- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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In case you haven't figured it out, Rob Ryan was full of it last year.
All of Ryan's talk about having the most talented defense in the NFL was a bunch of bull. The truth was that the Dallas Cowboys' defense, which went from awful to average in the first season under Ryan's watch, had about as many holes as a box of doughnuts.
We'll give Ryan the benefit of the doubt by assuming there was some reason behind the defensive coordinator/microphone magnet rambling and raving about feeling like he was coaching a Pro Bowl unit. He was probably trying to pump up deflated psyches that he inherited after the Cowboys allowed the most points in franchise history the previous season.
Better hope that's the case. If Ryan actually believed his boasts, he ranks among the worst talent evaluators to ever cash a paycheck from an NFL team, which would really be an issue considering the Cowboys value their coaches' opinions on draft picks.
And this is likely to be a defense-intensive draft for the Cowboys, even after they signed a $50.5 million cornerback and potential stopgap starters at inside linebacker and strong safety in free agency.
"That allows you to try to go into the draft and take the best player as much as you can," head coach Jason Garrett said. "When you do that, I think you probably draft better players and you build your team much better."
The Dallas defense still has immediate needs, however. It wouldn't be surprising if Dallas ended up with step-in-and-start picks at safety and defensive end in this draft, two positions that made precious few plays for the Cowboys last season.
Alabama safety Mark Barron is the most popular pick for the Cowboys in mock drafts. He took a pre-draft visit to Valley Ranch, as did a pair of probable first-round defensive end prospects: Mississippi State's Fletcher Cox and LSU's Michael Brockers.
The concern with Barron is that he's a strong safety, not a rangy center fielder who would be the ideal fit to pair with Gerald Sensabaugh. But the Cowboys are crazy if they let fit with Sensabaugh be the determining factor on whether they draft a dude 14th overall. How foolish would it look a few years down the road -- after the Cowboys have released Sensabaugh -- if Barron becomes a perennial Pro Bowler?
The Cowboys should also consider outside linebacker and cornerback to be need positions, although the starters are set at those spots next season. It's about using the draft to protect themselves from making salary cap-crippling mistakes next year.
The Cowboys are willing to pay outside linebacker Anthony Spencer $8.8 million this season after putting the franchise tag on him, but aren't willing to commit to a lucrative long-term deal for a 3-4 outside linebacker who has never had more than six sacks in a season.
(Quick aside for Spencer apologists: Please spare me all the talk about Spencer often being asked to drop back in coverage. He rushes the passer every down when the Cowboys are in their nickel and dime packages. San Francisco 49ers rookie Aldon Smith played solely in those packages and racked up 13 sacks last season, which is 34 games' worth for Spencer.)
Spencer is still here because the Cowboys have failed to prepare to replace him, obviously not trusting Victor Butler to be the full-time solution. That's why Alabama's Courtney Upshaw and Oklahoma's Ronnell Lewis -- probable first- and second-round picks, respectively -- were among the Cowboys' 30 official pre-draft visitors.
The Cowboys need to properly plan to replace Mike Jenkins, who is entering the final season of his rookie deal and probably thinks Brandon Carr's contract would be a fine starting point for the team's negotiations with agent Drew Rosenhaus.
Jerry Jones gave Orlando Scandrick starter money last summer, but Scandrick has yet to prove he's anything more than one of the highest-paid nickel corners in NFL history.
The Cowboys have done their due diligence on Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick, a probable first-rounder who joined the parade of Crimson Tide defenders to visit Valley Ranch. (Did we mention that Garrett's lone pro day stop was in Tuscaloosa?) Midround possibilities include a couple of Dallas Day prospects: Oklahoma's Jamell Fleming (Arlington Seguin High School) and LSU's Ron Brooks (Irving MacArthur).
The Cowboys are committed to trying to stick with their board, drafting the best available player, which very well could be Stanford offensive guard David DeCastro at No. 14 overall.
But the Cowboys don't really have to worry about balancing their board against need when it comes to the defense.
Throw a dart at the Dallas defense's depth chart and you're pretty much guaranteed to hit a need, despite what you might have heard from the defensive coordinator.
The Cowboys have plenty of draft needs on the defensive side of the ball.