Three weeks after their season ended, the Dallas Cowboys are ready to hop on a plane to Mobile, Ala., and make their first tangible efforts into creating and improving the roster for the 2014 team.
The Senior Bowl practices begin Monday, and the Cowboys traditionally send a party that includes owner and general manager Jerry Jones, head coach Jason Garrett, selected position coaches, personnel staffers and scouts.
They might be conducting job interviews too with potential assistants — after losing four since the season ended. Tight ends coach Wes Phillips, assistant special teams coach Chris Boniol, nickel backs coach Mikal Smith and offensive assistant Dave Borgonzi also have departed.
The week in Mobile mainly offers a chance to watch the more than 100 players go through three practices with pro instruction and also to get their face-to-face interviews with them during the week.
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The rest of the spring offers the National Scouting Combine, pro days, team days and regional combines.
But this week in Mobile is where it all starts, the road that leads to the makeup of the final draft board in May.
What will the Cowboys try to accomplish? We can only guess. And we did. Here is what we think:
Five things the Cowboys can do at the Senior Bowl.
1. Study all offensive linemen
There is a gold mine of offensive linemen in Mobile. The Cowboys have young building blocks in Tyron Smith, Ron Leary and Travis Frederick, who helped make the line the most consistent part of the team in the second half of the year. Why not continue to fortify it? Baylor’s Cyril Richardson, the top-ranked guard in the draft, is in Mobile, as are Mississippi State’s Gabe Jackson, the No. 4-ranked guard, Notre Dame’s Zack Martin, the No. 4 tackle and Nevada’s Joel Bitonio and Tennessee’s Ja’Wuan James, the 8th- and 10th-ranked tackles. Not to mention the top four centers, a position where the Cowboys appear covered — but does it ever hurt to have a little offensive line depth?
2. Listen and look for big-hitting safeties
The Cowboys haven’t gotten any game-changing plays out of their safeties in a long time. The Cowboys have some physicality in Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox, but they’re looking for a fast, wide-ranging, ball-skills type of player who can cover and deliver a hit. They drafted Matt Johnson two years ago with that in mind, but he is on his last chance, and Jeff Heath hasn’t shown the coverage skills. Trouble is, the top-rated free safety in Mobile, Florida State’s slightly undersized Terrence Brooks, is only the fourth-rated free safety in the draft.
3. Think about future quarterbacks
The Cowboys won’t admit it publicly — in fact, owner and general manager Jerry Jones said exactly the opposite — but the time has come to seriously think about the next quarterback of the franchise. Tony Romo’s two back surgeries in 2013 bring his long-term future into serious question. So if the Cowboys are real with themselves, they will invest time in quarterbacks. The past three Senior Bowls have included Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Nick Foles. Who knows if that kind of quality is there this year in the likes of Derek Carr, Logan Thomas and Tajh Boyd? But you don’t know until you try, right?
4. See who’s applying pressure
DeMarcus Ware is no longer the DeMarcus Ware the Cowboys know. Jason Hatcher will be too expensive to re-sign and Anthony Spencer is coming off knee surgery. All of which means they need to find players who can get to the quarterback. The top pass rusher in the nation last year, Stanford’s Trent Murphy, is in Mobile, as is Arkansas’ Chris Smith, widely considered the second-best pass rusher in the SEC last year behind Jadaveon Clowney. Inside, the Cowboys also need disruptive defensive tackles. They will want long, up-close looks at Ra’Shede Hageman, Aaron Donald, Will Sutton, DaQuan Jones, Deandre Coleman and others.
5. Search for offensive depth
Yes, the defense needs help. But there is nothing wrong with continuing to stock the offense. Running back appears fine, but that’s on the surface; think about it — DeMarco Murray was hurt again, Lance Dunbar is coming off a knee injury, Joseph Randle didn’t pop, and Phillip Tanner’s chances dried up after the Detroit mistake. Without new blood at receiver, the Cowboys might go into training camp with Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams as their top two. And in the slot? A combination of Cole Beasley and Dwayne Harris? Trouble is, the best running back and receiver prospects are underclassmen, so the Cowboys won’t see them in Mobile. But they will get a look at Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews, who caught an SEC-record 107 passes last year and averaged 19 yards a catch.