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March 1, 2010A funny thing happened on the way to a national championship for Rick Barnes and his basketball team this season. A semi-truck hit them.
The season's a wreck. I'd call it the elephant in the room, but the truth of the matter is that people have been staring and pointing at the carnage for weeks, so the term doesn't really apply. That's not to suggest that the Longhorns couldn't get hot in the post-season and make a little bit of a run because they obviously have the ability to beat quality teams - they've already done that on several occasions this season. However, if we're going to have a big boy conversation about the basketball team, then we need to be honest and frank about everything that's happened throughout the season up until now.
Things haven't been right with this team for months. It's ok to admit. Consider this your therapy session.
Therefore, let's get all of the rhetoric out of the way. Is it embarrassing? Yes, Rick Barnes said as much this weekend. Has the season turned into a disastrous collapse? It certainly appears to be headed that way with the Longhorns headed to a potential world record fall from No.1 ranking to the world of the unranked (Monday could be the day of reckoning). Is Rick Barnes turning in one of his own worst performances as the coach at Texas? For the sake of getting everyone's anger on the table, let's just declare that it is.
So, here we are still in the midst of a dying season and everyone's outrage is still so raw that it's tough to have a rational discussion, but I have to make an admission because my thoughts on the current season have less to do with basketball and more to do with life.
I'm reminded of the discussion that Mack Brown had with us trouble makers...er media members this week in his annual pre-spring State of the Union. Oh, he's really talking to the mommas and the papas out there more than us, but since we're the ones that get to ask the questions, he tolerates us the best that he can. In this conversation, the topic of his 2007 team came up. Now, I can't remember if he brought the subject up or it was the trouble makers, but he let us have a glimpse into his soul.
Just to remind everyone about that season in case two straight national title runs have clouded your memory, but it was a bit of a disaster in its own right. Yes, the team won 10 games, but every win felt like a 12-round split decision and then there was the end of the season, which featured a mind-numbing loss to Texas A&M that cost Texas a shot at its first BCS bowl of the post-VY era.
Hell, don't let me tell you. Just read the exasperated words from Mack, himself.
"In 2007, I did not like it. I do not know what happened there, but I just did not like the way that we played all of the time," Mack said Thursday. "It was a 10-win season and had some great games, but I just did not like it. We had to come from behind to beat Oklahoma State down 35-14 starting the fourth quarter. We had to come from behind to beat Nebraska. There [were just too many times] that it was like we played with entitlement and played with an arrogance."
Sound like this year's basketball team. The problems might be different, but the end results ring familiar. Like when the baseball team couldn't get over the post-season hump from 2006-08. Not every season ends with a championship and some end in really disappointing fashions. Some years even end with the fans and coach questioning that year's approach to the entire season.
Of course, the difference between those situations and the one that Rick Barnes has right now is that those other coaches had national titles under their belt, which is the ultimate feather in the cap for college coaching job security. Even when Mack drew fire in 2007 for a team that he couldn't be proud of, those that suggested that he needed to be replaced were drowned out by laughter. Seriously, walk up to DeLoss Dodds the next time the Longhorns are having a season that doesn't end up at the level of your expectations and suggest that he fire Mack. I dare you.
2007 was a mulligan and Mack Brown has earned that one and several more if he ever needs them. Same with Augie Garrido. If this year's baseball team finishes dead last in the Big 12, Augie gets a pass. You can huff and puff and argue all you want, but it's true. I'm not saying that you can't be mad and throw such a tantrum that you're two-year old calls you out for being a baby, but you just need to know that your crying doesn't matter more than his skins on the wall.
So, if Mack and Augie have both had mulligans, the real question that needs to be asked is whether Barnes has done enough for the basketball program to buy him the benefit of the doubt when the going gets tough. With all due respect to anyone that might think otherwise, but
Of course, he does.
Barnes isn't just the best basketball coach that the Longhorns have ever had, he's the guy that changed the culture at this school. You care about basketball with the passion that you do this season because he made you. Don't even tell me otherwise because I covered the basketball team during the glorious Tom Penders years when the cry of "next year" was evident every season and a Sweet 16 bid was treated as cause for a parade. The basketball history at Texas was so light in basketball history that Dodds and the fans let Penders run a game of hustle on them each year any time a job opened up. Or am I the only that remembers him holding the school hostage when the Rutgers job opened up?
Rutgers. Say that to yourself out loud. Rutgers.
Before Barnes revolutionized the program, Penders' two Sweet 16 appearances in a decade were the highlight of Texas' post-season basketball history. Or was it that NIT championship from the 70's? Or Slater Martin from the 1950's?
Today the Longhorns have a program that ranks among the national elite. Players like Kevin Durant and Avery Bradley come from East and West to wear burnt orange and the standards have become so high that the minimum bar has become reaching the Sweet 16 each season.
That's the minimum because Barnes has helped set the bar with five Sweet 16 appearances, three Elite Eights and a single Final Four in his 11 years at Texas. Not once during his time in Austin has he ever missed the NCAA Tournament and only once has he not won 20 games, which was his first season in Austin and ended with a Big 12 championship.
I don't know if winning 20 games in basketball is quite like winning 10 games in football, but it's widely considered to be a fairly magical number in determining a degree of success in college basketball. Barnes' currently has an 11-year streak of 22+ wins and six of those seasons saw the Longhorns win 25 or more. His standard has become so high that his team could still win 25+ games this season and he'll be could be judged harshly from coast to coast.
Therefore, his worthiness for a mulligan seems strong in my book.
I think the bigger issue that needs to be discussed is what happens after this season. After that 2007 season in football, Mack was able to cut the chords with a defensive coordinator decision that had gone drastically bad and he brought in one of the nation's best in Will Muschamp to help him runs the defense and reshape the culture. A number of other changes helped bring the program into a new era of success that almost matches any in the program's history. The steps that Mad Mack took ensured that another 2007 season hasn't happened since.
That's really where we're at with Barnes and his team this season. He's earned a mulligan, but we'll all be watching to see what steps he takes to ensure another season like this one never happens again. In truth, the 2007 season was a blessing in disguise for the Longhorns, even if it causes Mack heartburn to this day.
Rick's goal moving forward is to make sure that whatever mistakes he and his team have made this season aren't repeated Having enough awareness of the real problems so that they don't pop up again in the future is the only thing that can salvage some of what has happened this year. In fact, perhaps this season was needed if the program is to finally get the program towards its bigger goal - a national title.
It takes a perfect storm to win a national title, but not the kind we've seen this season.
No.2 - Mack Brown is so good right now that it's scary
Don't worry Oklahoma and Texas A&M and anyone else that recruits the state of Texas, Mack Brown is almost finished. As soon as he's done, you'll get yours.
After landing two more commits over the weekend, the Longhorns are up to a mind-bottling 17 commitments and this recruiting tsunami that the Longhorns have dropped on the likes of the Sooners and Aggies is bordering on humiliation for the competition.
For Mack, recruiting has turned into the equivalent of Zac Efron walking into night club full of college girls. All he has to do is smile, not show up completely trashed and every girl in the place will be willing to leave their man on the spot for a shot at the title.
I'm not even sure that the not showing up trashed part even matters. He just needs to show up and smile.
Same with Mack. It's like he's a 58-year old version of Efron and every high school football player in Texas has morphed into a female that's waiting for him to call with a prom date invite. Until Mack decides who he's sharing the first dance with, every other dude is just going to have to wait it out.
Sorry, Bob. Garrett Greenlea got asked to the prom this weekend by Zac Efron. You're going to need to start making up a plan B er plan F.
The silver lining for Bob Stoops, Mike Sherman, Les Miles, Tommy Tuberville (welcome to the party) and anyone else that recruits this state (that includes you, too, Art Briles) is that Mack can't take all of these kids to the prom. As much as he would love to, he can't take them all. The NCAA mandates it, although if they are going enforce rules on Texas that limits Will Muschamp's ability to do his job, while renegade cheaters run free and easy, perhaps the Longhorns should consider starting their own governing body.
Secession, anyone? Can you imagine a world where Texas has no scholarship limits? Perhaps the only thing saving recruiting right now for OU and A&M is Title IX.
No.3 - Let's talk about what happened this weekend
Here's the elevator conversation recap of what transpired this weekend at the Junior Day.
1. Texas brought in a very small group consisting of what appears to be fewer than 10 players and othey ffered three players.
2. Two of those players (Klein Oak offensive lineman Garrett Greenlea and Carthage defensive end/linebacker Kendall Thompson) committed, while the other (New Mexico prep star Matthew Hegarty) held off and appears set on making a decision in April or May at the latest.
3. Every other player (with the exception of South Carolina product Hakeem Flowers) that the Longhorns brought in was a defensive back prospect and none received offers. Although the Longhorns appear set on taking one or two more cornerback prospects in this class, the only open offer appears to have gone out to Oklahoma product Josh Turner. It looks like the Longhorns will wait a while before making any future decisions at the position.
Those are the cliff notes or the weekend and before we get into a bit of a global breakdown of where things currently stand, let's take a closer look at each of the two commitments.
Recruiting wouldn't be any fun without surprises and the commitment of Greenlea certainly registered as a surprise to some of us, but it was definitely a good surprise for Longhorn fans because Greenlea probably ranks as the second-most coveted offensive line prospect in the state, at least if volume of offers mean anything. The how's and why's don't matter nearly as much as the simple fact that it did. Now the Longhorns have themselves a 6-7, 285-pound mountain of a tackle prospect that brings the kind of size, attitude and ability as a power player that the line desperately needs a dose of. There are kids every year that Texas is forced to leave on the table and it was a smart move to ensure that Greenlea wasn't one of those guys.
Meanwhile, don't underestimate the commitment of Thompson, who ranks as one of the state's top sleepers in my mind. Although Thompson ranks as the No.34 prospect in my current rankings, that's based entirely on my sophomore evaluation of him and just a smidge of early junior-season film. At 6-3, 232 pounds, Thompson is an edge player at the next level that has been roaming the middle of a two-time reigning state champion in East Texas. He's a guy that had a little bit of a tweener's body as a sophomore, but he really started to grow into his frame as a junior and his ability to close and blow up the football will excite you when you see film (Howell is headed to Carthage on Monday). I'm looking forward to seeing his junior film, but his upside has always made him one of my favorites in this class.
The bottom line is that both players are the kind of prospects that you make room for.
No.4 - So, now what? Who's next?
Although there's been talk from within the program that the staff would like to keep the numbers in this class to 23, but I think everyone can see that this group is headed to 25, especially if it's the right 25.
With 17 in the cupboard, the Longhorns are likely down to eight spots left, although there's room to probably take a couple of more if they really wanted to push it because of the ability to move a few early enrollers into the 2010 class numbers, but that require probably more attrition than you'd like to see and it would really cut into the possible 2012 numbers (there are currently 17 scholarship juniors in Texas' departing 2011 senior class).
Therefore, let's take a look at the current 2011 numbers by position:
1 QB/ 1 RB/ 2 WR/ 1 TE/ 5 OL/ 1 DT/ 1 DE/ 2 LB/ 3 DB
Based on the plan coming into the weekend, that would leave the Longhorns looking for the following:
2 RB/ 1 DT/ 1 DE/ 1 LB/ 2 DB
If you take that premise at face value, then the Longhorns could still sign another offensive lineman, hit on all of their remaining needs and finish with a 25-man class. Frankly, when you look at the numbers, you might even be able to sneak out a 26th or 27th commitment in this class if the attrition that the Longhorns do suffer in the next 12 months doesn't come from the looming 2011 UT senior class. The big fear if you're the staff and you want to preserve the competitive balance in recruiting for 2012 is that your departing 2011 class gets down to a dozen or so players, which would limit the numbers available.
With that in mind, let's take a look at each position and player that the Longhorns are currently recruiting and where things might stand.
Both Malcolm Brown and Aaron Green have offers and will likely have them until they make their decisions, although if the Longhorns are in need of cutting a number at a position, they could always take one more back in this class and stop, but I'm not sure that they are ready to make that plunge, especially with several insiders I've spoken with feeling very good about Texas' chances with both players. Of course, there's still a feeling that Brandon Williams isn't completely out of play, despite the commitment to Baylor. For all of the doom and gloom forecasting that's taken place, I promise you that the Longhorns wouldn't trade places with anyone else at this point.
This is a position that could close up very quickly. Despite offering three players at the first Junior Day and having two open offers to Marquis Anderson and Quincy Russell, the numbers would indicate that there's likely one open spot remaining. So, is this a case of the first one to commit gets the spot? Would the Longhorns not take Anderson if Russell commits and potentially upset a future commitment from Malcolm Brown? My guess is that something happens fairly soon at this position and it'll be interesting to see if the number's game has already impacted any existing offers (perhaps the staff was willing to take three DT commits on the first Junior Day since they offered three, but wouldn't be willing to now). My guess is that there's room for one and Anderson ranks a must-have in my mind.
We learned from the Nathan Hughes situation a few weeks ago that the Longhorns have slotted two spots for this position and after landing Thompson this weekend, the Longhorns could be down to one open, unless they decide to slot Thompson as a linebacker in their counting. With offers currently out to Cedric Reed and Jermauria Rasco, the smart money has the Longhorns taking one more prospect and the even smarter money would be on the final DE commit coming from Reed. Perhaps Rasco is a guy that they would take late in the process no matter the circumstances, but the vibe I've been getting is that few expect Rasco to be a Longhorn.
The magic number at this position has been three since the beginning, although I wouldn't be shocked if the Longhorns stayed with two when it's all said and done, unless a War Daddy type prospect were to want to jump on board. At the moment, the only outstanding offer belongs to Anthony Wallace, and there's a growing suspicion that the Longhorns could miss out on the Dallas Skyline product for several reasons, with one of them centering on the lack of interest that Texas has in Franklin Shannon. Wallace might have his open offer for a while, but the Longhorns aren't going to lose any sleep over a single prospect, especially when they signed a big-time group of linebackers in 2010. The grapevine chatter has Will Muschamp coveting James Vaughters and perhaps he's a guy they'll make room for. Otherwise, they could take Chet Moss/Steve Edmond and call it a day.
The biggest unknown in recruiting right now is at defensive back after the Longhorns brought in four defensive backs and offered none of them, telling them all that they planned on waiting until the spring until making a decision. Two of the visitors mentioned that the Longhorns were only planning on taking four defensive backs, which could mean that an extra offensive lineman could come at the expense of a number for Duana Akina. I'd still bet on the Longhorns taking five defensive backs when its all said and done, but if they are only going to take four, perhaps Akina wants to make sure he has a chance to make a run at Oklahoma star prospect Josh Turner or another out of state star. Regardless, the only current defensive back with an open and current offer appears to be Turner and he hasn't even met Mack Brown. It's possible that every piece of this class could be finalized and in place before Longhorns out a ribbon and bow on the defensive back recruiting.
No.5 - 10 more random thoughts about recruiting
I. The recruiting momentum that the Longhorns currently have in recruiting is going to help them close the deal with guys like Malcolm Brown. People can say what they want, but Brown and the rest of the prospects on the board can see what's taking place right now. Oklahoma, Texas A&M and the rest of the competition couldn't be getting mud-holed worse than they are right now. The only kids Texas isn't winning outright with right now are guys with family connections to other programs and the guys they are passing on. When you consider the success and momentum that the Longhorns are working with right now, you'd be naive to think it's not going to have an impact.
II. I've talked to a lot of people about Herschel Sims this week and everyone thinks I have Sims a little overrated because of his lack of elite physical tools, including outright speed. My argument is that the guy is a great, great player who was the best player on every field he played on this season. Regardless, I'll be doing a deeper evaluation of Sims heading into the spring. Sims seems to be the one player in my top ten that a lot of people think is ranked a little high.
III. Brandon Williams still looms for the Longhorns in my mind. When it's all said and done, I keep thinking that he'll be a Texas commit when the dust settles.
IV. Despite talk that he might take his time and make a few visits into the spring, I wouldn't be shocked at all if Cedric Reed makes the call for the Longhorns fairly soon. I haven't heard anything specific, it's just a hunch.
V. I haven't completely figured out the Quandre Diggs situation, but a few people I spoke with last week weren't sure that he would get an offer. After communicating with Diggs on Saturday, he certainly didn't appear turned off by the situation that unfolded and he seemed fairly confident that an offer would eventually arrive. Man, I would have given Suchomel's left thumb for a chance to be a fly on the wall this weekend.
VI. Many are wondering about the lack of an offer for LaDarius Brown of Waxahachie and I spoke with a couple of people this week about him. There's a growing feeling that he's not as rangy and doesn't turn his hips as well as you'd like. Some feel like his best side of the ball might be on offense.
VII. It'll be interesting to watch the career of Whitehouse wide receiver Trey Metoyer against those of Jaxon Shipley and Miles Onyegbule because I think the Longhorns really could have made a strong run at the likely four-star wide receiver. In fact, I'll be so bold as to say that might have emerged as a favorite had they made him a priority, but the word I got was that the Texas staff was 100% sold on the two guys they have being the top two prospects at the position inside Texas.
VIII. Desmond Roland's speed is being questioned by a lot of schools and it might be the biggest reason why his offer list hasn't featured any of the big boys.
IX. Was told last week that the reason Texas passed on Trevon Randle is that they want more linebackers that physically project as future pros and Randle (6-1, 205 pounds) didn't quite fit the profile when compared to the other players available this year. You might have heard Mack Brown mention something about their inability to stop power offenses on Thursday and they want to nip the holes in their run defense that has been exposed in the last two BCS bowls that they've played in before they lead to bigger problems. Those games appear to have changed some of the prerequisites that the team has at the position.
X. If there was one player in the state of Texas that the Longhorns haven't offered that I would suggest they offer, it would be Quandre Diggs. Second place is Brandon Williams. My wild card offer for third place is Beaumont Westbook defensive end Ben Goodman. He's raw, but has a ton of athleticism and speed off the edge.
XI. The Longhorns feel good about their current position with Christian Westerman I'm told, but worry that he likes a lot of schools as much as he likes the Longhorns. I'm guessing if they can find a way to land Westerman, they'll chalk it up to found money.
No.6 - More randomness from the NFL combine...
* Not a good weekend for the Longhorns, as Colt McCoy takes heat for not throwing and coming in at 6-1, Jordan Shipley runs a 4.57/4.60 with a pulled groin and Adam Ulatoski posts a 40-time that Terrence Cody can shoot for. It's good a good thing for all three that they are better football players than testers, although I think all three might have lost a little money this weekend.
* Daniel Jeremiah of MoveTheSticks.com mentioned on Twitter than Florida's Riley Cooper worked out better and moved ahead of Shipley in his mind.
* LSU's Brandon LaFell did not have a good day running, either, and posted nearly identical times to Shipley.
* I was shocked to see Ole Miss running back Dexter McCluster run in the mid 4.5's today. With his size, you've got to run faster than that. He's still a second round guy in all likelihood, but that likely cooled his stock a little.
* Fresno State running back Ryan Matthews' stock is soaring. It seems like EVERYONE is talking about him, from Jeremiah to John McClain to the janitors at the combine.
* Someone is going to take Tebow in the first round. I can just feel it.
* C.J. Spiller and Golden Tate made some money,
* Perrish Cox apparently didn't like NFL teams "harassing" him with questions about his past. Guys that don't get it don't usually last long in the NFL.
* There have been a lot of mock drafts that have penciled in Maryland offensive tackle Bruce Campbell to the Cowboys, but after his freak performance this weekend, I'm convinced that the Raiders will take him.
No.7 - Olympic Hockey pride
Consider me as a hockey novice.
There was a time when I was a pretty fair Flyers fan, but that was back in the Ron Hextall years, so it's been some time to say the least. It's not like I don't know who Sidney Crosby is; it's just that I really don't really care any more. I can't really explain why. It just is.
That being said, I was just like every other red- blooded American on Sunday, rooting like crazy for the USA Olympic team and when Crosby scored in overtime, I felt the same kick in the nuts feeling everyone else felt. It was Olympic competition at its finest and probably the most significant hockey moment in this country since 1980.
It sure was a hell of a lot of fun. Does it mean that I have a newfound love for the sport and will turn my attention to the NHL? Never say never, but I don't know that I see it happening. I dig me some Ryan Miller, so if Buffalo makes a run in the playoffs, I might tune in and watch. Outside of that, I'm not sure where and when I'll have the time. I don't even know the name of a single player on the Flyers. Do I just get back on the Flyers bandwagon or do I find another team>
It's like trying to get into the international soccer. How do you even begin to start from scratch?
Oh well, at least we'll always have the Olympics every four years
No.8 - Back in Blue
Six weeks. As a true blue, silver-star fanatic, that's how long it's taken me to shake the 34-3 mud-hole that the old man Brett Favre and the rest of the Minnesota Vikings put on my Dallas Cowboys back on January 17th.
It's not that the loss was so crushing that I haven't been able to deal with the reality of what happened. No, in a way it was better to lose convincingly, as opposed to a nail-biter (ask the Vikings) because the what-if game isn't nearly as haunting. My issue is that I just needed some time to re-charge the batteries. In the meantime, I watched a great end of the NFL playoffs, covered a couple of Junior Days and soaked in a brief timeout from true NFL activity.
Right around the time the combine rolls around, I'm ready to dive into the NFL Draft and the rest of the off-season. Therefore, I'm ready to have a discussion about where the Cowboys have been, where they are going and what they have to do to get there. More than anything, the next 1,000 words probably constitute therapy without having to sit on the couch (if you hate the Cowboys, just move on to section IX)
When you look at the 2010 Cowboys, you're looking at a team that's going to look a lot like the 2009 Cowboys. The heavy core of the team is under contract and many of the key pieces are under long-term contracts. Free agency won't likely make much of a difference, good or bad. Therefore, a lot of improvement that's going to need to be made needs to come from within the team (see Miles Austin, Anthony Spencer and Mike Jenkins) or from the upcoming draft (six picks pre-compensatory).
The bad news is that in a year when the draft is as deep as it has been in a decade, the Cowboys don't have multiple picks in any round and are without a fifth round selection. The good news is that the team isn't completely void of young and hopefully up-and-coming talent, especially if one or two of the injured draft picks from the 2009 class can emerge.
As bad as that draft class looked on paper at the end of the year (and it looks terrible at the moment), I'm not ready to give up on guys because they weren't able to make an impact in year one. For those that are laughing at me, just know that I'm taking Mack Brown's own advice from Thursday and giving some of these players more than three practices before passing final judgment. After thinking that Anthony Spencer was a complete bust after September, I still haven't finished my full plate of humble pie (Does anyone want a piece? There's plenty left).
With that being said, let's take a snapshot glance at the current roster make-up to see what the Cowboys are working with, what young players might be able to emerge as factors and what areas they likely need address the most in the draft.
Quarterback - The Cowboys should be pretty set here with Tony Romo coming off of his best season as a starter. Although he wasn't a factor in 2009, the team seems content with Jon Kitna as a back-up and after drafting Stephen McGee in the fourth round last year, Jerry Jones is likely going to let this position marinate for another year. As little faith as I have in McGee, there's no question that they've got to give McGee every chance to emerge as a potential No.2.
Draft need status: Minimal
Running backs - I'm not sure this is quite the loaded position that it might appear to be on paper because of the apparent declining skills of Marion Barber, who has never been the same player since the Cowboys put him into the stating line-up. The best back on the roster right now is Felix Jones and when he's on the field, the offense is at its best. Can he stay healthy? Also, what will the role be for third-year running back Tashard Choice? The off-season troubles of Deon Anderson could lead the Cowboys to take a look at a fullback in the draft or free agency.
Draft need status: Moderate
Wide receivers - Assuming that Miles Austin does resign with the Cowboys as expected, they would appear to be in pretty good shape, especially if Kevin Ogletree can continue to come on in his second year. Patrick Crayton is a solid third receiver, but Roy Williams and Sam Hurd are players that need to take steps forward. Obviously, Williams is going to be on the roster, but I wouldn't mind replacing Hurd's spot, as he's had four years and done pretty much nothing. Although Ogletree doesn't have a huge pedigree, he's going to push for more playing time in 2010 and I truly believe that his emergence will give this position a chance to improve from within.
Draft need status: Moderate
Tight ends: The Cowboys like to draft a tight end pretty much every year, but with Pro Bowler Jason Witten, third-year enigma Martellus Bennett and second-year up-and-comer John Phillips, the tight end position is pretty well set. In fact, I can't help but wonder if Jerry Jones doesn't want to shoot himself after declining a second-round offer for Bennett from the Bengals, especially after Phillips took a lot of his snaps as the second-team tight end down the stretch. Regardless, the Cowboys have one of the better tight end trios in the league and if Bennett will ever grow up, they have star potential waiting in the wings.
Draft need status: Minimal
Offensive tackle: There's a sense out there in the draft world that the Cowboys are in dire straights after the pistol-whipping that the Vikings front four gave the Cowboys offensive line. The starting duo of Flozell Adams and Marc Colombo is solid, but Adams can't go on forever and Colombo wasn't as strong in 2009 as he had been the previous season because of injuries, and the jury is out on what exactly he has left in the tank. The good news is that Doug Free finally showed something in his third season and looks ready to emerge as a possible starting caliber player. You also can't forget that third round pick Robert Brewster missed all of last season with a torn pectoral and there's a feeling that a redshirt year might have been exactly what the massive tackle needed. A lot depends on what the team thinks they really have in Free and Brewster, but some of the answers for the future could already be in place. If nothing else, Brewster almost serves as an incoming third round pick after missing every piece of last season. Even if both players emerge as capable starters and/or reserves, its possible neither is the answer at left-tackle in the long-term.
Draft need status: Moderate-plus to Strong
Offensive guard: The Cowboys have one of the best in the league in former Longhorns Leonard Davis, but Kyle Kosier is one of the weaker starters in the line-up (on either side of the ball) and the depth behind them with Cory Proctor and Montrea Holland (horrible trade) scares me to drinking. In a perfect world, Free or Brewster emerge as a long-term starter at right tackle, while the other eventually slides inside to lend depth and possibly even a future starter, while the draft provides the left tackle of the future. No matter how it happens, this is an area of the team that needs some real re-tooling.
Draft need stats: Strong
Center: Veteran Andre Gurode often frustrates me to the point that I pull hair out of my head that doesn't exist, but he is one of the better centers in football and an anchor in the middle of the line. Duke Preston is a veteran back-up that could and likely should be replaced if possible because he's a JAG if there ever was one, which makes him a perfect fit on that second-team offensive line.
Draft need stats: Minimal to Moderate
Nose-tackle: Jay Ratliff is one of the best in the game and the Cowboys like the upside that Junior Siavii brings to the table as a reserve, but he's proven very little in a Dallas uniform. This is a position that could use a shot in the arm from a depth perspective because the team would be in an awful spot if anything happened to Ratliff. With the free agent defensive tackle market drying up fast, the Cowboys need to look to the draft for some answers.
Draft need status: Moderate to Strong
Defensive end: You can never have enough good defensive linemen and the Cowboys have a solid group of players with Marcus Spears, Igor Olshansky, Stephen Bowen and Jason Hatcher. Three of the four are restricted free agents, but the Cowboys aren't expected to take a hit there. The team could certainly use an upgrade at the position if possible, but there are certainly greater areas of need, especially if they retain their trio of restricted free agents.
Draft need status: Moderate
Outside linebacker: There's no question that the Cowboys have been very aggressive in their pursuit of pass rushers in recent years and their investment at the position has paid off with the emergence of Spencer this year giving the Cowboys one of the best 1-2 pass rush punches in football. Second-year end Victor Butler showed flashes of being a playmaker this season and could give the team more quality depth, as might the return of former Texas Tech star Brandon Williams. Mix in the steady Steve Octavian and you've got a unit that is not only stocked at the top, but there are a pair of young players that rate as prospects for the future and present. If even one of Butler/Williams pairing truly emerges, the Cowboys will be a rich team at outside linebacker barring injuries.
Draft need Minimal to moderate
Inside linebacker: The Bradie James/Keith Brooking combo was an improvement from 2008 and Bobby Carpenter proved to be a decent third-down linebacker. The issue that the Cowboys have is that they don't have anyone that can start for them if one of their top two guys gets hurt. That means that they should probably look for someone in free agency if they can. This position also has a chance to improve from within this season is last year's second-round pick Jason Williams can emerge as a factor after an injury-plagued rookie season. If the team was willing to be patient with Carpenter, you have to think that Williams will be given every chance to prove that he's a guy for the future. Again, this is a second round pick that basically took a red-shirt year. Same with sixth round pick Stephen Hodge.
Draft need: Moderate
Cornerback: Thank goodness for Mike Jenkins because he certainly answered a huge question for the franchise and allows Terence Newman to take on a secondary role as the No.2 corner moving forward. The real question mark is with the third corner because Orlando Scandrick had a very disappointing second-year after a promising rookie campaign. Alan Ball showed improved ability, but he's a pretty weak fourth corner/safety. Because Newman can crack at any moment and because Scandrick can't yet totally be counted on, this position probably needs some attention through the draft.
Draft need: Strong
Safety: Yes, yes and yes. This is an area of constant consternation and although the Gerald Sensabaugh/Ken Hamlin tandem was solid, it wasn't really anything to write home about, either. In fact, Hamlin really took a step back after he signed his extension and he's a player that either needs to turn it back around or be replaced. Pat Watkins is a decent reserve and he's a restricted free agent, but his ceiling is limited. The good news is that the team has very high hopes for last year's fifth round pick Mike Hamlin, who was hurt for most of last season. In a perfect world, the younger Hamlin takes over at one of the safety spots. As mentioned previously, Ball is just as a JAG as the fourth safety.
Draft need: Strong
Kicker/Punter: The Cowboys want David Buehler to win the place-kicking duties after a sensational rookie season as a kickoff specialist. That means that the Cowboys won't be looking to take a kicker in the draft with one of their six picks. Of course, Mat McBriar remains one of the game's top punter.
Overall: After that roster breakdown, I'd have to rate the three most important areas of need heading into the draft like this: left tackle, guard and safety. As much as the Cowboys hate to spend premium picks on linemen and especially safeties (see last season), those are the areas they can ill-afford to ignore based on the current roster projection. Therefore, if I had to run to run a quick-glance six-pick mock for the Cowboys, it might look a little something like this:
1st round (No.27) - Bruce Campbell (OT-Maryland)
2nd round (No.59) - Terrence Cody (NT- Alabama)
3rd round - (No.90) - Nate Allen (S-South Florida)
4th round - Mike Johnson (OG-Alabama)
6th round - Josh Hull (ILB-Penn State)
7th round - Keith Toston (RB-Oklahoma State)
No.9 - Because the Oscars are next Sunday
I won't have a chance to add any late thoughts on the race in this column before the envelopes are opened.
Just for the record:
Best picture: Inglourious Basterds (runner-up: An Education)
Best actor: Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart)
Best actress: Carey Mulligan (An Education)
Best supporting actor: Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds)
Best supporting actress: Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air)
Best director: James Cameron (Avatar)
No.10 - And finally
Only 47 more days until the wedding. Tick tock, tick tock