By Bill Jones

Linebacker Dont'a Hightower of Alabama takes part in a drill during the 2012 NFL Combine. (credit: Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) – The Cowboys are clearly in need of defensive pressure players, whether in free agency or the draft.  No matter what decision is made on whether to keep Anthony Spencer for one more year using the franchise tag, the need for an edge rusher opposite Demarcus Ware is great.

As of now, it appears there will be slim pickings among edge rushers when free agency opens on March 13.  So, the Cowboys may need to find a new outside linebacker in the draft.  To find a quality one, they may need to use their 1st round pick, #14 overall.  Or they may be able to trade down, pick up an extra pick, and find their man a bit later in the 1st round.

So, with that in mind, let’s examine the top “edge rusher” prospects we observed during the NFL Scouting Combine.  There are a lot of names here so, off the top, I’ll tell you it’s Dont’a Hightower, Ronnell Lewis, Jake Bequette, and Jamie Blatnick who intrigue me the most for various reasons:

  • Melvin Ingram, South Carolina (6-1, 264):  worked his way into the top 10 picks as he confirmed the athleticism he showed in games with terrific work in linebacker drills in Indianapolis….tremendous body control….quick feet, loose hips…playmaking ability that puts him clearly at the top of the class among edge rushers in this draft…ranks alongside LSU CB Morris Claiborne as the top defensive players in this draft…very doubtful he slides out of the top 10, much less to the Cowboys spot at 14….though he didn’t exhibit top end 40 speed (4.79), his 10 yard split (1.65) was more than adequate and Ingram’s 6.83 3-cone drill ranks right there with Demarcus Ware in 2005 (6.85)….shorter than what you’d like in a 3-4 OLB, but so is Steelers’ Pro Bowler James Harrison.
  • Courtney Upshaw, Alabama (6-1 ½, 272):  projects to go in the middle of the 1st round, which places him right in the Cowboys wheelhouse at #14….Upshaw did not do any of the athletic testing except for a less than impressive 22 bench reps of 225 pounds.  We’ll have to wait until Alabama’s Pro Day next Wednesday, March 7 to see how he compares athletically with some of the other prospects.  He did take part in linebacker drills and his movements looked more like a 4-3 DE than a 3-4 OLB.  I have questions about Upshaw that have yet to be answered.  One of those is why wasn’t he able to become a starter at Alabama until his junior season. Did he have difficulty learning the nuances of Nick Saban’s 3-4 defense?  in Upshaw’s freshman season in 2008, Brandon Fanney was the starting jack linebacker at Alabama.  When Fanney was kicked off the team in 2009, Saban opened the jack linebacker position to all comers and fellow sophomore Dont’a Hightower won the job over Upshaw.  When Hightower suffered a knee injury in the 4th game of the year, it was Eryk Anders, not Upshaw, who took over.  Anders was not drafted.  He is now launching his career as an MMA fighter.  Why wasn’t Upshaw able to win the job, first over Hightower, and then given a second chance, over a less-athletic Anders?  Furthermore, why was Hightower able to start four years for Saban but Upshaw wasn’t?
  • Dont’a Hightower, Alabama (6-2, 265):  like Upshaw, Hightower didn’t do all the athletic tests at the combine.  However, he did run the 40, clocking an official 4.68 which at 265 pounds was quite impressive.  I believe the 40 time and the reported 1.65 10-yard split (same as Ingram) is an indicator that he has the quick twitch burst necessary to make him a strongside OLB in a 3-4 defense.  In fact, after watching Hightower in drills, I think he projects more as a SOLB, where “going forward” as an edge rusher is a priority more so than at ILB.  I’m not sure Hightower has the coverage ability necessary to be a long-term 3 down ILB in a 3-4.  He also has impeccable leadership ability, the captain of the defense, and trusted by Saban to be the playcaller of his defense as well.  I’m interested in hearing reports on Hightower’s Pro Day next week but so far, I really like this player.  I think he may be the best of the four Alabama 1st round prospects in this draft (Hightower, Upshaw, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Mark Barron).  Hightower is three years removed from the torn ACL he suffered in 2009.
  • Whitney Mercilus, Illinois (6-3, 261):  only started one year and put up great numbers with 16 sacks and 9 forced fumbles….like Hightower, a 4.68 forty at 260+ pounds, but many of his sacks appeared to be of the coverage variety….warrants more research as he’s only 21 years old and may be a late bloomer….1st or 2nd round pick
  • Andre Branch, Clemson (6-4, 259):  another player who merits more study after posting 10 ½ sacks his senior year, 16 QB pressures his junior year, and a 1.56 10-yard split which is the same as Demarcus Ware….1st or 2nd round pick.
  • Bruce Irvin, West Virginia (6-2 ½, 245):  great speed…4.5 forty with a 1.54 10 yard split….remarkable 6.70 cone drill…however, comes with lots of baggage…high school dropout…2nd round prospect.
  • Ronnell Lewis, Oklahoma (6-2, 253):  potentially great pass rushing and special teams ability but performance on-field didn’t live up to expectations in college….a former 8-man football player from a small Oklahoma town who reportedly was suspended for OU’s bowl game for not keeping up with his school work…he may flourish as a pro since he doesn’t have to go to class anymore, but there’s a whole lot of classwork that goes along with playing in the NFL too.  Lewis projects as strictly a specialty player in pass rush situations early, and if he can pick up the game, has dynamic potential….a core special teams player who made numerous highlight reel hits on kick coverage…2nd round grade.
  • Jake Bequette, Arkansas (6-5, 274):  very solid four-year starter as a 4-3 DE and 1st team All-SEC player his senior season….earned finance degree, working on masters….prototype Jason Garrett-type smart, high character player….he looked pretty adept in LB drills and can easily make conversion to standup 3-4 OLB….Cowboys may already have this player on their roster in 2nd year LB Alex Albright, though Bequette doesn’t have the past neck issues that Albright does….could go as high as 3rd round.
  • Jacquies Smith, Missouri (6-3, 253):  South Oak Cliff product is a mid-round prospect who didn’t post dynamic numbers at the combine but had a nice career at Missouri and was a leader.
  • Jamie Blatnick, Oklahoma State (6-3, 263):  rising prospect from Celina…came on very strong his senior year in Stillwater and was impressive in LB drills at combine…strong (28 bench reps) and quick (1.65 10 yard split) but lacking long speed (4.9 forty) which could be a real factor if isolated on a fleet RB on a wheel route….mid-to-late round prospect who could be a real sleeper in this draft….love his attitude…a very confident player who made plays at OSU….I bet Rob Ryan really likes Blatnick.