Assessing the Dallas Cowboys’ 2005 Draft

Potential doesn’t mean jack-squat without attitude, effort and the good fortune of avoiding injuries. I know this. And for emphasis, ask Jacob Rogers, last year’s big bust. But for the first time in many years, perhaps since the early 90’s heyday of the Jimmy Johnson / Larry Lacewell scouting regime, I am hugely and immediately pleased with the full depth of the Cowboys‘ draft — both in terms of the absolute talent level acquired and of how these players fit team needs.

During the offseason, Jerry Jones and Bill Parcells decided that last year’s approach of resting on the laurels of a 10-6 overachievement was a bad idea. True, Julius Jones torched the NFL with barge loads of rushing yards upon his return from a busted shoulder (suffered in the Cleveland game, which I attended). Barring injury, he is on his way to being the next elite Dallas running back, in a long and illustrious pedigree that goes back through Emmitt Smith, Herschel Walker, Tony Dorsett, Calvin Hill and — for a brief but electrifying stint — Duane Thomas. But the rest of the draft either stunk outright, or has yet to reveal much of note one way or the other. I wasn’t impressed with it then, and except for Julius, still am not.

But look at what Parcells has done this off-season, draft-wise and otherwise. He has signed Anthony Henry, a big (6-1) and young corner with proven bump-and-run coverage prowess. That move takes a lot of pressure off Terence Newman to be the one to always cover the opponent’s top receiver, a role with which he clearly struggled under the new interference rules last year. More depth is needed in the defensive backfield, however; and the imminent release by the “Toxins” of cagey veteran and former Parcells Jets corner Aaron Glenn might solve that problem. Newman, immensely talented and given more breathing room, will start and begin to succeed consistently at one corner while Henry patrols the other side. Someone like Glenn then can spell either of them to keep everyone fresh, and patrol the defensive backfield in defense of three-wideout sets. Meanwhile, Lance Frazier, who showed some promise last year, can learn NFL pass coverage in certain situations without being hung out to dry all the time.

At linebacker, I was really sorry to see Dexter Coakley go. This signaled a shift to the 3-4 set even more than more recent moves in the draft. That scheme depends on having at least three of its four linebackers as big, punishing, physical guys who can slam through the line of scrimmage, but still exhibit good sideline-to-sideline speed. Supposedly, Bradie James, who came highly touted from Nick Saban’s LSU defensive factory last year, can fill that role. I’m somewhat skeptical, but will give him the benefit of the doubt since I haven’t seen him in the 3-4. Last year he looked lost. Fortunately Jerry steadfastly refused to trade Dat Nguyen, a tackling machine whose effort more than compensated for his lack of height. Now, because of the rich draft haul, the ‘Boys don’t need any of the New Orleans linemen that they were being offered for Nguyen. He has an unsurpassed work and study ethic, a nonstop motor, and can be the speed guy in the 3-4 or 4-3.

Prior to the draft, I had four players listed as strongest preferences for the Cowboys’ first and second picks in the first round: Shawne Merriman of Maryland (DE), Demarcus Ware of Troy (DE/OLB), Mark Clayton of OU (WR) and Marcus Spears of LSU (DE). They picked exactly from that set, so I cannot complain. Spears may be the most potent immediate contributor. He’s a tremendous athlete for a 6-4, 300 pounder, having been recruited out of high school in basketball — by Duke and North Carolina, no less! He was an All America tight end coming out of high school and played that position for awhile at LSU before bulking up and turning into a dominator at DE. He’s a fast, powerful bull-rusher and run stuffer, well suited for one end of either a 3-4 or 4-3 set. He has the size and strength to slide over to tackle when necessary, too. Since Parcells and Mike Zimmer probably will go with a blend of both sets, pencil in Spears as a starter right this minute.

Demarcus Ware adds great depth at linebacker, and may well start on the outside this season. He isn’t as polished or large as Merriman, but may be as good or better in the long run. He was rated by many services as the top pure pass rusher in the draft, someone akin to a Charles Haley or Lee Suggs, but better utilized at OLB in a Lawrence Taylor capacity. [Maybe this is why Parcells compared him to his “old number 56,” surely with a dollop of premature hyperbole.] On passing downs, Ware likely will line up in a 4-3 set or blitz from LB in either a 3-4 base or a 4-3 zone blitz variant.

Think of the many possibilities with these new guys, both draftees and signees. I cannot understate the flexibility and versatility that the combination of Marcus and Demarcus bring to this defense! They, in combination with rock solid incumbents Greg Ellis and La’Roi Glover rotating through the ends, will give offensive coordinators huge headaches. Meanwhile, Jason Ferguson, the huge, Pro Bowl caliber, veteran tackle acquired in the offseason from (of course) the Jets, will plug the gaps and stuff the run. So will highly touted Tennessee Volunteers draftee Kevin Burnett, who has size and lateral speed, and loves to deliver the big hit. Burnett likely will not start much this year but will see plenty of playing time in relief of James and Nguyen. Burnett might even take James’ job if the latter doesn’t learn to match his great physical capabilities with some improved field intelligence.

Chris Canty, the 6-7 end from Virginia, is a very intriguing wild card here — someone who reminds me a lot of Leon Lett, but hopefully without Leon’s isolated but spectacular episodes of brainlock. Before last college season, Canty was rated a potential first round pick. Then he blew a knee, since apparently rehabilitated. Then his retina detached when someone threw a bottle into his face. If that retina is reattached surgically — and the ‘Boys wouldn’t draft him unless several well paid opthamologists have assured them it can be — then we may have yet another monster masher rotating through a suddenly deep, huge, intense defensive line. Before those injuries, he was a man amongst boys on the field. Expect Canty to heal and learn the ropes this year, to start making a statement in 2006, and to be a real force thereafter.

Speaking of run stuffing, one way or another, Parcells and Zimmer will find a way to bring safety Roy Williams, the OU grad and Pro Bowler who already is one of the most feared defensemen in the NFL, closer to the defensive front where he belongs. The guy is an absolute mauler in defending the running and short passing games, and he needs to be set free to attack the line of scrimmage.

Getting another good safety is the only major defensive need yet to be addressed. Unless the coaching staff truly believes Lynn Scott will blossom, and soon, they need to sign some help here.

If that problem is solved, this defense has all the makings of being deep, stifling and physically dominant of all opponents. The Cowboys, now young, large and intimidating on defense, will be shaking off youthful mental mistakes and opening cans of whip-*** on a lot of offenses over the next several years.

Yes, it’s early, but a lot of panelists and pundits rank the Cowboys as best draft performers this season; and the rest have them in the top three. Time will tell, of course, but for once I must agree. There is great reason for hope now.

More on the offense sometime in the near future…


2 Responses to “Assessing the Dallas Cowboys’ 2005 Draft”

  1. David S on May 2nd, 2005 4:23 am

    As long as they can keep the other team from scoring it will help in the win column until the offense comes together….

    I’ve always been a Cowboy’s fan ( still have a 70’s pennant) but after reading your write up my status is a lot farther down ….lol
    Great analysis

  2. mike on July 24th, 2005 5:37 pm

    sure would have liked to see some more offensive punch drafted or traded for. who knows maybe the ole new england qb still has some zip we shall see.

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