Cowboys need defense, but can't force pick

INDIANAPOLIS -- Everybody knows the Dallas Cowboys need help on defense.

Just about every mock draft so far has the Cowboys selecting a defensive player, be it Pitt defensive end Aaron Donald or Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Or some defensive end. Or defensive tackle. Or maybe a different safety.

Defense, defense, defense.

After allowing the most yards in franchise history and the second-most points in a season, it is not a mystery.

But that doesn’t mean the Cowboys must draft defense in May.

“I think you get in a lot of trouble if you focus in on one spot,” Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “You start targeting something and drafting off need, we all know that will get you in trouble. I don’t think it’s to anyone’s surprise that it would be nice to come out of the draft at some point with a defensive front guy, a defensive lineman or two, but I don’t think we’re just going to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to take the first two picks and they’ve got to be defensive linemen.' I feel like you get in trouble that way.”

It is a yearly question around the draft: Take the best player available or draft for need?

The two are always linked. Need can’t be avoided. The draft is the best way to build a team. You have to take need into account when selecting players, but like anything it is about degrees.

Too often teams will elevate certain players at a position knowing they need help.

“Just grade them like you see them,” Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said, “then we’ll talk about them and adjust accordingly. Just because we need a defensive end, we’re not going to bump him into Round 1 if he’s a third-round talent. We’ll figure it out.”

In 2006, Chester Taylor ran for 1,216 yards but the Vikings took Adrian Peterson in the first round of the 2007 draft, which was a no-brainer. But in 2011, the Vikings took tight end Kyle Rudolph in the second round even though Visanthe Shiancoe had three straight seasons with at least 40 catches. Rudolph was the MVP of the 2012 Pro Bowl.

The Vikings had Kevin Williams, but drafted Sharrif Floyd (maybe you’re aware the Cowboys had him rated highly only to pass on him at the No. 18 pick) with a nod to 2014 if not 2013.

“We’ve been very cognizant of sticking to what our draft board says,” Spielman said. “That guy you may not need this year, but two years from now or in his second year that guy might be a heckuva player for you.”

The Cowboys have missed the playoffs the past four years. Core players such as Tony Romo, Jason Witten and DeMarcus Ware are on the back ends of their careers. Jason Garrett is in the final year of his contract and needs to win. But the good of the franchise trumps any short-term gain by filling needs.

“I think you’re always trying to accomplish two things: I think you’re trying to bring guys in who can help you now and then help you in the future,” Garrett said. “You want to bring in the right kind of guys in. The way you evaluate players is you want to make sure they have the right physical measurables to play his position at this level so that’s a starting point for you. You also want to make sure they have the right intangible qualities regardless of what their position is, the kind of guys you want to bring to your football team. So that hasn’t changed.”

A draft is not a one-year proposition. The Cowboys are not drafting only with 2014 in mind.

They need defensive linemen, especially if Ware is a salary-cap casualty or if Jason Hatcher leaves in free agency. They need linebackers too with Bruce Carter in the final year of his deal. They need a safety opposite Barry Church. They need cornerback help too because you can never have enough cornerbacks.

But Dez Bryant is entering the final year of his contract and Miles Austin likely won’t be back in 2014, so they need receivers too. Doug Free is in the final year of his contract, so they need a right tackle. DeMarco Murray is entering the final year of his contract, so they need a running back. Romo turns 34 in April, so they need a quarterback.

“There’s a natural deal there and we’ve talked about it with our scouts,” Jones said. “We don’t want to see it. We want the guys to get the grades they should get and not try to start liking a guy just because we may need a position.”