Cowboys' top underclassmen prospects?

The Ranch Report takes a look at who might be the best fit for the Dallas Cowboys in the 2011 NFL Draft - starting first with underclassmen in this extensive report.

As the NFL season wraps up its season, those teams not playing in the Super Bowl turn their attention toward the offseason. The league's better teams that were believed to have a chance at the league's ultimate game might not like the idea, but it becomes time to turn their attention toward next season.

For scouts and coaches, the possibility of a labor stoppage is beyond their control. They have to operate under the assumption that there will be a 2011 season, and an NFL Draft in April.

The Dallas Cowboys, of course, are among the teams who will be watching others play the Super Bowl in Cowboys Stadium.

They entered the season with the hope of becoming the first NFL team ever to play in a Super Bowl in their home stadium. Instead, new head coach Jason Garrett is entering his first offseason, evaluating his roster and identifying where his team needs the most offseason help.

When it comes to the draft, of course, there are numerous theories about the best approach. Some teams always take the best player available, regardless of position. Others seek players to fill specific positions of need, even if there are players available at other positions who are more highly rated. There are some which seem to stockpile players at particular positions (how many linemen do the New England Patriots grab every year?), while some seem intent more often than not on trading picks for veteran players.

One of the hardest groups of players to break down is the underclassmen who come out early to begin their professional careers. These players are a year or two (or sometimes even three) younger than the seniors who come out, and therefore are a little less developed — physically, mentally and emotionally.

There are, of course, exceptions. Some are so talented that they stand out from the pack, regardless of the competition. Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley has a chance to be the first player drafted, while his teammate, Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Cam Newton, will get chosen sometime in the first round, as could LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson, Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green, Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett and Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones.

But the marquee names will be talked about ad nauseum before the draft. Who are the underclassmen who might make sense for the Cowboys throughout the draft?

USC offensive tackle Tyron Smith
To suggest the Cowboys need to re-stock the stable of offensive linemen is an understatement, but this pick only makes sense if Dallas trades down. Smith is an extraordinary athlete, but at 6-foot-5 and just 280 pounds, he is lighter than most teams like at the tackle spots, and therefore doesn't merit being chosen at the ninth spot in the first round, where the Cowboys currently are slated to pick. But if they trade down to the end of the first round or they grab an extra pick in the first half of the second round, Smith could team with Doug Free to give the Cowboys a pair of young, athletic tackles who could be groomed to anchor the line for years.

Temple defensive tackle Muhammad Wilkerson
Also thought to be a fringe first-round candidate, Wilkerson should be considered if he slides a round or two. He's not a classic nose tackle, but then again, neither is Jay Ratliff, who is thought to be "small" for the position and is considered by many to be the league's best. Wilkerson has played all along the line at Temple, and for a player on the north side of 300 pounds, he has very good quickness and a never-ending motor that allows him to chase ball carriers from sideline to sideline — just like Ratliff. He needs to get stronger, but his mobility could allow him to be a versatile addition who could fill in at nose tackle or at one of the defensive end spots in the Cowboys' 3-4 defense.

West Virginia safety Robert Sands Think "Patrick Watkins with slightly less speed but better coverage skills." Like Watkins, Sands looks more like a small forward than he does a defensive back, standing 6-5 and carrying about 220 pounds over his lanky, long-armed frame. He's a physical hitter for a player with his slender build, with 108 tackles over the last two seasons. But the converted cornerback also has the ability to cover receivers, having snatched five of his six career interceptions in 2009. A versatile player who also can be a real asset on special teams, Sands would be a valuable addition in the third or fourth round.

North Carolina defensive lineman Marvin Austin
Like Wilkerson, Austin is a quick, athletic interior lineman who could fill a role similar to Ratliff. Entering the 2010 season, Austin was deemed a clear-cut first-round talent, but then missed the entire season after accepting improper benefits from an agent. If concerns about his decision-making or character cause him to slip into the second — or even the third — round, his talent would make him an absolute steal. He has the size and strength to play inside, and he also has the quickness and athletic ability to play end in the Cowboys' 3-4.

Pitt FB Henry Hynoski
Fullback is one of the least glamorous positions in football, but all it takes is the lack of a capable one to point out how valuable they are. They rarely have enticing statistics, but their most important jobs are pass protection and opening running lanes for running backs, and Hynoski is a 6-2, 260-pound freight train who excels at both. Hynoski is a legitimate threat with the ball in his hands, but his value at the NFL level will be keeping his quarterback in one piece and blowing up linebackers who take aim at tailbacks. Pitt tailback Dion Lewis is one of the most productive runners in the country over the last couple of seasons, piling up 2,860 rushing yards and 30 rushing touchdowns, and openly admits that Hynoski is a big (literally) reason for his success.

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