With 10 days left until the first round of the NFL draft, we are fortunate to have the good folks at ESPN Stats & Information taking a deeper dive into the issue of team needs. Let's start our look at their "next-level" analysis with the Dallas Cowboys, whose needs the Stats & Info group has identified as offensive line, defensive line and safety.
Offensive line: The line could use help in pass protection as well as run blocking. Quarterback Tony Romo may be an adept scrambler whose ability to move around behind the line of scrimmage helps him avoid sacks, but Dallas' pass-protection issues show up in other ways. Stats & Info says that eight of Romo's 19 interceptions last year came while under duress -- the highest number in the league. It's not Romo's playmaking ability that suffers when the line collapses as much as his decision-making ability. As for run blocking, the Cowboys' 2.1 yards per carry before first contact in 2012 was the fifth lowest figure in the league. I continue to believe the Cowboys absolutely must find a starting offensive lineman in the first round, and maybe in the second as well.
Defensive line: Switching to a 4-3 alignment could help, but the personnel is largely the same and the Cowboys need to do a better job of getting into the backfield and making plays there. Stats & Info says the Cowboys ranked 30th in the league in sacks, tied for last in batted passes and "contacted opposing rushers in the backfield on only 12 percent of rushes, the second-lowest rate in the league." I think the new defensive alignment will be good for Jay Ratliff (if he can stay healthy) and Jason Hatcher as interior rushers. But if the top six offensive linemen are gone before pick 18 (something that hasn't happened since 1966), and if they have addressed the line somehow in the meantime (Eric Winston?), and if they think they can find an impact offensive lineman in the second round, then it would make some sense for the Cowboys to pick a disruptive defensive lineman with their first pick.
Safety: "The Cowboys safeties combined for eight defended passes and interceptions last season, tied for 29th in the NFL at that position," Stats & Info writes. "Dallas was exposed downfield last season, allowing a league-worst 96.5 QBR on throws more than 10 yards downfield." Right now the projected starters are Barry Church, who's coming off injury, and Matt Johnson, who's never played an NFL snap. Veteran Will Allen is also on the roster and could factor into the mix. It would be tempting for a team drafting for need to go with someone like Kenny Vaccaro in the first round. But everyone who's breaking down this draft says you can find starting safeties in the second and third rounds, so I think the Cowboys should resist and focus on the lines early.