to be a top defense in the NFL, you almost have to have that guy. Look around the league at the best defenses and you will find team leaders and play-makers galore at the safety position.
Number Two: Right Tackle— Marc Colombo has been a good player in his day. He has been a fierce competitor and a leader on the offensive line. His day appears to be past. With the emergence of Doug Free at left tackle, the Cowboys must turn their attention to getting younger, healthier and more mobile on the right side.
Number Three: Guard— I am not saying whether it is right guard or left guard, because either Kyle Kosier or Leonard Davis needs to be replaced. Kosier has battled the injury bug and Davis, a man for whom they named a mountain range out in the west Texas wilds (I assume they did; I could be wrong), takes up a ton of space, but doesn’t open running lanes or provide pass protection as well as you would think.
Number Four: Cornerback 1— It is my contention that Terence Newman has always been a little bit overrated. He has been to two Pro Bowls, but in this age of players begging out of the game and substitutes being named left and right, who hasn’t?
Newman actually recorded five interceptions in 2010, a career high. If you watched all 16 Cowboys games, however, you had to come away with the impression that Newman was at his least effective in 2010. A receiver catching a ball over his shoulder with Newman looking like a vapor trail behind him was an all-too-familiar sight in 2010.
Number 5: Defensive End— I guess everyone who thought Marcus Spears was a bust just didn’t know what a bust really looks like. Meet Igor Olshansky. I swear, this guy ought to have to buy a ticket and sit in the nose-bleeds to watch a game. The only thing he brought to the stadium was a cool Russin hit man-sounding name and an over-enthusiastic dance when he made one of those extremely rare plays during the course of the season.
The over-tatted, muscular Olshansky started 16 games and recorded 17 tackles. He was brought here by Wade Phillips and it says here he can leave and go dance “with the one that brung ‘im.”
Number Six: Inside Linebacker— Keith Brooking has been a great player, a great influence, and an all-around great guy throughout his career. Two of those three things are still true. Might be time for him to go into coaching. Bradie James has been hit and miss throughout his fairly solid career. He needs more hits and fewer misses.
The Cowboys were ranked 23rd overall defensively in 2010. They gave up 108.6 yards per game, putting them at number 16 in that category. They were most vulnerable straight up the middle, where they were often gashed for huge chunks.
Number Seven: Nose Tackle— Look, I know Jay Ratliff is a player. I love him. I love him on this team. I just wonder if the Cowboys signed a big-bodied run-stopper at nose tackle, moved Ratliff to defensive end and kicked Olshansky to the curb, would it fix what ailed the porous, ineffective defensive line of 2010? Ratliff is undersized for a nose tackle. On run plays, he is too easily man-handled by the double team, putting the opposition’s runner into the second level of the defense, where the linebackers miss him and the safeties try to run him down.
Number Eight: Halfback— Felix Jones ran for 800 yards and averaged 4.3 yards per carry. That is not a bad showing. He scored one touchdown. That is a bad showing. Jones did not display that burst he had earlier in his career. The home run hitter became a hit-for-average guy, which is not scaring any defensive coordinators. Tashard Choice ran for 243 yards and three touchdowns.
Put those numbers together and you have a thousand yard back and four touchdowns. (Feel free to yawn here.) That is marginally acceptable, but not impressive by any means. One of these guys has to take charge or someone (from Alabama, perhaps) needs to be drafted.
Number Nine: Cornerback 2— After a Pro Bowl year in 2009, Mike Jenkins took a huge step in the wrong direction in 2010. He recorded only one interception while giving up a ton of yardage. He was also spotted, more than once, playing Matador with ball carriers. He made what Deion Sanders famously called “business decisions,” meaning he elected not to stick his head into a play and make a tackle.
I am beginning to worry about a possible knucklehead factor with Jenkins. Hopefully, he rights his ship in 2011, under the direction of new defensive coordinator and renowned cusser, Rob Ryan.
Number Ten: Kicker— David Buehler is the best athlete the Cowboys have ever had at the kicker position. That and five bucks will get you a Grande coffee at Starbucks. Buehler was 24 for 32 on field goals (75%), which is respectable. He was just four for seven from 30–39 yards out, which is not respectable.
One has to wonder if the studly kicker isn’t better suited to kicking off and covering kickoffs than kicking game-winners as time expires.
As you can see, the Dallas Cowboys have plenty of work to do. If they can just get the whole talent-evaluation thing down, it seems like they can hardly go wrong in the 2011 draft. They have needs—some urgent, some not so much— all over the field. If they can plug just two or three of the most glaring holes, I could see them making a hearty playoff run next season.
Then Cowboys fans can take down their “Most Wanted” pictures. You know, the ones with Jerry Jones’ mug on them.