Hill - Cowboys continue their search for pressure point
Cowboys continue their search for pressure point
By Clarence E. Hill Jr.
Star-Telegram Staff Writer
IRVING - With their first pick, the Cowboys select ... drum roll, please ... a pass-rushing defensive end.
Four times in the past 11 years, including back-to-back in 1998 and 1999, the Cowboys have taken a defensive end with their first pick in the NFL Draft.
Suffice to say, the Cowboys have not had much luck, as the list of mostly forgettable names include Shante Carver in 1994, Kavika Pittman in 1996, Greg Ellis in 1998 and Ebenezer Ekuban in 1999.
None has made the Pro Bowl. None has recorded double-digit sacks in a season. And only Ellis, a solid all-around performer who is best known for being the player the Cowboys took instead of superstar receiver Randy Moss, remains.
As a result, the search for a bona fide pass rusher continues.
If Cowboys coach Bill Parcells gets his wish, that familiar refrain or a version of it -- namely a pass-rushing outside linebacker -- will be revisited when the 2005 NFL Draft begins Saturday.
Parcells said the team's biggest need is a pressure player on defense.
In Parcells speak, that means a catalytic playmaker who specializes in wreaking havoc in the backfield with sacks and creating turnovers, while also helping the secondary improve. The Cowboys had 33 sacks last season, ranking 26th in the league.
"I would like to get that, whether it be a lineman or a big linebacker that can do something," Parcells said.
With two first-round picks -- No. 11 and No. 20 -- among the team's eight selections in the two-day draft, the Cowboys should be able to grant Parcells' wish.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, fully cognizant of the mistakes the Cowboys made in the past in searching for pass rushers, said "this is the time to strike."
"If one is there, this is the time. It's hard to get the time. It's hard to get a recognized pressure player. But the odds are with you because your draft [pick] is high," Jones said.
With the Cowboys contemplating moving from the 4-3 defense to the 3-4, they are evaluating pass-rushing linebackers as well as defensive ends.
Possible targets for the Cowboys with the 11th pick include LSU defensive end Marcus Spears, Troy linebacker/defensive end Demarcus Ware and Maryland linebacker/defensive end Shawne Merriman.
Options at No. 20 include Wisconsin defensive Erasmus James, Georgia defensive end David Pollack and Virginia linebacker Darryl Blackstock.
Of course, that's if the Cowboys don't trade down to add more picks.
And that's not even considering the possibility of them reviving trade talks with the New Orleans Saints for defensive end Darren Howard, who had 11 sacks in 13 games last season and would make for a formidable front with Ellis and tackles La'Roi Glover and Jason Ferguson.
Agent Gary Wichard, who coincidentally represents Howard and Merriman, said the Cowboys couldn't go wrong with either of the two.
Wichard called Merriman, a 6-foot-4, 272 pounder who runs the 40-yard dash in under 4.7 seconds and has the versatility to play end or linebacker, "a physical freak" with an enormous upside because he is not yet 21 years old.
Merriman might very well be a great prospect, as might Ware, Spears or James.
The problem for the Cowboys is choosing correctly.
That was the problem in the past. Carver, Pittman and Ekuban rank among the top draft busts in team history. The three combined for 34 sacks during their careers with the Cowboys.
Jones said the Cowboys are not alone in their continual quest for pass rushers. Teams around the league have also struck out on a regular basis.
Former Cowboys scouting director and NFL.com draft expert Gil Brandt blames it on the uniqueness of the position.
"You have to have guys who have a great burst and who run fast and are tall," Brandt said.
With a majority of the league playing the 4-3 defense and the scarcity of players who fit the profile for the positions, teams are naturally going to miss on players more than they are going to hit.
That's potentially one of the benefits of going to the 3-4. Aside from it being a defense that Parcells prefers, there are more players that fit the profile.
"One of the things I've smiled about is it is more fun evaluating linemen, pressure front guys, pressure players, if you are thinking of a 3-4 scheme because there is more of them," Jones said. "And those guys are easier to identify than the other ones because of the size situation. There is the fitness fact; their game and athleticism is easier to spot."
Jones said the Cowboys will take the 3-4 or 4-3 decision into draft day and let who is available decide which scheme they will use.
They currently have more personnel who fit the 4-3, but if they can get several players in the draft, especially a talented linebacker/end in the first round, the Cowboys could make the switch.
The bottom line, according to Cowboys scouting director Jeff Ireland, is finding quality versatile players no matter which scheme the Cowboys employ.
"You never know when you might be changing defenses. Bill will be here for as long as he's going to be here, but you've got to find guys who are versatile, whether it's an outside linebacker that fits the 3-4 or an outside linebacker that fits a 4-3," Ireland said. "To me, you don't draft guys that are just one position players. The more things you can do, the more opportunities you have to make plays."
If that isn't a clue to what the Cowboys are looking for with their first pick, consider Ireland's quick evaluation of Merriman and Ware, a 6-foot-4, 250-pounder with 4.5 speed.
"Shawne is big. He's a linebacker that's played in the 3-4 scheme as an outside linebacker on the strong side," Ireland said. "He can not only rush the passer with a three-point stance, but he can also rush in a two-point stance. He's also covered [in passing situations], too, and he's got great range whereas Demarcus played primarily the right defensive end position with his hand on the ground. You see Demarcus rush the passer on an every-down basis. Both of them show extreme flexibility and versatility that we're talking about."
The search continues
The Cowboys have used their first pick on defensive ends four times in the past 11 drafts. Greg Ellis, Ebenezer Ekuban and Shante Carver were first-round selections, and Kavika Pittman went in the second round. Only Ellis remains with the team, and none of those players have tallied a double-figure sack total in a single season. Overall, they have drafted seven defensive ends in that span:
1994, First round (23rd)
A bust who left the game for short time before resurfacing with the Desperados.
1999, Fourth round (132nd)
Now with Arizona, his third team since leaving as a free agent after the 2002 season.
1996, Second round (37th)
Has gone from being the team's top pick in 1996 to a career NFL journeyman.
1999, First round (20 overall)
First-round bust, who is now with Denver, his third team in three years.
2000, Seventh round (207th)
Developmental pick who never developed, now with Desperados in AFL.
1995, Seventh round (236th)
Was released after his rookie year in 1995.