Cowboys hope for another draft transformation

IRVING, Texas – As the Dallas Cowboys prepared for the 2005 draft, they knew they were about to make a major transformation.

After two years of running a 4-3 scheme, Bill Parcells wanted to run his defense -- a 3-4 -- but they needed a large number of pieces to make the move. They signed nose tackle Jason Ferguson in free agency and added a big cornerback in Anthony Henry.

But those moves were just the appetizer for the draft. Six of the Cowboys’ eight picks were on the defensive side of the ball.

With two first-round picks, the Cowboys had the ability to make a quick transition to a scheme that has certain requirements. They took DeMarcus Ware and Marcus Spears in the first round to fill their outside linebacker and defensive end needs. In the second round they took linebacker Kevin Burnett, big enough to handle the physical aspects of the game and athletic enough to play all three downs. In the fourth round they took a chance on defensive end Chris Canty after gaining more medical information concerning a serious eye injury.

In the sixth round they took safety Justin Beriault and in the seventh round they took Jeremiah Ratliff, who never found a truly defined position at Auburn.

Ware became the franchise’s all-time leader in sacks. Spears was a dependable starter. Canty outperformed his draft slot. Burnett was a solid nickel linebacker. Beriault’s career was cut short because of concussions, but Ratliff became one of the best seventh-round picks in team history. While his tenure with the team ended badly, he was named to the Pro Bowl four times.

Ten years later the Cowboys are hoping the 2015 draft class can lead to a similar transformation. Five of their eight draft picks were spent on the defensive side of the ball, highlighted by cornerback Byron Jones in the first round and defensive end Randy Gregory in the second round.

The Cowboys added two linebackers (Damien Wilson in the fourth round and Mark Nzeocha in the seventh) and a defensive end (Ryan Russell, fifth round).

Perhaps the biggest smile on draft weekend belonged to defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.

For the first time in franchise history the Cowboys did not select a skill player in the draft -- at least by the traditional definition.

“Even though we set a precedent by not taking an offensive skill player,” owner and general manager Jerry Jones said, “we needed defensive skill players more than we needed offensive skill players.”

Jones might be the best athlete available in the draft. The Cowboys believe he can challenge receivers all over the field, but could also see him play safety at some point

Gregory was among the top players on the Cowboys’ draft board and considered the best pass rusher in the draft. In free agency, the Cowboys signed the best pass rusher available in Greg Hardy. Off-field issues and questionable decision making helped lead both players to the Cowboys, and it is yet to be determined how many games Hardy will be eligible to play in 2015, but they have improved a pass rush that needed vast improvement.

“I’ve had a lot of success getting to the quarterback,” Gregory said. “I think I’m athletic enough to do different things, but they brought me in here to get to the quarterback and stop the run. So that’s what I’m going to do, and they’re going to help me do that.”

In 2004, the Cowboys finished with the 16th-ranked defense in the NFL. In 2005, they moved up to No. 10. Last year, the Cowboys finished 19th in defense, a bump from last in the league in 2013 but still not good enough in their view.

They are hoping for another bump in 2015 with the help of their draft picks, although executive vice president Stephen Jones doesn’t want to burden the class with 2005 expectations.

“I mean, that’s a ridiculous draft,” Stephen Jones said. “You still shake your head when you look at what came out of that draft. Obviously you hope for that but I do think we took good football players and obviously it was very weighted toward the defense to the very end. You’d like to hope that we got a lot better. I think we’ve got great coaches over there. I think it’s going to be a very competitive offseason and on into training camp. And hopefully we’ll be better for it.”

While they might not want to add to the expectations, Gregory was issued No. 94, last worn by Ware.