Print and Go Back ESPN.com: BlogsColumns [Print without images]

Thursday, April 28, 2011
Updated: May 1, 2:56 PM ET
For Cowboys, 'D' is not for draft

By Calvin Watkins
ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- In a strange and twisted way, the last three days of the Dallas Cowboys' draft was about defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and free agency.

With the eight picks the Cowboys used over three days at Valley Ranch, only one was selected to help the defense in the next two seasons. Second-round selection Bruce Carter from North Carolina may not make an impact this season as he returns from a torn ACL.

Bruce Carter
Second-round pick Bruce Carter (right), one of two selections on defense for Dallas, probably won't make an impact for a while.
The other defensive player taken was Buffalo cornerback and Cedar Hill product Josh Thomas, a feisty player who picked off two passes, dropped six potential interceptions and had 17 pass breakups in four seasons.

This draft was about the Cowboys sticking to their board and not trading all over the place.

Coach Jason Garrett didn't really need a whole lot of help on offense. Tyron Smith, the tackle from USC, will take over one of the tackle spots in the fall. Dallas didn't need a wide receiver, but that's what it selected in the sixth round with Dwayne Harris from East Carolina.

Guard David Arkin, a fourth-rounder from Missouri State, is a project. Running back DeMarco Murray, the third-round pick from Oklahoma, should challenge Tashard Choice this summer. Seventh-round pick Bill Nagy has only 11 college starts, and that was because of an injury prior to the offensive lineman's junior season at Wisconsin.

Fullback Shaun Chapas from Georgia most likely will challenge Chris Gronkowski for that spot.

What about helping the defense?

The Cowboys are coming off a season in which they allowed a franchise-record 436 points. Numerous players underachieved, including Terence Newman, Mike Jenkins, Anthony Spencer, Jay Ratliff and Gerald Sensabaugh.

As of today, the Cowboys' starting safeties are Barry Church and Danny McCray. Sensabaugh is an unrestricted free agent. Alan Ball, the other safety, is moving to cornerback.

Defensive end Marcus Spears, a 2005 first-round pick, becomes an unrestricted free agent. The other two ends, Jason Hatcher and Stephen Bowen, were given tender offers but the labor situation could mean those players move to unrestricted free agency once things are settled.

Wade Phillips and Terence Newman
Wade Phillips' defense, which included Terence Newman, allowed a team-record 436 points last season. The Cowboys, however, are confident new coordinator Rob Ryan can fix the scheme.
Jerry Jones believes the struggling players will get better and plans on addressing any other defensive needs in free agency.

During the draft, Jones called Ryan and asked him about getting some defensive players in the draft.

"I said, 'Let's talk about this guy,'" Jones said. "He knew the ones he was interested in went early and what that does is put pressure on us to get the free agents."

Added Stephen Jones, the Cowboys executive vice president: "Rob's the best when it comes to that. He's just tells me, 'Who I'm coaching, I'll have them ready.'"

Ryan talks a good game and he can back it up. He runs a nice 3-4 scheme that gets the most out of its talent.

But this will be the most pressure he's ever experienced as a coach. The Cowboys believe, as a result of what they did in the draft, that the current group of players on the roster had an off year and that it wasn't the talent that caused the problems.

Never mind that the two inside linebackers, Bradie James and Keith Brooking, are in their 30s and the team has their replacements waiting.

Never mind that the defense will face dynamic veteran quarterbacks in Tom Brady, Michael Vick and Eli Manning this season. Never mind that the Cowboys take on younger, talented quarterbacks in Mark Sanchez, Matthew Stafford, Sam Bradford and Josh Freeman.

The NFL is not supposed to be easy -- if it was, no coach or GM would ever get fired. Jerry Jones is not firing himself, never will, but he's hoping the big guy who is running the defense will prove to him that 2010 was more about the scheme than it was the personnel.

Of course, the Cowboys could settle their defensive issues in free agency. Michael Huff, a free safety, had four sacks, three interceptions and seven pass breakups last season for the Oakland Raiders.

Nnamdi Asomugha is another free agent coming off a year with six pass breakups for the Raiders, but he's an expensive player whom the Cowboys might not be willing to sign.

"We probably should give Rob Ryan some due here," Jones said. "I do feel our defense personnel will play better than last year and we did underachieve last year, and I want to be able to say that without throwing [Wade Phillips] under the bus."

That's nice of Jones, but the reality is issues on defense weren't addressed the last three days. Whenever it is free agency starts, it will be time to respond.

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.