Successful drafts boost Cowboys' defense

Smart enough to know he didn't have the appropriate personnel for a 3-4 defense when he took over the Dallas Cowboys in 2003, Bill Parcells didn't force the issue with ill-fitting players, but knew that he would one day have the right pieces to allow him to switch away from a 4-3 front and to his preferred scheme.

Now entering his fourth season, Parcells has all but completed the overhaul, with square pegs filling the square defensive holes, thanks in large part to the Cowboys' two most recent draft classes.

There are a lot of ways a team can remake a unit over time and Parcells has basically utilized all of them. The result is a defense that likely will start only two veterans, safeties Roy Williams and Keith Davis, who were on the Dallas roster before Parcells arrived. More than any other acquisition mechanism, however, Parcells has used the draft to get the right kind of players into place for the 3-4, to add youth to the defense, and to create a potentially deep unit for the long-term.

In his four drafts with the Cowboys, Parcells has exercised four first-round selections – none in 2004, one each in 2003 and 2006, and two in 2004 -- and all were invested in defensive players. The fresh blood from the first round brought cornerback Terence Newman (2003), defensive end Marcus Spears (2005) and linebackers DeMarcus Ware (2005) and Bobby Carpenter (2006) to the roster.

All four first-rounders are projected as starters for this season.

But the infusion of youth and talent to the Cowboys' roster was hardly limited to the first round, and that is particularly true of the last two Dallas draft classes.

Of the 16 choices the Cowboys made in the 2005 and 2006 lotteries, 10 of them were for defensive players. Those two drafts added five defensive linemen, three linebackers and a pair of safeties.

Years from now, perhaps even long after Parcells retires, the 2005 draft might be recalled not only as the one that permitted "The Tuna" to switch to the 3-4 front full-time, but that brought terrific quantity and quality to Dallas' defensive depth chart. A pure pass-rusher, Ware struggled at times as a rookie in the transition from college end to NFL linebacker, but still managed eight sacks and looks to be a future Pro Bowl performer. Spears started 10 games in 2005 and, while not a spectacular defender, has the kind of size and selfless mentality to be a solid player for many years.

Defensive linemen Chris Canty and Jay Ratliff are also well-suited to the 3-4 defense and the former of the two, whose draft stock plummeted last year because of injuries, might eventually be regarded as one of the biggest steals in the '05 lottery. Two players who missed much or all of their rookie campaigns because of injuries, linebacker Kevin Burnett and safety Justin Beriault, are worth watching this season.

From this year's draft class, Carpenter, whose father once played for Parcells, figures to start. Fifth-round safety Pat Watkins might, in time, prove to be the kind of rangy centerfielder who would make the perfect complement to Roy Williams, who is most effective playing close to the line of scrimmage. And third-round defensive end Jason Hatcher possesses natural pass-rush skills.

Dallas probably will start three players acquired as unrestricted free agents -- nose tackle Jason Ferguson, inside linebacker Akin Ayodele and cornerback Anthony Henry -- in the past two springs. But because of savvy drafting, and a systematic and effective strategy for adding young, home-grown talent, Dallas will rely far less on free agency in coming seasons.

The Cowboys, over the past two seasons, have morphed into a much greener unit. But in so doing, the club has grown quicker and added versatility, become more athletic, and more able to play the 3-4 front.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.