Top linemen may be on board at No. 9

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Howard Richards' days as a trivia answer could come to an end Thursday.

In case you didn't know the question, Richards was the Dallas Cowboys ' first-round pick in 1981 out of Missouri at No. 26 overall. Since then, the Cowboys have not taken an offensive lineman in the first round, the longest streak in the NFL.

That could all change Thursday night.

"I'm not reluctant to invest a first-round pick, as far as my input is concerned, on an offensive lineman," owner and general manager Jerry Jones said Tuesday.

The funny thing about the Cowboys' skipping on offensive linemen is that Jones played offensive line at Arkansas. He started at guard for the Razorbacks' national championship team in 1964. If anybody should know the value of an offensive lineman, it should be Jones.

But with 19 first-round selections since becoming the steward of the Cowboys' ship, Jones has selected a quarterback, a wide receiver, a running back, cornerbacks, a safety, defensive linemen, a linebacker and a tight end.

While Jones said he has changed his philosophy, Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones called it more of a coincidence.

"It's not been a thing where it's been, 'Hey, we're not going to pick an offensive lineman,'" Stephen Jones said.

Some of it has been circumstance. Where the Cowboys picked in the first rounds, especially when they were winning Super Bowls in the 1990s, played a part in not liking linemen at those spots. Some of it has been need at other spots. Some of it has been because of the salary cap. In the early cap era, teams were reluctant to tie up such big money in non-skill players.

But now the premier offensive linemen command mega-contracts. The franchise tag for linemen in 2011 is a little more than $10 million. A wide receiver's franchise tag number is $11.3 million, in large part because of the $18 million base salary the Cowboys paid Miles Austin in 2010.

"I'm not leery at all to go pick an offensive lineman," Stephen Jones said. "We've picked good ones in our day."

Stephen Jones mentioned Larry Allen (1994) and Flozell Adams (1998), who were both second-round picks. Jerry Jones said he has been able to sleep at night during his tenure in part because of the team's left tackle play, from Mark Tuinei to Allen to Adams and now Doug Free, a fourth-rounder in 2007. Andre Gurode has developed into a top center, but at one point the Cowboys were ready to move on from him.

Since 2003, the Cowboys have missed on more offensive linemen (Jacob Rogers, Stephen Peterman, James Marten and Robert Brewster were all taken in the first three rounds) than hit (Free and, to an extent, Al Johnson). As a result, Jones has had to pay free agents such as Leonard Davis, Marco Rivera and Kyle Kosier.
When asked if the team altered how it evaluates offensive linemen, Jerry Jones joked toward director of college and pro scouting Tim Ciskowski, "Yeah, Tom."

"You always look at critical factors in the position," Ciskowski said. "Every year that doesn't change. You just never know for sure what you're getting in a player. Your contacts at the school are very important. A lot of times players come in and the stage is just too big for them. They tend to fall off a little bit. I think you're always looking for the right type of intangibles. Is he smart? Is he tough? And does he love football? You want him to have the same makeup in a player. If he has that, it gives you a good chance to be successful."

Which brings us to Thursday's first round.

At No. 9, the Cowboys are in position to take the best offensive tackle in the draft, be it USC's Tyron Smith, Boston College's Anthony Castonzo or Colorado's Nate Solder. They could take the best center/guard, too, in Florida's Mike Pouncey.

They just so happen to have a need this year, too.

Ultimately, the Cowboys would love to trade down a few spots and still be able to get one of the top offensive linemen in the draft.

"I think you look at how the league has approached offensive linemen, especially with top potential tackles, and you see there a real willingness to take them high and early in the first round," Jerry Jones said.

So Thursday it should end, making Howard Richards an afterthought.

Todd Archer covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.