The fact that the Dallas Cowboys had a strong season should have come as no surprise. Yes, the team had its ups (beating then-undefeated New Orleans) and downs (getting shut down in Green Bay), but a team with as much talent as Dallas has should have been a playoff team, and it was.
The fact is that there are few holes on the Dallas roster. If Miles Austin skips town for a mega-bucks contract, that will make an already-shaky wideout position even shakier. Free agency also could weaken the Cowboys at a number of positions, including safety and defensive line.
But perhaps no position is in greater need of improved depth than offensive tackle. Starting left tackle Flozell Adams is 34 years old, has been prone to numerous penalties in recent years and is not the athlete he once was. On the right side, Marc Colombo is 31, but is coming off the second major injury of his career. His time on the shelf did allow the Cowboys a chance to learn that Doug Free is a suitable fill-in — whether or not he could handle a starting role remains to be seen — but even with Free around, Dallas is one injury away from having no experienced depth at the position most critical to a quarterback's physical well-being.
The Cowboys need to draft a tackle.
Even if he doesn't play this year, a replacement for Adams has to be found, and the team has to begin grooming him. The team likes 2009 draftee Robert Brewster, who spent his entire rookie season on the injured reserve list, so it is more than possible that a tackle won't be chosen in the first round. Besides, picking 27th, the Cowboys would need to trade up to get ahold of one of the elite prospects, like Oklahoma State's Russell Okung, and maybe Maryland's Bruce Campbell, Oklahoma's Trent Williams or Rutgers' Anthony Davis — each of whom has been mentioned as a possible first-round pick.
So who does that leave?
The best of the rest might also be one of the most anonymous to all except the most hardcore football fans. Vladimir Ducasse (6-5, 330, 5.35) of the University of Massachusetts was an afterthought to many because of the level of competition he faces, but when he started to match up with top players at the Senior Bowl, he dazzled many of the scouts and coaches in attendance. Very light on his feet for such an enormous player, he has good balance and moves well laterally. The Haitian native is still relatively new to the game, which combined with the lower competition he faced at UMass, has left him pretty raw, so he almost certainly won't step in anywhere and make a major impact as a rookie. But his potential is enormous. At the moment, he's a better run blocker than he is a pass protector, using his huge, powerful legs to drive defenders back off the line of scrimmage. He does, however, have the tools to be a good pass rusher — good balance, quick feet, long arms, a powerful punch, considerable on-field mean streak. He needs to learn to play with his pads lower and work on developing leverage, and at the moment his footwork is more quick than polished, but those things are coachable, and he could develop into a solid NFL starter.
Value: Third Round
If the Cowboys choose Jason Fox of Miami, it would represent something of a homecoming, with Fox having played his high school football at North Crowley High School in Fort Worth. The former high school tight end has grown into an imposing (6-7, 314) tackle who has been a four-year starter for the Hurricanes. Fox is similar to Colombo, in that he relies more on power than athleticism and quickness. His style reflects his athletic tools, as he is better suited to stand and spar at the line of scrimmage with the biggest and strongest defensive ends than he is to tangle with speed rushers coming off the edge. Fox could turn out to be a lot like Colombo — a right tackle who might not collect a bunch of Pro Bowl appearances, but could easily hold down his job for 8-10 years.
Value: Third Round
West Virginia's Selvish Capers (6-5, 298, 5.0) is another player who is not ready for a starting role yet, but one who also possesses a potentially bright future. It's hard to call a player approaching 300 pounds "small," but in a lot of ways, Capers is a smaller version of Adams: tall, with very long arms and exceptional quickness (which Adams had when he was younger). Capers fits that mold — there are tight ends out there who don't move as well as he does — but like Ducasse, he has to grow into his role. Thankfully for any tackle Dallas drafts, he's not going to have to play right away; barring some sort of disaster, Adams and Colombo are the starters heading into next year. A year or two as an understudy would suit Capers well, as he needs to add considerable size and strength to his almost-lanky frame, and develop a more aggressive initial punch. He also could stand to be more aggressive, even mean, but whether that can be taught varies from one player to the next.
Value: Fourth Round
Jared Veldheer is simultaneously one of the most appealing least appealing tackle prospects in the draft. The appeal stems from his raw numbers: he stands 6-foot-9, weighs 321 pounds and is one of the fastest tackles (4.8) in the draft. For good measure, he even boasts a vertical jump of nearly 30 inches, he has benched 415 pounds and did 32 reps on the bench with the NFL standard of 225 pounds — all very impressive numbers. He is very powerful and athletic, and a two-year team captain. But the bad part is he plays for something called Hillsdale College (if you care, it's in southern Michigan), which nobody in the NFL had ever heard of until Veldheer came along as a viable pro prospect. His is a Div. II team, meaning he lines up against defensive ends who often resemble good-sized Div. I safeties. Veldheer has the athletic tools, but could need as much time to learn the pro game and polish his skills as anyone in the draft. A team willing to wait a few years could land a gem, or could have a complete bust who contributed nothing more than a few entertaining camera shots during training camp. Some owner will become enamored with Veldheer's size and strength and quickness, and draft him higher than his production warrants.
Value: Fifth Round
A possible late-round steal could be Iowa's Dace Richardson (6-6, 315, 5.15). Richardson is a tall, athletic blocker with long arms and decent footwork who slid off many teams' radar when an injury cost him the entire 2008 season. He came back and played in 2009, but needs to show he can be durable enough to survive a full season, and needs to get much stronger, as well. If he gets drafted at all, and survives training camp to make a team, a year or two on an NFL practice squad is a legitimate possibility.
Value: Seventh Round
Cowboys need tackles
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