Dallas Cowboys

May 10, 2014

Cowboys turn to defense on final day of NFL Draft

Iowa linebacker Anthony Hitchens and Baylor safety Ahmad Dixon are among seven players taken on the final day.

It certainly was a new day in the Dallas Cowboys’ war room the past three days, where being disciplined and finding the right fits trumped the wow factor.

The focus in this year’s draft for a Cowboys team that missed the playoffs the last four years and has coach Jason Garrett facing a must-win season in the final year of his contract was about getting better on the field and not about making headlines and selling tickets.

The philosophy manifested itself on defense with an attempt to bolster a defensive line that was decimated by age and injury during a third consecutive 8-8 record last season. It’s no secret the Cowboys fielded the worst defense in the league last year because of breakdowns up front.

After taking defensive end Demarcus Lawrence in the second round Friday, the Cowboys added defensive end/tackle Ben Gardner and defensive tackle Ken Bishop in the seventh round.

Those three combined with a number of free-agents signings, led by defensive tackle Henry Melton, and some 2013 holdovers give the Cowboys 16 players at defensive end and defensive tackle.

Owner Jerry Jones said the Cowboys are better because of the addition of impact players such as Lawrence and Melton, but also because of the numbers.

“Relative to where we played last year, we have had a very impactful draft,” Jones said. “We have had an impactful off-season relative to where we played. You witnessed a team that was bankrupted on the defensive line last year. We are better because we are ready for it. We have numbers. To me, I feel better now than when we finished last season.”

Garrett agreed with Jones. He said he believes in the old adage of winning football games by controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.

That point was made clear Thursday when the Cowboys passed on the highest-ranked player left on their board — talented Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel — to choose Notre Dame offensive tackle Zack Martin with the 16th overall pick.

As much as the Cowboys were enticed by Manziel’s talent, they stayed disciplined in their approach, choosing what was best for their team in terms of fit and helping them win next season.

It was a theme continued throughout the three-day draft. Twice the Cowboys traded up — in the second round to get Lawrence and in the fifth round on Saturday to get wide receiver Devin Street. They also added two more linebackers to help the front seven, drafting Anthony Hitchens and Will Smith in the fourth and seventh rounds, respectively.

The Cowboys went about their business in a deliberate manner and said they have a vision for the players they selected.

It all started with the biggest decision they made in passing on Manziel. It actually took the least amount of time, because the Cowboys had no interest in the accompanying spectacle.

Jones said the decision had everything to do with the presence of quarterback Tony Romo already on the roster. But he also said the media explosion would have been out of control, causing an unwanted quarterback controversy.

“The one sure thing was that if he were a Cowboy, it was going to absolutely be not only everything and what he is in the NFL and what have you, but there was no question it was going to be Romo and him in some form or fashion in every conversation,” Jones said. “There was no way it couldn’t have been that.”

Again Jones didn’t hide his appreciation for Manziel’s abilities.

“He’s got a chance to knock it out of the park, and we all know that,” Jones said.

So much so that his coming to Dallas as a backup to Romo wouldn’t work for anybody involved. Jones acknowledged that the specter of his celebrity status was too much even for a master salesman such as himself.

“It was too significant for him to be an insurance policy,” Jones said. “There’s just too much dynamic here for him, for the franchise, for everybody. That’s just too much for insurance, and it’s not the usual development guy behind an accomplished quarterback. He’s a celebrity. He’s Elvis Presley.”

What the Cowboys are now is a disciplined organization that is trying to win with a fundamentally sound approach of getting younger and stronger up front. They mixed in safety Ahmad Dixon and cornerback Terrance Mitchell in the seventh round as more evidence of their defensive focus.

“This was a defensive draft,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “We were leaning that way. … We felt like we needed to get younger. We got better.”

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