Unlocking Key To Draft By MICKEY SPAGNOLA DallasCowboys.com Columnist April 27, 2004, 6:25 p.m. (CDT) IRVING, Texas - Jacob Rogers, can he play? Stephen Peterman, can he play? Those are the questions you should be asking out there concerning this Dallas Cowboys draft instead of hyperventilating over if the Cowboys got the best running back on Saturday afternoon. These two guys will make or break this Cowboys draft. Offensive linemen, imagine that. All these grades being thrown around nationally focus on one aspect of the Cowboys draft: Running back Julius Jones. That's because these experts-for-the-week don't know a thing about Rogers and Peterman. How could they? They don't watch tape. They can't possibly concentrate on what offensive linemen do watching a game on TV. Offensive lineman generally do not show up on SportsCenter. But I'm telling you, these two cats will make or break the Cowboys draft. And I haven't lost my mind. I know the Cowboys were in desperate need to fortify the running back position. I know they've been struggling there the past couple of years. But too bad for them. Just when they had a need at running back, college football let them down. The market was bare. What happened last year? Only two running backs were taken in the first round. One, Willis McGahee, couldn't play. He was rehabbing from reconstructive knee surgery. The other, Larry Johnson, didn't go until 27, and only then because Kansas City desperately was looking for insurance against surgically-repaired Priest Holmes. And this year? Have you bothered to ask yourself that? I mean, if this running back crop was so good, why was no running back taken until 24? Why were only two selected in the first round, and at the tail end, at that? Let us review. Heading into this draft, it was no secret Tampa Bay needed a running back. The Bucs had one in jail (Michael Pittman) and one still recovering from off-season knee surgery (Charlie Garner). Denver had traded away its guy (Clinton Portis) and barely made a stab at replacing him with 33-year-old Garrison Hearst. Detroit was sitting there with Shawn Bryson and Artose Pinner. Few would discount New England grabbing a runner despite having traded for Corey Dillon. Cincinnati wanted some insurance against Rudi Johnson being around for only one more year after trading Dillon. And pray tell, who of note is running the ball for Chicago these days? So the Cowboys were not the only team in the market for a running back. Yet, there it was, 21 picks, and no team - not Detroit at No. 6, not Chicago at 14, not Tampa Bay at 15, not Denver at 17 and not New England at 21 - had taken a running back. Now why is that? None of these guys were considered marquee backs, at least not good enough to take before wide receiver Roy Williams, which meant the Lions spent consecutive first-round picks on wide receivers. My gosh Tampa Bay, after swapping Keyshawn Johnson for Joey Galloway, took a wide receiver, Michael Clayton. And Denver - Denver now, where running back guru Mike Shanahan resides - decided it was better off taking a linebacker (D.J. Williams) instead of "the best running back in the draft." So how good could these guys really be? And the Dallas Cowboys? They basically did what everyone else did. They decided another position would be more valuable, except that player will not arrive until 2005, having traded out of the first round for that 2005 first rounder so Buffalo could draft quarterback J.P. Losman. Let's continue. Cincinnati was the next team in need of a running back, just two picks later. The Bengals, they didn't want Stephen Jackson. Nor did they want Kevin Jones. Same as all the others before them in the first round. Un-uh, the Bengals traded down two places to take the running back they really wanted: Michigan's Chris Perry. So had St. Louis not traded up to the 24th spot, Jackson would not have been drafted until 26, the Rams' original position. Does that mean anything to anybody? Is Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis getting roasted for not taking "the best running back in the draft"? Hey, check this out. You want to know the previous five guys to be taken with the 26th pick in the draft? Try Kwame Harris, Lito Shepard, Jamar Fletcher, Erik Flowers and Fernando Bryant. Any of that get your knee shakin'? But that was Jackson's range. And about this Kevin Jones, who seems to be causing more teeth gnashing than is taking place at Yankee Stadium these days because the Cowboys passed on him, too: Had Detroit not traded up into the first round, all the way up to No. 30, by the way, he, too, would have slipped into the second round. So there are people out there telling me the Cowboys absolutely blew it by not taking Kevin Jones at 22, when 29 other teams in the first round decided Kevin Jones was not first-round material. And don't tell me about need. If a player is a great player, no matter position, a team needs that player. Another thing: Denver ended up drafting a running back in the second round. But Shanahan didn't want Jackson. He didn't want Kevin Jones. Heck, he didn't even want Chris Perry. He wanted the linebacker and then Tatum Bell, taking much the same route as the Cowboys. Did he get roasted for passing on the "best running back in the draft"? Evidently, there were varying opinions on just who "the best running back in the draft" really was, so to me, that says no one was the clear-cut best. Same as when a coach says a certain position will be by "committee." That means he doesn't have anyone good enough to handle the position by his lonesome. Hey, maybe St. Louis was smarter than everyone else, but remember this is the same franchise which drafted Lawrence Phillips and Trung Canidate with first-round picks. Another thing: That six running backs - Jackson, Perry, Kevin Jones, Bell, Julius Jones and Greg Jones - were taken between the 24th pick in the first round and the 24th pick in the second round tells me there probably wasn't a Grand Canyon divide between the talent of these players, and certainly not enough for a building team like the Cowboys to turn its nose up on the opportunity to grab a first-round pick for 2005 and a running back. In fact, if you remember, before the draft, Cowboys owners Jerry Jones actually said, "Six running backs can make a significant contribution," so it's not like the Cowboys changed their tune in the middle of the draft. They held true to their convictions, and had they had the opportunity, likely would have taken offensive tackle Shawn Andrews with that first-round pick and the running back in the second. As it turned out, they got a bonus starter to be named later in the first, the running back in the second and the offensive tackle in the second, too. Rogers then is the juice for delaying this year's first-round gratification until next. He better turn out to be a player. So, too, better Peterman. That's what you should be worried about. The Cowboys need these hard hats to be players. No matter what you think of Torrin Tucker or Kurt Vollers, they entered the league as rookie free agents. Rogers is a second-round pick. There should be a huge discrepancy in talent if the Cowboys know what they are doing. And Parcells knows, this team had to get better up front. Same with Peterman. As one person with knowledge of Peterman's play at LSU said, he'll be better than whatever version of Larry Allen you choose from the past two years. And as for a comparison with Andre Gurode, who actually went a round higher than Peterman, the LSU player is said to be a street brawler, a characteristic sorely missing in Gurode last season. So look at it this way: If the Cowboys get better at right tackle, at one of the guard positions - and it doesn't matter if the improvement comes from Allen being in better shape, Gurode playing better or Peterman being an upgrade over either - and then get better at center, assuming Al Johnson is ready to reclaim his job from Matt Lehr, why even Troy Hambrick might be able to average 4 yards a carry. And he wasn't even drafted. See, chances are the Cowboys didn't turn their back on the chance to draft the next Emmitt Smith on Saturday afternoon. Chances are they didn't even ignore the next Jamal Lewis or LaDainian Tomlinson. No, what they did, is parlay one pick into - they hope - two starters, since you figure next year's first-round pick should yield a starter. Julius Jones, my guess, will be good enough. But what you need to be preoccupied with is this: Is Rogers at least the next Flozell Adams, and not the next Shane Hannah? Is Peterman at least the next Erik Williams, and not the next Steve Scifres? Those answers right there will determine whether this was a Grade-A draft or not. Don't kid yourself or let others kid you about that running back stuff. Here is one grade that tickled my fancy: This from Don Banks of CNNSI: "Some question whether (Julius) Jones fits Parcells' preference for a tough, power back." Well, who the hell does he think signed off on Julius Jones? Also, this isn't just me on the lean running back crop. Here's what was written in the latest edition of Pro Football Weekly: "The word around the league heading into this year's draft was that this was a relatively pedestrian group of running backs." Saw Bill Bates last week. Sez he probably will take the year off following his ouster by good buddy Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville as special teams coach to serve as a volunteer coach for his son's freshman football team down in Florida. Hard to believe those triplets already are going to high school. You know, Detroit still is looking for an experienced guard to pair with recently-acquired Damien Woody. So don't discount the possibility of the Cowboys still getting what they're looking for from the Lions for guard Larry Allen . . . after June 1.