Football has always been a game of blocking and tackling.
But the updated NFL version features the three Ps: pass, protect and pressure.
The quest of every NFL team is to find a franchise quarterback. When you find one, you must protect him because he’ll be wearing a bull’s eye. Defenses know they must pressure him. Pound him. Sack him. The more you hit a quarterback, the less of a factor he becomes.
The league has crafted that formula.
Check out the last seven drafts — in particular, the top five picks of every draft since 2007. Of those 35 premium selections, there have been eight quarterbacks, nine offensive tackles and nine defensive linemen.
Quarterbacks have their own draft board. But you need to go high for those difference-making wide bodies.
That could cause problems for the Cowboys next month.
Their first, second and probably third priorities in this draft are the defensive line. With the departures of DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher this off-season, the Cowboys lack the quality and quantity up front for the scheme new coordinator Rod Marinelli hopes to craft.
Marinelli wants a deep rotation that can attack the quarterback in waves. But right now, his Hatcher- and-Ware-less front can barely create a ripple, much less waves.
Now the problem: The Cowboys have the 16th pick in the first round. But in four of the last six drafts, only the sixth-best defensive lineman was available at the 16th pick.
The Cowboys could use another Russell Maryland on the inside and Ware outside. But Maryland was the first pick of his draft and Ware the 11th pick of his. The Cowboys are drafting too low to find that type of impact defender in this draft.
The Cowboys have done their homework. They know Jadeveon Clowney, the best end in the draft, will be long gone by the time they go on the clock. Edge pass rushers Anthony Barr and Khalil Mack, a couple of athletic, speedy linebackers who are possible defensive end conversions, also figure to be gone.
Kony Ealy of Missouri and Scott Crichton of Oregon State are the next-best ends on the board, and Aaron Donald of Pitt and Timmy Jernigan of Florida State the best tackles. What if two or three of those players are gone as well?
Do the Cowboys take the fifth- or sixth-best pass rusher when they go on the clock at 16? What if the best safety in the draft is staring at them? Or one of the four elite offensive tackles? Or one of the two best corners? All could upgrade the starting lineup of the Cowboys.
Sure, Marinelli wants quantity. But he needs quality. And that comes in the first round — the higher, the better.
Marinelli’s past successes have been built on blue-chip rushers at the top of his rotation. In Tampa Bay, Marinelli had Hall of Famer Warren Sapp on the inside and Pro Bowler Simeon Rice on the outside. In Chicago, he had Henry Melton on the inside and fellow Pro Bowler Julius Peppers on the outside.
Ben Bass, Tyrone Crawford, George Selvie, Nick Hayden, Terrell McClain and Jeremy Mincey give Marinelli a start on his quantity. They can provide the bodies to build a rotation of fresh legs. What he needs now are a few elite pieces.
If Melton, a free-agent signee this off-season, can successfully return from a knee injury that ended his 2013 season after three games, the Cowboys have a potential blue-chipper on the inside. But the outside remains an issue.
This pass rush is in dire need of an edge rusher. Even with Hatcher and Ware, the Cowboys finished 25th in the NFL with 34 sacks last season. The departures of those two veteran Pro Bowlers cut that sack count in half.
If the Cowboys do not take a defensive lineman in the first round, they wouldn’t get their next shot at one until the 47th pick. In 2011, there were 15 defensive linemen gone by the 47th pick. The big people go fast in today’s NFL.
When the Cowboys were winning Super Bowls, they had eight defensive linemen in a rotation. Maryland was the first pick of his draft and Tony Casillas the second pick of his. Charles Haley, Tony Tolbert and Leon Lett all became Pro Bowlers, and Jim Jeffcoat was another first-round pick with 100 career sacks. The quantity on those Super Bowl teams was laced with quality.
If the Cowboys hope to contend for Super Bowls again, they must rebuild and restock their defensive line. They need quality at the top, and you find that quality in the draft. The higher, the better.
Listen to Rick Gosselin at 10:50 a.m. Tuesdays on Sportsradio 1310 AM/96.7 FM The Ticket with Norm Hitzges.
The coveted ones
Here’s a listing of the top defensive line prospects in the 2014 NFL draft. The Cowboys draft 16th:
Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina: The best player on the board. He’ll be long gone by the time the Cowboys pick.
Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri: Michael Sam got all the attention on the Missouri defense, but Ealy is the better pro prospect.
Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA: At 6-5, 255, Barr has the size to convert to end. His 4.60 speed is another plus.
Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo: A tad smaller than Barr at 6-2, 251, Mack also has 4.60 speed and the makeup to move to end.
Aaron Donald, DT, Pitt: The perfect under tackle for the 4-3 Tampa 2 scheme Rod Marinelli wants to run.
Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State: Donald will provide instant pass rush, Jernigan instant run defense.
On Twitter: @RickGosselinDMN
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