Draft quandary revisits Cowboys at OT

ARLINGTON, Texas -- After the smoke clears and Jerry Jones gets done wheeling and dealing, the Dallas Cowboys will probably have a difficult decision to make during the first round of the NFL draft.

Do they want USC's Tyron Smith or Boston College's Anthony Castonzo?

Maybe it's not at No. 9. It's so obvious that Jerry wants to trade down that it's a bit surprising he didn't advertise the pick on his 60-yard big screens during the Super Bowl.

Maybe the Minnesota Vikings will want to move up a few spots if one of the elite quarterbacks is available when the Cowboys go on the clock. Perhaps the Cowboys will find a trade partner in the St. Louis Rams at No. 14 if Alabama receiver Julio Jones is still available at 9.

In either of those instances, the Cowboys could still have their pick of the top tackle of the draft. While it's possible that a defensive end (Wisconsin's J.J. Watt or Cal's Cameron Jordan) could be the pick, Jerry acknowledged that he wouldn't hesitate to take an offensive lineman in the first round for the first time in his 22-year tenure. He recognizes it's a glaring need with injury-ravaged Marc Colombo unlikely to return at right tackle.

Does Jerry want to make a bold move or does he want to play it safe?

"The definition of that is subjective as well," Jones said during Tuesday's predraft gathering with the media at his $1.2 billion football palace. "What's bold and what's safe?"

The answer in this case is simple. Smith, the 20-year-old kid with the cartoonishly cut physique, is bold. Castonzo, the four-year starter at offensive line factory Boston College, is safe.

The buzz after USC's pro day, when the 6-foot-5, 307-pound Smith displayed his remarkable athleticism, was that the Cowboys had locked in on the kid. Those kinds of rumors start when a head coach and offensive line coach travel to campus together, as Jason Garrett and Hudson Houck did to see Smith.

However, the whispers in the last couple of weeks have shifted toward Castonzo. Reading between the lines during Tuesday's gathering confirmed that the Cowboys are indeed leaning toward Castonzo -- or at least want the rest of the league to think they are.

"You'd like to think there's going to be a Greg Ellis there," Jerry said while running down the list of the Cowboys' high first-round picks during his ownership tenure.

That was a reference to the quality of player the Cowboys want in the first round, not the position. Ellis, of course, was the ultimate safe pick. Jerry ultimately shied away from Randy Moss because of character risks and picked a solid player who went to one Pro Bowl in 11 seasons with the Cowboys instead of one of the most productive receivers of all time.

How many times have we heard Jerry express regret for passing on Moss? "I apologize, I apologize, I apologize," he said before the Cowboys played the Vikings this season, so that's at least three.

In that case, Jerry was influenced by all the off-field drama as Dallas' '90s dynasty died. In this instance, it appears that he's swayed by the scary list of offensive line busts the Cowboys have picked over the last decade.

The Cowboys have invested early-round picks on tackles Jacob Rogers, James Marten and Robert Brewster in recent years. None even played a down during the regular season for the Cowboys. (Yep, they've missed badly on tackles from USC and Boston College. That's hard to do.)

The Cowboys can't afford a first-round bust. They need a guy they can plug in and play at Colombo's spot. They sound hesitant to take anything resembling a risk.

"You're always looking for the right type of intangible guys," director of scouting Tom Ciskowski said. "Is he smart? Is he tough? Does he love football? You want him to have the prototype makeup that you're looking for in a player. If he has that, it gives you a good chance to be successful."

Ciskowksi was speaking in general about what he looks for in an offensive lineman, but he might as well have been talking about Castonzo. This is a guy who started every game for Boston College the last four seasons, has demonstrated the ability to play every spot on the line except for center and was a biochemistry major who made good enough grades to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship.

Smart? Off the charts. Tough? Check. Makeup? A coach's dream.

There are concerns about Smith. A red flag, even: He was academically ineligible for USC's bowl game his sophomore season. He was a starter for only two seasons in college, playing solely right tackle. He'd have to do a lot more on-the-job learning than Castonzo. Plus, he has a minor knee issue that prevented him from working out at the scouting combine.

There are reasons the Cowboys could talk themselves out of using the No. 9 pick (or No. 12 or 14, etc.) on Smith. He isn't the safe pick or a sure thing.

Castonzo would be a good, solid pick. The floor for him is that he'd be a more athletic Colombo -- and that's a pretty strong compliment, if you forget about Colombo's struggles last season and remember how well he played for the Cowboys when he was relatively healthy.

If you pick Smith, you're gambling on potential. But it's Hall of Fame potential. Smith, with 36 3/8-inch arms that hang from a chiseled torso and are connected to 11-inch hands, would immediately be one of the most impressive physical specimens in the NFL. By age 24, he could be a five-year veteran who is among the league's elite offensive tackles and still be a few years away from his prime.

There are reasons the Cowboys could talk themselves into using their pick on Smith. He is the bold pick, the one who makes you wonder just how great he can be.

"It is well known that I like to take risks," said Jerry, who made his fortune in the boom-or-bust oil business. "You usually look real bad or you can look real good taking risks."

C'mon, Jerry. Be bold. You know you want to.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.