IRVING, Texas — The Dallas Cowboys went 30 years without drafting an offensive lineman in the first round. They might do it for the second time in three drafts Thursday night.
Blockers are among the needs after Dallas signed two free-agent guards last year and still finished second-to-last in rushing in the NFL.
If the Cowboys take a guard in the first round, it will be just the second time in franchise history. John Niland went with the fifth overall pick in 1966, and only made six Pro Bowls in his 10 pro seasons.
Right tackle is a question, too, after Doug Free had a bad year and became a part-time player alongside undrafted free agent Jermey Parnell.
If Dallas gets a guard early, it will probably involve moving up for the third time since 2010, when a sliding Dez Bryant was taken late in the first round. The top two guards, Chance Warmack of Alabama and Jonathan Cooper of North Carolina, are projected as top 10 picks by many draft analysts.
The Cowboys have the 18th pick, and plenty of needs if they stand pat.
One of those is the other part of the running game — the guy carrying the ball. There’s no established backup to the injury-prone DeMarco Murray after Dallas decided not to bring back Felix Jones.
“Running the football is something we have to do better, there is no question about that, so we will try to do that a lot of different ways: how we coach the run game, how our players execute the run game, certainly adding players is a big part of that,” coach Jason Garrett said Monday. “But, again, we want to be true to drafting the best players throughout this whole draft process to help our team get better.”
Depth at safety is an issue after Gerald Sensabaugh became a salary cap casualty. Barry Church is expected to start after missing most of last year with a torn Achilles tendon. Second-year player Matt Johnson, who missed all of his rookie season with a hamstring injury, will be in the mix along with veterans Danny McCray and Will Allen.
McCray, a fourth-year player and special teams ace, was second on the team with a career-high 87 tackles after injuries led to extensive playing time.
Dallas needs to have plenty of options at defensive line and linebacker for the transition back to the 4-3, although owner Jerry Jones backed Garrett’s assertion that the personnel matches up fairly well with the switch already.
Sean Lee and Bruce Carter figure to start at linebacker, and Ernie Sims is coming back after solid work as a midseason signing when injuries mounted. Justin Durant is coming over from Detroit, and the Cowboys hope to see more from Kyle Wilber, like Johnson a fourth-round pick last year, and undrafted free agent Alex Albright.
Anthony Spencer is likely to join DeMarcus Ware as a pass-rushing end in the new scheme, putting most of the focus on the interior of the defensive line. Jay Ratliff had an injury-plagued year and was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving just weeks after teammate Josh Brent was charged with intoxication manslaughter in the death of linebacker Jerry Brown.
Brent’s career is on hold as his case works its way through the courts. He was starting in Ratliff’s place at the time of the accident in December.
“Our anticipated defensive scheme is influencing to some degree the kind of safeties or the kind of linemen, especially, that we’re looking at,” Jones said. “The good news is we really are in good shape over on the defensive side of the ball where that scheme is.”
The Cowboys scrambled to fill holes all season when injuries decimated their defense in 2012. Part of the problem was a poor 2009 draft when Dallas didn’t have a first-round pick because of the trade for receiver Roy Williams, and traded out of the second. Dallas stockpiled later-round picks four years ago, and not one of those 12 players is still on the roster.
Dallas has improved its April performance the past three years, with six starters combined coming out of the first three rounds. Bryant and Lee were the top picks in 2010, followed by left tackle Tyron Smith, Carter and Murray a year later. The Cowboys traded up eight spots to grab cornerback Morris Claiborne at No. 6 last year.
“We’ve had some guys come in and play early and really be contributors to our team,” Garrett said. “You want to be able to do that again. But we have guys from last year’s draft that we feel like we haven’t even seen yet because of injury, so we expect some things from them in terms of competing with players on our team, competing for roster spots, competing for playing time. Those are important additions to our team in 2013.”
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