Dallas Cowboys: Courtney Upshaw

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I've decided to compile a list of five players the Cowboys will face in 2012 who could give them fits. This doesn't include Eli Manning, the New York Giants receivers, Ray Lewis, Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson, Atlanta's receivers, New Orleans' offense or Ben Roethlisberger. It's just five additional guys I see as troublemakers.

Here goes:

Ben and Skin compare the 1992 Cowboys to the 2012 Cowboys. Position by position do the current Cowboys compare favorably to the team that was about to make the greatest run in franchise history?

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Cam Newton. You love the commercials. But you love his game more. He's got the size, speed and arm strength to test the Cowboys secondary. He won't be the Cowboys' biggest test in the 2012 season, but it will be interesting to see just where the secondary stands when facing Carolina on Oct. 21. The Cowboys might be coming into this game off of a loss because they take on Baltimore the previous week (more on that later), so a two-game losing streak is a strong possibility.

Andy Dalton. The former TCU standout proved last year he can play in this league. When the Cowboys visit Cincinnati on Dec. 9, they will take on the second-year quarterback who compiled a 78.1 quarterback rating but threw eight touchdowns and six interceptions in home games in 2011. NFL teams aren't waiting on quarterbacks to develop, they're playing them now and getting results. Dalton is another example of this.

Fred Davis. The Redskins tight end had seven catches in two games against the Cowboys last season. He's a threat to the linebackers and safeties who might cover him. Does Brodney Pool cover Davis? Gerald Sensabaugh? Anthony Spencer? Davis is athletic enough to provide matchup problems and with Robert Griffin III moving around the pocket, Davis becomes a target to find on the run.

Jason Pierre-Paul. The New York Giants defensive end is the new Cowboys killer. In two games last year, Pierre-Paul had 13 tackles, three sacks and a blocked field goal. The Cowboys couldn't contain this man. Last year, Doug Free had trouble with Pierre-Paul. Now, Tyron Smith gets his turn at one of the better young defensive players in the game.

Courtney Upshaw. Terrell Suggs' injury might keep him out for the Oct. 14 matchup between Baltimore and Dallas. If he's not available -- and it appears he won't be -- the rookie from Alabama will show the Cowboys what he can do. Jason Garrett saw him at Alabama's Pro Day. There's a thought that Upshaw is no different than Anthony Spencer in terms of skill set from the outside linebacker position. Early in the draft process, the Cowboys were linked to Upshaw as a mid-first round pick. But Upshaw dropped to the second round. We'll see what he can do against Dallas.

Jason Garrett’s attendance at Alabama’s pro day instantly increased speculation that the Cowboys would pick safety Mark Barron, outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw or cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick in the first round.

All indications are that the Cowboys would be extremely pleased if Barron is still on the board when they get on the clock with the 14th overall pick.

If Barron and other targets are gone, Jerry Jones could attempt to trade down, gaining extra picks to move toward the bottom of the first round. In that scenario, there is a strong possibility that the Cowboys could target the fourth potential first-round pick from the Crimson Tide’s top-ranked, national-title defense: linebacker Dont’a Hightower.

Hightower primarily played inside linebacker at Alabama, but he has the size (6-foot-2 , 265 pounds) and speed (4.65 40) to be a 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL.

“No doubt,” Alabama coach Nick Saban told ESPN Dallas 103.3’s Ian Fitzsimmons in an interview that aired on “Galloway and Company” this week. “He can play outside. He’s been a designated pass rusher for us on third down for us. He’s also been a stand-up buck fourth rusher, drop. In X-package, when they put all the linebackers in there, he can play any one of those positions.

“He’s a very smart guy. He’s a signal caller that has really good leadership qualities and understands football really well and has a lot of diversity in terms of how you can use him. When you have guys that size, that speed and that athletic that can do that many things, those guys don’t come around that often.”

After delay, David DeCastro visits

April, 18, 2012
IRVING, Texas – David DeCastro's initial visit to the Cowboys was cancelled because of severe storms two weeks ago, but the team was able to meet with the Stanford All-American at Valley Ranch recently, according to sources.

ESPN 103.3 FM's Ben & Skin wonder whether the Cowboys are losing their stranglehold on the Metroplex sports fan?

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The storms prevented the Cowboys from meeting with their full complement of visitors, but they were able to add LSU defensive end Michael Brockers to the list for a visit today.

Today is the final day draft prospects are allowed to visit teams. The first round of the draft is April 26 with Rounds 2-7 on April 27-28.

The list of visitors is noteworthy because of the Cowboys’ recent history. The last time the Cowboys’ first pick did not visit the team’s facility was DeMarcus Ware in 2005. Since then the team has met with Bobby Carpenter (2006), Anthony Spencer (2007), Felix Jones (2008), Mike Jenkins (2008), Jason Williams (2009), Dez Bryant (2010) and Tyron Smith (2011).

DeCastro is the best offensive line prospect in the draft. Owner and general manager Jerry Jones broke with tradition last year by selecting an offensive lineman in the first round (Smith) for the first time in his tenure. DeCastro was a three-year starter at Stanford.

Brockers projects as a 3-4 defensive end and had two sacks, four pressures and 9.5 tackles for loss last year at LSU.

The Cowboys also visited with the Alabama trio of safety Mark Barron, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw, guards Cordy Glenn (Georgia), Amini Silatolu (Midwestern State) and Ronnell Leary (Memphis), Boise State nose tackle Chase Baker, Cal safety D.J. Campbell, Albion cornerback Chris Greenwood, Vanderbilt cornerback Casey Hayward and Oklahoma linebacker Ronnell Lewis.

Upshaw ready to call Cowboys Stadium home

April, 16, 2012
Like most people on the first visit to Cowboys Stadium, Alabama outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw couldn’t help but be in a little awe of Jerry Jones’ $1.2 billion football palace.

Alabama LB Courtney Upshaw says he'd love to play in Cowboys Stadium and can see himself as a Cowboy.

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Upshaw made sure to snap a few pictures of JerryWorld, but he was there on a business trip as part of his pre-draft visit with the Cowboys. And Upshaw would be thrilled to call the place home if the Cowboys use the 14th overall pick on him.

“I would definitely love to play in it,” Upshaw said during an interview with Galloway and Company’s Ian Fitzsimmons that will air on ESPN Dallas 103.3 FM this evening. “Just go out and dominate and make a name for myself. Everybody, once they step in that stadium, would know that Courtney Upshaw is coming to play.”

Upshaw potentially is a much less expensive replacement for Anthony Spencer, who is due to make $8.8 million this season and wants a lucrative long-term deal despite producing so-so results since the Cowboys used a 2007 first-round pick on him. Upshaw mentioned that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan – “one of the coolest coaches I met throughout my whole football career” – talked to him about the responsibilities of playing opposite DeMarcus Ware, such as frequently dropping into coverage on first and second downs.

“I feel I can definitely do that,” Upshaw said. “I did it here at Alabama – didn’t drop a lot in game situations, but did a lot of dropping in practice. Coach [Nick] Saban wanted me to rush the passer. I was one of the better pass rushers on the team, so he wanted me to get after the quarterback, and that’s what I did.

“I’m able to do whatever is asked.”

Three Tide defenders to visit Cowboys

April, 3, 2012
IRVING, Texas – Most of the draft prognosticators have linked the Cowboys to Alabama’s three top defensive players, and all three are visiting with the team this week.

Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, safety Mark Barron and outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw are among the “top 30” visitors to meet with the coaches and front-office staff and get a look at Cowboys Stadium and Valley Ranch, according to multiple sources.

NFL rules limit teams to 30 national visitors to facilities prior to the draft, however, they do no on-field workouts. The visits are more in-depth interviews to get a feel for how a player learns or interacts. There is also a medical checkup.

While the players vary in talent and draft grades, the team’s last first-round pick not to make a top-30 visit with the Cowboys prior to the draft was DeMarcus Ware in 2005.

Coach Jason Garrett attended the pro day workouts of the three Crimson Tide players last week on his way back from the NFL owners' meetings. Garrett broke into the NFL coaching business in Miami under Alabama coach Nick Saban and counts Saban as one of his mentors. Last year Garrett attended Southern Cal’s pro day and the Cowboys selected Tyron Smith with their first-round pick.

In free agency, the Cowboys signed guards Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings, but the team is also looking at Stanford’s David DeCastro, Georgia’s Cordy Glenn, Midwestern State’s Amini Silatolu and Memphis’ Ronnell Leary.

Other visitors include: Boise State nose tackle Chase Baker, Cal safety D.J. Campbell, Albion cornerback Chris Greenwood, Vanderbilt cornerback Casey Hayward and Oklahoma linebacker Ronnell Lewis.

Draft preview series: Alabama DE/OLB Courtney Upshaw

April, 3, 2012

The 17th installment of our draft preview series looks at Alabama DE/OLB Courtney Upshaw.

Scouts Inc. ranks: No. 3 defensive end, No. 17 overall
Bio: First-team All-SEC and All-American was a finalist for the Lombardi Award and Butkus Award as a senior. Had 9.5 sacks, 11 quarterback hurries, 18 tackles for losses, an interception he returned 45 yards for a touchdown and two forced fumbles for the nation’s top-ranked total, rushing and scoring defense. Had seven sacks and 14.5 tackles for losses as a junior

[+] EnlargeCourtney Upshaw
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAlabama DE/OLB Courtney Upshaw plays with serious power and was a finalist for the Lombardi Award and Butkus Award as a senior.
Size: 6-foot-1 5/8, 272 pounds
40-yard dash: 4.81 seconds
Did not work out at scouting combine

Broaddus Breakdown (viewed Penn State, Arkansas, Auburn and LSU games): Played at Alabama as the open- or weak-side defensive end with his hand on the ground. Will most likely play as a strong-side linebacker in the NFL in a 3-4 defense. … The first thing you notice on film is how much power he plays with at the point of attack. The strength level is not the problem here. He really does a much better job than Melvin Ingram at using his hands and controlling the blockers. … Can split double-teams with his upper-body strength. Can easily take on double-teams and not be moved off the spot. … You see him walk blockers back into the quarterback with his bull rush in passing situations. … Does a really nice job of holding the point of attack in the running game. Is a hard guy to run at or to try and get around the corner on, but he did have one play where Auburn was able to get the ball on the edge and around the corner. That was the only one in four games. … Outstanding job of finding the football and playing with awareness. You see him play off the block and slide down inside when he sees the ball heading in that direction. Plays with an explosive burst and can close quickly. … Can run down plays from the back side, doesn’t give up on plays like others I have observed in this draft. Always trying to get to the ball. Is a downhill, attacking player. … Is a load to deal with when he is making a tackle. Has a great deal of natural power and snap when making a tackle. Ball carriers are stopped in their tracks when he delivers a blow. … Thought he did a nice job of playing the low block with his hands. Has to deal with this quite a bit because blockers do not want to take him on high. Really good technique here. … Will use an arm-over move to free himself, but will need to develop more pass rush moves because he can’t be a one-trick pony in this league when dealing with offensive tackles. Like the way he will work up the field, but he doesn’t have that elite pass rush speed to get the corner. His balance of quickness and power help him to do his job. You will see him win pass rush battles with his power, but again, he will need to learn some other techniques. … There are scouts that I talk to that aren’t sure if there is really a position for Upshaw, but what I saw with my own eyes is an outstanding football player. He, like Ingram, will have to be taught how to drop in coverage. Right now, it isn’t good enough, but he does show awareness and the ability to find the ball. … The best way to describe Upshaw is he is a fall player and not a spring one. Film shows he plays football very well in the fall, and that is all I care about.
Todd McShay’s ESPN Insider two-round mock draft projects the Cowboys to stray from the BAD-A plan and pick a guy from another SEC school in the first round: Mississippi State defensive lineman Fletcher Cox.

McShay projects a run on Alabama defenders immediately after the Cowboys pick at 14th overall. He has Crimson Tide safety Mark Barron going to the Eagles at No. 15, outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw to the Jets at No. 16 and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick to the Titans at No. 20.

In the second round, McShay projects the Cowboys to take Midwestern State guard Amini Silatolu with the 45th overall pick. He has Wisconsin’s Peter Konz, the best center in the draft, slipping to the Patriots a few picks later.

If the Cowboys have a chance to pick Konz in the second round, they should do it without hesitating. He’d step in as a starter at a spot that was the weakest link on the offensive line last season.
Jason Garrett’s planned pit stop in Tuscaloosa should be the first step in the Cowboys following the BAD-A plan in the first round of the draft.

That’s picking the Best Alabama Defender Available.

[+] EnlargeMark Barron
Randy Litzinger/Icon SMIAlabama safety Mark Barron could be a good fit for the Cowboys if they decide to trade down in the first round.
There are four potential first-rounders that played on the BCS champions’ dominant defense: cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw, safety Mark Barron and inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower. Garrett’s presence at the Crimson Tide’s pro day -- the only one he plans to attend -- is a pretty good sign that one of those guys will hear his name called when the Cowboys go on the clock in the first round.

One scenario for the Cowboys is trading down in the first round and selecting Barron, a hard-hitting safety with some range and ball skills who was widely recognized as the vocal leader of that Bama defense. That would fill a hole that has existed since Darren Woodson’s retirement last decade.

The best-case scenario? The Cowboys stay put at No. 14 and take Kirkpatrick or Upshaw.

You can argue that those players don’t address immediate needs, but that’s the kind of short-sighted thinking that caused the Cowboys to pay Pro Bowl money this offseason to non-Pro Bowlers Brandon Carr and Anthony Spencer.
Deion Sanders says that Jason Garrett is not the reason the Cowboys didn't make the playoffs. Deion says that the biggest need for the Cowboys is a solid pass rush.

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Mike Jenkins, who is heading into the last season of his rookie deal, wants a new contract. You think agent Drew Rosenhaus and Jenkins plan to give the Cowboys a hometown discount? It’s much more likely that they’ll note that Jenkins, unlike Carr, has made a Pro Bowl and use Carr’s fresh five-year, $50.1 contract as the starting point for negotiations.

If the Cowboys give Jenkins that kind of money, they’ll end up with the most overpaid cornerback corps in NFL history. They’re already overpaying – Jerry Jones prefers the term “paying retail” – for Carr and nickel corner Orlando Scandrick (five years, $27 million).

Kirkpatrick would give the Cowboys a much-needed physical presence in the secondary at an affordable price. Get him and the Cowboys can afford to let Jenkins go after this season.


Which potential first-rounder from Bama would you most like to see in a Cowboys uniform?


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Or the Cowboys can pick Upshaw, putting themselves in a position where they don’t have to pay Anthony Spencer a franchise-tag rate to be slightly above average. With a salary of $8.8 million, Spencer is due to make about a million and a half bucks per sack.

Oh, and Spencer would love to negotiate a long-term deal. Why wouldn’t Spencer when he has all the leverage?

The reason Spencer has all the leverage against the Cowboys certainly isn’t his performance. It’s because the Cowboys, who have no faith in Victor Butler’s potential as a starter, have done such a poor job preparing to replace Spencer.

That all changes if the Cowboys select Upshaw, who could be described as Spencer with a serious mean streak.

That’s the kind of Bad A the Dallas defense desperately needs.

Jason Garrett to attend Alabama pro day

March, 28, 2012
PALM BEACH, Fla. -- With the Dallas Cowboys leaving the NFL owners' meetings here, coach Jason Garrett will have a detour.

Garrett will attend Alabama's pro day Thursday.

It's the first pro day Garrett has attended his spring.

Last year, Garrett visited the USC pro day, and the Cowboys selected Trojans tackle Tyron Smith in the first round.

Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones hinted the team has interest in drafting a defensive player with the 14th overall pick of the first round this year.

Alabama has three players -- safety Mark Barron, outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick -- who might be available when it's time for the Cowboys to pick.

"As of now, it’s the only one of scheduled to go to," Garrett said. "Alabama had a pro day earlier in the month and a number of their players were not able to work out cause of injury. We felt it was worthwhile. Logistically it made sense. I am here. I'm going back to Texas. We are going to fly right over Tuscaloosa. It made sense for me to stop there and go to this workout tomorrow. So that is one of the reasons. We have had reps from the Cowboys at a lot of different pro days."

5 Wonders: Carl Nicks, Anthony Spencer's tag

February, 28, 2012
IRVING, Texas – Back by popular demand (or not) is our weekly in-season feature, 5 Wonders, for its first offseason installment. After five days at the NFL scouting combine I’m wondering about things other than Jerry Jones’ comment that the Cowboys have the talent to compete for the Super Bowl.

** When the Cowboys hired Bill Callahan as offensive line coach, I wondered if that would help them in terms landing free agent guard Carl Nicks, whom Callahan coached at Nebraska. I don’t wonder that anymore. From reading between lines on comments made by Jerry Jones, I don’t see the Cowboys making a huge play on Nicks when free agency begins March 13. Maybe more of that factor is that I don’t believe the Saints will let Nicks hit the market but the word around the combine was that the Cowboys weren’t as heavy on Nicks as many would think. We’ll see how that plays out and it could all be a smokescreen but if you’re wondering where the Cowboys will spend money in free agency I’d say on the secondary.

** I wondered back in October whether the Cowboys would use the franchise tag on Anthony Spencer and wavered when the season was over, but now I’m more than wondering about it. I’d put a wager down that the Cowboys will put the $8.8 million tag on the outside linebacker. We’ve debated the topic for awhile but after talking to several scouts and coaches from other teams Spencer has a more positive view league-wide than he does locally. Yes, you want more sacks, but if you look at tackles and forced fumbles then he is near the top of the list on the outside backer board. Remember when the New York Giants paid defensive end Chris Canty $7 million a year as a free agent? I believe Spencer would get about that same average if not more from another team in free agency. One thing to keep in mind about the tag is that it can be rescinded at any time as long as Spencer does not sign. I wonder if the Cowboys believe “overpaying” Spencer for one year is better than doing it as part of a multi-year deal.

** Speaking of outside linebackers for a 3-4, I wonder if the top two candidates in the draft, Alabama’s Courtney Upshaw and South Carolina’s Melvin Ingram, look the part. When you think about those types of players, you’re thinking guys 6-4, 255-260 pounds. DeMarcus Ware types. Upshaw came in at 6-1, 272 pounds. Ingram came in at 6-1, 264 pounds. Pittsburgh’s James Harrison isn’t the prototype either, but these guys just looked thicker in the middle than what you’re used to regarding 3-4 outside linebackers. That being said, they produced on the field and I’m not quibbling with that. I’m just wondering if they fit the mold you’re used to.

** When Jason Garrett broke into the coaching business after his playing career he worked for Nick Saban in Miami. Garrett has said he learned a ton from Saban. I wonder if Garrett’s connection to Saban will help during the draft process. The Tide has at least three first-round defensive players, in my opinion, in Upshaw, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and safety Mark Barron. Garrett should be able to get the inside skinny from Saban about what makes these guys tick. And remember this too: one of the players the Cowboys attempted to trade back into the first round last year to get was Alabama running back Mark Ingram.

** One thing Jerry Jones said Friday on his bus to reporters was to not lump Bradie James and Keith Brooking together as far as their potential futures with the Cowboys. Both will be free agents, and I wonder if Brooking could return. Is it a lot to ask Bruce Carter to come in and be the starter from opening day of the offseason program alongside Sean Lee? Could be. Carter had about seven padded practices last year after coming off the physically unable to perform list because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament. He missed all of camp and the lockout prevented him from being around the team after the draft. Some will make the comparison to how Lee made the jump from his rookie to second year. It’s not the same. Lee was on the field from Day One even if he dealt with nagging issues as a rookie. Here’s why I said Brooking, who turns 37 in October: he was still fifth on the defense in tackles last year with 72, according to the coaches’ breakdown. He also had a tackle for loss and three QB pressures and two pass deflections. I’m not saying it will happen, but I’m just wondering if it could happen.

Anthony Spencer key to Cowboys' moves

January, 19, 2012
IRVING, Texas -- As the Cowboys move into offseason mode and prepare for free agency and the draft, the most important decision they will have to make revolves around Anthony Spencer.

Spencer will be an unrestricted free agent in March, free to sign elsewhere. Currently the Cowboys do not have a replacement on the roster, unless you believe Victor Butler can become an every down player.

During the season I wrote about possibly putting the franchise tag on Spencer to guarantee his services for one season, keep him hungry in terms of wanting a long-term deal.

To make that move would cost the Cowboys about $8.8 million and they would receive two first-round picks in return if a team chose to sign Spencer and the Cowboys didn’t match.

Or the Cowboys could put the transition tag on Spencer, which is expected to be in the $7.8 million range, and only have the right of first refusal if a team signed the linebacker to an offer sheet.

Here’s where either move is dicey: it would eat up a good chunk of salary-cap space and perhaps restrict some of what they could do at other positions. If they sign him to a multi-year deal, they could keep his cap figure lower. Doug Free had a cap number of $2.7 million in 2011 after receiving a $10.3 million signing bonus in 2011 in part because they put voidable years on his contract.

As I wrote about today in the Fixing the Cowboys series, the Cowboys have to upgrade their pass rush. Spencer has had five seasons to prove he can be a worthy pass rusher opposite DeMarcus Ware. At times he did. Too many other times, he didn’t.

The free-agent market doesn’t offer much hope for serious improvement, so the options appear to be sign Spencer to a long-term deal at a sensible price, put one of the tags on him or draft an outside linebacker with the No. 14 pick with Alabama’s Courtney Upshaw being everybody’s guy right now after the Tide’s win against LSU.

Let the debate begin.

Fixing the Cowboys: Find CB first, then draft defense

January, 18, 2012
This is the third installment of Fixing the Cowboys:

When the final whistle blew on that chilly night at MetLife Stadium, the season ended for the Dallas Cowboys. The hope of a division title died with a roster that wasn’t good enough to compete with the Giants for the second time in four weeks. If Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett are honest with themselves, they will look at this roster and say that it’s just not good enough to compete with the Giants and the Eagles. We can talk about the Super Bowl all we want, but if you are not playing well in your division, there are going to be problems.

Fixing Cowboys
When I worked for the Cowboys, the biggest issues I had during our final meeting of the season was that we were not honest with the makeup of our squad. When you go 5-11 for three straight seasons and the coaches talk about the players like we were 11-5, there are going to be problems. Garrett and these coaches can't keep Jerry from believing his roster is better than it really is. I'm not going to say that there isn't talent on this team, but I will say there were players on this roster that Jones and Garrett were counting on that just weren't good enough.

Here is what I would try and do to help it:

1. As much as I want to overhaul this secondary, I am going to try and fix the left cornerback spot first. Terence Newman needs to be replaced immediately. His level of play has clearly slipped and he no longer plays with any confidence. When a corner lacks confidence you might as well be playing with a speed bump out there. There are two ways that Jones can attack this area. The first is to trust his pro scouting staff, which brought him Laurent Robinson and Tony Fiammetta. The big name corners on the market this spring will be Cortland Finnegan of the Titans and Brent Grimes of the Falcons. Both of these players are similar in age and will command top dollar. If I had to lean one way, I would probably go toward Finnegan because of his aggressive style and the nastiness in his play, which this team lacks. If there might be a hitch, it'd be that Jones and Garrett would like to have a corner with more size -- Finnegan and Grimes are both in the 5-9, 185-pound range.

Dre Kirkpatrick
Matthew O'Haren/Icon SMIThere's no doubt that Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick could instantly help the Cowboys' secondary, but can the team look past his recent arrest for marijuana possession?
The second way this area could be addressed is through the draft, which can either be feast or famine. Sitting in the 14th spot, Jones is still in decent shape because you usually have between 15 to 18 players that have first-round grades on your board. The second-best corner on the board will be Dre Kirkpatrick from Alabama. There is no questioning Kirkpatrick's ability or size (6-2, 192 pounds), but now character issues have been raised -- he was charged with possession of marijuana Tuesday and was released after paying a $120 fine.

When I worked for Bill Parcells, he put players with character flaws into "The Box" -- an area where you put players that you did not want to draft, period. I guarantee there will be teams that will take Kirkpatrick off their boards and into "The Box." The question for the Cowboys: Will Kirkpatrick be able to explain what happened, and will other examples of questionable behavior be uncovered? I would still consider Kirkpatrick an option for the Cowboys, but he really has to convince me that it'd be in my best interest to select him. I promise the Cowboys will turn over every rock to get to the bottom of this. He's that good of a player.

2. As much as I want to fix the interior of this offensive line with the addition of a free-agent guard like the Saints' Carl Nicks, I have to think about the amount of funds I wound have to allow for this to work. Don't get me wrong, it'd be money well spent, but there's also an opportunity to select the best guard in the draft -- Stanford's David DeCastro.

Jones and Garrett have to ask themselves if finding a replacement for OLB Anthony Spencer is more important than filling a position where you seem to have better options. Does Kyle Kosier, Montrae Holland, Derrick Dockery, Kevin Kowalski, Bill Nagy and David Arkin make you feel comfortable enough with the guard spot as is, whereas you just have Victor Butler and Alex Albright at outside linebacker? There is no doubt the Cowboys lacked a pass rusher that could help DeMarcus Ware on the other side. The Cowboys like Butler -- and he very well could be the starter going into 2012 -- but why not use the 14th pick to upgrade that spot with Alabama's Courtney Upshaw or South Carolina's Melvin Ingram? The Cowboys must do a better job of pressuring the quarterback because Ware can't do it alone. I have been critical of Ware, but a player on the other side could take pressure off him and help this defense tremendously.

[+] EnlargeBilly Winn
Bob Kupbens/Icon SMIBoise State's Billy Winn could be an interesting draft choice for the Cowboys as his physical presence could help them at the defensive end spot.
3. Sticking with the defense, I'm also taking a hard look at three spots -- defensive end, inside linebacker and safety. At defensive end, I'd move on from Kenyon Coleman, who wasn't nearly as good at the end of the season as he was at the beginning. I like Jason Hatcher, and I also think there is a role for Marcus Spears. Sean Lissemore proved to be a nice swing guy, but he looked better at nose tackle, so I'm tempted to keep him there. The scouts have hope for Clifton Geathers, but I don't share that. I would look to draft a productive player like Boise State's Billy Winn, who played tackle but should be suited more for play on the outside.

4. I'm also looking for help at inside linebacker, because there's really no depth. It's time to move on from Bradie James and Keith Brooking. Bruce Carter will be ready to play in 2012 and will be productive playing next to Sean Lee. However, behind those two, there's nothing. I'd try to add player in the fourth round that could be a quality backup but also help in the nickel, like Kevin Burnett did several years ago. Texas' Emmanuel Acho could be an interesting choice. Acho has a nose for the ball and is super active.

5. At safety, I'm moving on from Abram Elam because I need someone with more range. I have too many safeties on this roster that are forward players, such as Barry Church and Danny McCray. This defense needs someone that gets their hands on the ball and can help off the hash or middle of the field. I don't need safeties that can't adjust to Victor Cruz going down the field or Riley Cooper catching a jump ball from Michael Vick. If the Cowboys have a safety with range, it would be a step in the right direction in helping this secondary.

For all the problems that Garrett has had with game management, I feel he's got a good eye for talent and understands how you go about gathering players. Despite what people want to believe, the head coach does have a great deal of say in what players are signed and drafted. Bill Parcells took advantage of this; Dave Campo didn't. Chan Gailey convinced Jones that he wanted nothing to do with Randy Moss. Jason Garrett went to USC last season to see Tyron Smith work out and talk with members of the staff to get a feel for him.

You might not want to trust Jerry Jones, but you should trust Jason Garrett. I think he gets it.
The Cowboys have too many holes to fill with significant free agency investments and early draft picks. They need to aggressively address their priorities and bargain shop or count on young players to step up in the other need spots.

Fixing Cowboys
The priorities are clear: cornerback and the interior offensive line.

There is only one undoubtedly elite player just entering his prime at those positions available in free agency. That’s why Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks, who is expected to leave the Saints and happened to play for new offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Bill Callahan at Nebraska, should be the Cowboys’ top target.

The best corners in free agency – Atlanta’s Brent Grimes, Tennessee’s Cortland Finnegan and San Francisco’s Carlos Rogers – are in their late 20s or beyond. The Cowboys are dealing with the downside of paying big money to a cornerback at that stage of his career with Terence Newman. That’s a hole they need to fill via the draft.

[+] EnlargeDre Kirkpatrick
Kelly Lambert/US PresswireAlabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick would be a perfect fit for the Cowboys, even if they have to trade up from the No. 14 spot to get him.
Owner/general manager Jerry Jones, who made Leonard Davis one of the richest guards in NFL history only to cut him a few seasons later, has said he wants to stop the trend of paying top dollar for offensive linemen in free agency. Nicks is worth being an exception, especially given the Cowboys’ glaring need. He’s a dominant player who is only 26 years old, so the Cowboys would be purchasing his entire prime.

What would Nicks cost? Just look at what the Saints pay their other Pro Bowl guard to get an idea. Jahri Evans has a seven-year, $56.7 million deal.

That would eat up a major chunk of the estimated $17 million the Cowboys are expected to have under the salary cap after they take care of housekeeping issues such as cutting Newman. If the Cowboys re-sign receiver Laurent Robinson, it likely would mean Nicks would be the lone surefire starter they sign in free agency.

So the Cowboys better find a cornerback in the draft. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they need to reach for one in the first round.

It’d be ideal if Alabama’s Dre Kirkpatrick, the kind of big, physical cornerback the Cowboys want, is available with the 14th overall pick. He’d probably be worth trading up a few spots.

But a lot of bad picks are made when teams get locked into one position in the first round. If another player is clearly the best player on the board when the Cowboys are on the clock, get that guy, even if it’s Stanford guard David DeCastro and Nicks is already signed. If that happens, the Cowboys’ interior line suddenly goes from a glaring weakness to a major strength, no matter who beats out Phil Costa for the starting center job.

There should be quality corners, such South Carolina’s Stephon Gilmore and Virginia’s Chase Minnifield, available in the second round.

Safety, defensive end and outside linebacker are other need positions for the Cowboys. If the Cowboys find long-term solutions at those spots over the next year, it’ll probably be young players already on the roster: Barry Church, Sean Lissemore and Victor Butler, although Alabama OLB Courtney Upshaw is also a first-round possibility. The Cowboys would be wise to create as much competition at those spots as possible with low-risk, short-term free agents and/or mid- or late-round draft picks.

But the Cowboys can’t afford to fail to address their two biggest needs, a process that should start with a 6-foot-5, 343-pound solution.

Which starters should Cowboys replace?

January, 11, 2012
The Cowboys have made a couple of necessary changes to the coaching staff, but that won’t be enough to turn this team into a legitimate contender.

There also needs to be a significant personnel overhaul, starting with the players that staff newcomers Bill Callahan (offensive line) and Jerome Henderson (secondary) will be coaching.

Here’s a look at the starters the Cowboys need to seriously consider replacing:

CB Terence Newman: He had a good career here, but there’s no sensible reason to keep the 33-year-old Newman as he continues to decline. Opponents picked on him mercilessly in the second half of the season the last two years. He’s due to count $8 million against the salary cap, a figure the Cowboys can cut in half by cutting Newman. The problem is Orlando Scandrick hasn’t proven he’s capable of stepping into the starting role. The Cowboys would love Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick to fall to them in the draft, but that’s not likely to happen.

SS Abram Elam: With his experience in Rob Ryan’s system, Elam was supposed to be the secondary’s traffic cop, but confusion reigned way too often. The Cowboys need more playmaking out of their safeties, so it makes sense to move on from Elam after his one-year contract expired. Ideally, they could find a rangy free safety, which would allow Gerald Sensabaugh to move back to strong safety, although they like young strong safety Barry Church. This isn’t a position the Cowboys want to address in the first round of the draft.

ILB Bradie James: The writing was on the wall for the nine-year veteran as soon as he became a part-time player early in the final season of his contract. The Cowboys need to get Bruce Carter, the second-round pick who played sparingly as a rookie after recovering from a college knee injury, ready to step into the starting lineup. The same scouts who were high on Sean Lee sold Jerry Jones on Carter, an explosive athlete with the ability to be a three-down linebacker who excels in coverage.

OLB Anthony Spencer: This might depend on the money. The Cowboys can’t pay too much to keep a former first-round pick who has never had more than six sacks in a season. Can Victor Butler be a starter after playing less than 25 percent of the snaps last season? Alabama’s Courtney Upshaw could be an immediate upgrade with the 14th overall pick.

DE Kenyon Coleman: He’s another one-year rental with experience in Ryan’s system who made minimal impact. There will be talk about moving Jay Ratliff from nose tackle to defensive end, as there is every season. Sean Lissemore could also be ready for a starting role after playing well in limited action, especially if they don’t acquire a defensive lineman in the early rounds or free agency.

C Phil Costa: Costa throughout his first season as a starter, ranking 30th in ProFootballFocus.com’s grades of centers. It’s too much of a gamble to go into camp with Costa, undrafted Kevin Kowalksi and seventh-round pick Bill Nagy competing for the starting job. The free agency market will be flooded with quality centers, including five or ProFootballFocus.com’s top six from 2011 (Houston’s Chris Myers, Minnesota’s John Sullivan, Green Bay’s Scott Wells, Indianapolis’ Jeff Saturday and Atlanta’s Todd McClure) as well as Baltimore’s Matt Birk and San Diego’s Nick Hardwick. Wisconsin’s Peter Konz is expected to be the top center drafted and could be a fit for the Cowboys in the second or third round.

LG Montrae Holland: Holland was a stopgap. The Cowboys need to upgrade at guard. Todd Archer presented the idea of making a big splash by signing New Orleans’ Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks, who played for Callahan at Nebraska. Stanford’s David DeCastro could be the best value on the board when the Cowboys go on the clock at No. 14, and he’d probably form a phenomenal tandem with tackle Tyron Smith for a decade or so.

OG Kyle Kosier: The three-year deal Kosier signed last summer isn’t rich enough to give him any job security. He struggled, especially in the running game, while playing through a painful foot injury this season. His injury history is a concern at his age (33), but the Cowboys need to make sure they have an upgrade in place before deciding whether to move on from Kosier.