Draft Nuggets 2013: Entry #8
By Jeff Bowers of www.thesportsnarrative.com
Addressing the Cowboys Needs:
To quote Norm: “What play do you call when you can’t block for the run and you can’t block for the pass?” All the talk about who will call the offensive plays next year may be irrelevant if the questions at offensive line aren’t addressed this offseason. As we have already examined the need at the guard position (see the post on 2/6), it is time to look at the right tackle spot and the fate of Doug Free on this roster.
The Need at Right Tackle:
Just 2 short seasons ago, the Cowboys gave Doug Free a 4 yr $32 million to be the starting left tackle for the Dallas Cowboys. A hand full of starts and an impressive hustle play in week 17 two years prior (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nKIoj5qazDM) earned him his first full season as a starter and the former 4th round pick took advantage. With more hustle than skill, it looked as if Jerry might have finally hit on a middle-round lineman. But after just 16 games at LT in 2011, Doug Free had allowed 10 sacks, 33 QB pressures and committed 10 penalties. So Doug Free was sent back to the right tackle spot and second year tackle Tyron Smith was flipped to left tackle last offseason. But Free fared no better back on the right side. Last season, Free was the most penalized lineman in all of football with a whopping 14 penalties and led all linemen in false starts with 8. Add to that 6 sacks and 42 QB pressures allowed and it’s a wonder Romo managed to stay upright for all 16 games. And now Free carries a 10 million dollar cap number this year and would cost only 3 million against the cap this year and next if Dallas waits until June 1st to release. If Doug Free’s days as a Cowboy are numbered, he must be replaced. Late last season, Free fell into a rotation with 2nd year player Jeremy Parnell at right tackle, and the swing tackle held his own. With nice athleticism, Parnell’s upside makes him a possible contender to start for next season. But his role as versatile backup would then need to be addressed. Regardless, the Cowboys must upgrade the talent at the tackle spot this offseason, either in free agency or the draft.
The offensive tackle crop in free agency as it currently stands looks quite promising. A number of quality starters under the age of 30 are available. But as the actual date of free agency approaches on March 12th, many of these players may be retained by their current squad and thus driving up the price for the ones left standing. Here’s a look at the top talent on the board right now:
1. Jake Long, Miami Dolphins, Age 28 – Long has regressed the past 2 seasons due to the many injuries he has battled through. Once a premier left tackle, now the Dolphins may just let him walk but he will certainly find work and a hefty paycheck.
2. Sebastian Vollmer, New England Patriots, Age 29 – One of the best right tackles in football, I would be shocked if the Patriots let him go. But if the stingy and prudent Bellichick continues his recent ways, the line forms to the left for Vollmer.
3. Andre Smith, Cincinnati Bengals, Age 26 – Once thought to be a bust, this former #6 pick overall has developed into one of the best right tackles in football and is almost certainly going to get slapped with the franchise tag from Cincinnati.
4. Ryan Clady, Denver Broncos, Age 26 – Clady did a phenomenal job protecting Peyton Manning’s blind side, surrendering only 1 sack all season. Not much of a run blocker, Clady is still likely to be resigned by the Broncos.
5. Will Beatty, New York Giants, Age 28 – Beatty did well at left tackle for the G-Men last year except for one area: penalties. Lord knows Dallas doesn’t need any more help in that area!
6. Phil Loadholt, Minnesota Vikings, Age 27 – Loadholt was a road grader for Adrian Peterson this year, but his propensity for penalties is also troubling.
7. Sam Baker, Atlanta Falcons, Age 28 – Baker looked like a bust after back issues derailed his 2011 campaign, but Baker rebounded pretty well last season. The back is always and tricky thing and could resurface anytime. Pass.
8. Branden Albert, Kansas City Chiefs, Age 28 – Albert has been very solid at both right and left tackle for the Chiefs in his career, when available. Back issues have plagued his time in the NFL and it’s hard to imagine counting of him for a full 16 games. Pass.
With most of the top talent likely to re-sign with their current teams, the competition for the remaining players might get a little too steep for the Cowboys and their limited salary cap space. Free agency might not be the way to answer the question at right tackle this offseason, unless you just get flat lucky.
The offensive tackle class in this year’s draft features some pretty wide plateaus of talent. As a result, look for a number of players to get drafted above their talent level based on team’s reaching for need. The first round could feature as many as 4 tackles taken, with most of the top talent gone by round 3. Here’s a look at a few of the top prospects:
1. Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M, 6’6” 310lbs – It is easily conceivable the Joeckel becomes the very first name called in the 2013 draft. Joeckel has all the elements of a franchise left tackle for the next 10 years. There is no way he gets out of the top 5.
2. Eric Fisher, Central Michigan, 6’7” 305lbs – Perhaps no one player has benefitted more from the post season draft process as Fisher. With two of the other top prospects returning to school and a dominating performance at the Senior Bowl, Fisher has vaulted from a late 1st round pick into the top 10 of this draft.
3. Lane Johnson, Oklahoma, 6’6” 302lbs – The second best blocker at the Senior Bowl, Johnson turned a lot of heads with his agility and skill in pass protection. In a pass happy league, Johnson should be highly sought after in the mid 1st round.
4. DJ Fluker, Alabama, 6’4” 355lbs – The Alabama right tackle was a force for that Tide running attack, but deficiencies in his pass blocking have him a somewhat boom or bust pick. Fluker could go in the late 1st round or may fall to the late second depending on his workouts at the Combine this week.
5. Kyle Long, Oregon, 6’6” 311lbs – Another from the lineage of HOF Howie Long, Kyle joins his brother Chris in the NFL after being denied another year of eligibility in college. A former defensive tackle, Long only played on offense 1 year at Oregon and is a bit raw. But his athleticism and blood lines should entice some team in the 2nd round.
6. Menelik Watson, Florida St, 6’6” 320lbs – Watson is another exceptional athlete in need of a bit more coaching. Born in Manchester England, Watson is a former basketball player at FSU and anchored the Seminole running attack at RT last year. With quick feet and good strength, Watson looks like a solid swing tackle prospect that eventually could eventually start at LT.
7. Brennan Williams, UNC, 6’7” 315lbs – Williams was having an impressive senior season blocking for Giovanni Bernard until a torn labrum ended his college career early. Looks like a great starter at RT in the pros, but medical issues will probably drive him into the late 2nd to early 3rd round range.
8. Chris Faulk, LSU, 6’6” 325lbs – After suffering a season ending ACL tear in practice 1 game into this year, Faulk was one of the more surprising juniors to declare himself eligible for the draft. Faulk acquitted himself well at LT for the Tigers prior to the injury, but the medical issues could push Faulk’s stock into the 3rd round of the draft.
Joeckel and Fisher are certainly out of the range of the Cowboys at 18, and it is possible Johnson is already off the board as well. Fluker is intriguing, but too many question marks make him a reach at 18. The 2nd round is full of athletic prospects in need of either coaching or medical clearance. Given the Cowboys success with drafting injured players in the 2nd round (Sean Lee and Bruce Carter) Dallas could attempt to duplicate that with either Williams or Faulk, especially if they slip to them in the 3rd round. After this plateau of talent, the pickings at tackle get pretty slim and it seems unlikely to find immediate help beyond that point.
Dallas may be reluctant to admit that the Free contract looks like a bust. But this team cannot afford the kind of shoddy work he’s turned in the last two seasons. They might, however, talk themselves into believing they can resurrect him and use their money on their many other holes. This is a huge decision and if they are wrong Romo pays for it again.