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Friday, April 22, 2011
Laying it all on the (offensive) line

By Calvin Watkins
ESPNDallas.com

The popular prediction is that the Dallas Cowboys will select an offensive lineman with the ninth overall pick in next week's NFL draft.

Jerry Jones has never drafted an offensive lineman in the first round. In fact, the Cowboys have selected only three offensive linemen in the first round in franchise history.

But the 2010 season offered a small glimpse into why the Cowboys might change that trend.

Starting right tackle Marc Colombo had one of his worst seasons as a pro, allowing the third-most quarterback pressures (40) and second-most hits (11) in the NFL last season.

Replacing Colombo seems likely, and the Cowboys could draft either USC's Tyron Smith or Boston College's Anthony Castonzo.

Jones said he'd use a top-10 pick on an offensive lineman, but whether he does so is uncertain.

"I think, again, it's where you are with your choices," Jones said last month at the NFL owners meetings. "There's some pretty intriguing players that ... maybe play more than one position, and I think you got a chance to get a player that we deserve there."

Jones is interested in a lineman who could play both tackle spots or both guard positions. There is a perception that the Cowboys' offensive line was horrible last season and needs wholesale changes.

The Cowboys allowed 31 sacks last season, three fewer than in 2009. Doug Free was ranked fourth among NFL tackles, according to Pro Football Focus, which uses statistical analysis for the various positions. Leonard Davis was ranked higher than Kyle Kosier among guards last season, and center Andre Gurode was the highest-ranked player at his position in the NFC.

Colombo and Kosier missed the season opener while recovering from leg injuries, and Davis was benched during the Tennessee game for poor play.

"We've had some guys banged up on the offensive line," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "The ability for those guys to play together is an important one. So that certainly is a factor. Our offensive line at times gets criticized, and that again becomes a little bit of a lightning rod, but they did some really good things, too."

Drafting an offensive lineman at No. 9 or moving down to grab one seems like a possibility at this stage. It could all change if Jones feels a defensive player is of more value. But whatever happens, the Cowboys need to get a premium player.

"What I do feel good about is the quality of the players down through that ninth [and] 10th draft position," Jones said. "It certainly enhances the value of that ninth pick because not only are we going to have a player that I think will make a difference for us, now we really have the opportunity to move down and are going to have that opportunity [to trade]. There's no doubt in my mind about it."

Now to the mailbag:

Q: With the Cowboys so thin at middle linebacker, why don't they consider moving Anthony Spencer inside? He has not gotten big sack numbers and seems to be a strong run defender. Wouldn't that be tailor made for inside backer? Maybe Von Miller can fall to them and shore up their pass rush and run defense immediately. Your thoughts? -- Sandog (Olympia, Wash.)

A: Spencer is more suited as an outside linebacker with his speed and athletic ability. He didn't have his best season in 2010, which surprised some because he finished the previous year strong. You need somebody who can take on bigger guards and centers up the middle, and that's where Keith Brooking and Bradie James come in. Spencer can't handle those players inside. Right now, keep him rushing off the edge. Miller won't fall to No. 9; he's a top-five pick.

Q: Calvin, Last time you answered a question I had about Asomugha you responded with the following statement: "There are some quality corners coming out in the draft this spring and you should look at one of them" (Feb 16th). Now that you adamantly believe Smith is the logical choice at No. 9, how realistic is a splash like Asomugha or Huff in free agency? -- Brad (New Orleans)

A: I like Nnamdi Asomugha and Michael Huff. But I don't believe that the Cowboys, with the highest payroll in the NFL for the second consecutive season, will pay an average of $6 million to $9 million a season for Asomugha or a little lower for Huff. If Dallas picks a corner in the first round, Nebraska's Prince Amukamara is the best choice for them. Many draft experts like Colorado CB Jimmy Smith even better than LSU's Patrick Peterson. Dallas needs to get younger and build its team through the draft and forget about these high-priced free agents for now.

Q: I was just wondering what you think the Cowboys should do with that 9th draft pick? I personally think they should try and trade up to get Patrick Peterson or stay at No. 9 and get the corner from Nebraska. They have so many holes to fill, what do you think they should do? I am a huge Cowboy fan and I don't want to see them this year like last year. -- Zach (New Jersey)

A: I would say of all their needs, getting an offensive lineman is most important. Tyron Smith is the leader on the backstretch, but it could change. I don't think moving up to get a corner -- Peterson, especially -- is worth it when you have a problem on the offensive line. You have three good corners: Terence Newman, Orlando Scandrick and Mike Jenkins. Newman and Jenkins had off seasons, so you expect them to bounce back. Bryan McCann should improve next season and might be the No. 4 corner. The best thing for the Cowboys to do is to get an offensive lineman.

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.