Needs Becoming Clearer

A lot of things will change between now and April, and the Dallas Cowboys technically aren't eliminated from playoff contention yet.

But the chances of a Tony Romo-less Dallas squad making a miraculous playoff push are about like the chances of Cliff Lee re-signing with the Texas Rangers after the season.

So is it too early to start talking about the Cowboys' needs in the 2011 NFL Draft? Maybe it's too early to be predicting exactly where Dallas will fall in the draft order, but positions of need already are becoming crystal clear.

1. Offensive line
This isn't exactly breaking news, of course. Of the starting offensive linemen, only Andre Gurode is less than 32 years old, and his 32nd birthday is in March. In addition, Kyle Kosier and Marc Colombo have been banged up over the last two seasons, Leonard Davis was benched briefly earlier this season, and the team's top backup — Montrae Holland — got hurt against the Giants, thereby forcing undrafted free agent Phil Costa into action. Yikes.

Candidates:
• Boston College's Mark Castonzo is widely considered to be the top tackle in the draft, but is viewed as a late first-round value. The Cowboys now are 1-5, and barring a major turnaround, Dallas will be picking too high to choose Castonzo. If Dallas picks in first half of each round, the Cowboys should wait until the second round, but no later, to address the offensive line.

• Tackle Derek Sherrod of Mississippi State is an athletic All-America candidate who some project as a guard in the NFL.

• Arkansas tackle JaMarcus Love is another athletic player who some see as an NFL guard. Some have said that while he can improve his strength, Love might be the most athletic lineman in the draft and versatile enough to possibly play any position on the line except center.

• TCU's Marcus Cannon is a tackle in Fort Worth, but considered by many to be the top guard candidate in the draft. At 6-6 and 350 pounds, Cannon is a mountain of a man and surprisingly athletic; he also is a standout shot putter on the Frogs' track team.

2. Quarterback
Yes, Romo is an exception athlete and at 30 years old, he is far from done. But while early predictions about his recovery time after suffering a broken clavicle in his left (non-throwing) shoulder have ranged from 4-6 weeks to 8-10 weeks, is Jon Kitna capable of leading the offense of playoff-caliber team? If not Kitna, does anyone really have confidence that Stephen McGee is the answer? This isn't to suggest he isn't the team's quarterback of the future — Kitna and McGee both made some plays in the preseason — but it also can't be said with any certainty that he is.

Candidates:
Considering the team has big money in Romo's contract, which marries the team and quarterback through the 2013 season, it's quite possible that the Cowboys won't invest a first-round pick — and the money that goes along with those picks — in a quarterback. That likely eliminates guys like Stanford's Andrew Luck and Washington's Jake Locker — and Ryan Mallett of Arkansas and Cameron Newton of Auburn, if they make themselves available for the draft — from consideration, but there are some talented players who will be available in the second round and beyond.

• Florida State's Christian Ponder has good size (6-3, 227) and athletic ability, and has been a productive player who is in his third season as the Seminoles' starter (he entered his senior season with 29 touchdown passes and nearly 5,000 career passing yards). Ponder also is a very cerebral player who most assume will pick up a pro system fairly quickly, especially if he has a chance to sit behind a proven starter like Romo.

• Texas A&M's Jerrod Johnson (6-5, 245) is an amazing athlete with exceptional speed and a bazooka of an arm, but his career in College Station has been marked by alternating glimpses brilliance and inconsistency. He'll need a longer period to adjust to the NFL game, but his potential is enormous.

• Greg McElroy of Alabama is a local guy who played his high school ball at Carroll High School in Southlake, Texas. Like Ponder, he is extremely smart and athletically efficient; he won't dazzle with 75-yard strikes downfield or Michael Vick-like scrambles, but he also won't make mistakes. He is careful with the ball and wins consistently.

3. Free safety
After Ken Hamlin was released, Patrick Watkins and Mike Hamlin followed shortly thereafter. Alan Ball is the starter, and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah might end up being the future at the position, but for the time being, there are questions at the position. If the Cowboys decide to upgrade:

Candidates:
• The Cowboys could decide to replace their former Clemson safety (Mike Hamlin) with another in DeAndre McDaniel, who some consider the most athletic safety in the draft, and perhaps the most explosive playmaker. McDaniel had 166 tackles and nine interceptions in his sophomore and junior seasons, including 98 stops and eight picks last year.

• San Jose State's Duke Ihenacho (6-1, 210) is another player who has a nose for the ball and the ability to make plays. A starter since early in his freshman season, Ihenacho averaged 62.3 tackles in each of his first three seasons, and led his team with five interceptions as a sophomore.

• One of the most intriguing safety candidates in next year's draft is Pitt's Dom DeCicco (6-4, 230, 4.7) whose size and athletic ability might inspire a team to move him to an outside rush linebacker spot. But DeCicco is solid at safety, having collected 144 tackles and seven interceptions over his sophomore and junior seasons, and in the right system, could be a punishing NFL safety.

4. Cornerback
Is cornerback a position of immediate need? No, but it's getting close. Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins are elite corners, but Newman is 32, which is approaching greybeard status for the position. Orlando Scandrick is adequate as a backup, but has he shown that he could take over a starting role if anything happens to Newman or Jenkins?

Candidates:
Unless Dallas continues to slide, and chooses to go with a cornerback in the first round, the draft's marquee player, Nebraska's Prince Amukamara, will be long gone. But that doesn't mean there won't be intriguing players in other rounds:

• Virginia's Ras-I Dowling (6-2, 200, 4.5) is a big, athletic cornerback who has been piling up honors at UVa ever since being named a Freshman All-America in 2007. A starter since his freshman season, Dowling has had at least 43 tackles in each season and has had multiple interceptions in each campaign. His size have some predicting he'll move to safety, but he also has drawn comparisons to Jenkins and the Miami Dolphins' Jason Allen.

• Jimmy Smith (6-2, 205, 4.49) of Colorado is a preseason All-America candidate and was among those listed on the preseason Watch List for the Jim Thorpe Award, given annually to the nation's top defensive back. He has started no fewer than nine games in a season at Boulder and last year piled up 52 tackles and a pair of interceptions. • Consider Virginia Tech's Rashad Carmichael. At 5-11, 186 and with a 4.39 in the 40, he has good size and outstanding speed. He is productive, with 55 tackles and a team-leading six interceptions last year, and coming from Virginia Tech, it is safe to assume he is well-coached. At the moment, many project him as a mid-round talent, but look for his stock to rise in the coming months.

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