Jerry Jones is keenly aware of his team's 1-7 start and 6-10 finish last season, but he's looking past that, focusing on his team's overall talent base. He believes it's good enough to live up to the expectations heaped on them before last season, providing they improve the supporting cast through the upcoming draft.
The Cowboys have the ninth overall pick, plus the 40th and 71st. That should be a good start to help Jones and his staff — from new coach Jason Garrett to the scouting department — find their share of reinforcements.
"Our expectations are that these guys will come in here and be players," Jones said Tuesday during a predraft news conference at Cowboys Stadium. "Certainly in those top rounds, those guys have got to be on the field and playing for us. No development players up there."
Dallas seems to be leaning toward spending its top choice on a lineman, either a long-term solution at tackle or a guy capable of playing end in a 3-4 defense.
The Cowboys have not spent a first-round pick on an offensive lineman in the 22 drafts since Jones bought the club. He called it happenstance, noting that he's never "gone to be worrying about protecting the passer" because the club has had a succession of reliable left tackles: from Mark Tuinei to Larry Allen to Flozell Adams to last season's debut starter, Doug Free.
"And that's been quite a luxury," Jones said.
Free could be declared a free agent under one of the labor rules being considered. While team vice president Stephen Jones said "our No. 1 priority when things start up is to try to get him signed up," there's always the chance Free leaves. That adds to the urgency of needing a good, young blocker.
Even if he stays, Dallas also is concerned about right tackle. Marc Colombo is aging and coming off a poor season. He's among four or five players the Joneses are considering cutting, again depending on when and how the labor rules shake out.
The good news for the Cowboys is that they're considering a first-round foray into the tackle pool in a year when they are likely to have a shot at the pick of the litter. None of the teams picking ahead of Dallas is expected to take an offensive lineman.
Tyron Smith of Southern Cal is considered the top tackle available. However, at 20, he's the youngest player in the entire draft crop. He also is coming out after his junior year and didn't start as a freshman. Put it all together and he could be more of a development player. Then again, he could be plugged in at right tackle, in place of Colombo, and allowed to take his lumps before eventually moving to the left side.
"I don't know if a person is truly ever ready," scouting director Tom Ciskowski said. "Was Bill Clinton ready to be president of the United States? You learn on the job. When you're picked ninth, you're going to play. You're going to grow and get better week in and week out."
The more NFL-ready lineman is Anthony Castonzo of Boston College, a veteran of 53 college starts. He's considered almost as good of a prospect as Smith.
Part of the reason the Cowboys are in this predicament at tackle is because of how poorly they've drafted linemen. Jacob Rogers was a wasted second-round pick in 2004, and James Marten a third-rounder in 2007. Rogers never made the club and Marten hardly played in his one season on the roster. (Coincidentally, Rogers came from USC and Marten from BC, the same schools that groomed this year's top candidates.)
When Ciskowski was asked Tuesday about any changes to the scouting of linemen to avoid making another mistake, Jones smiled, leaned into the microphone and playfully said, "Yeah, Tom."
"You want to do your due diligence on the player, but you don't want to overkill it because over time you can find something wrong with every player," Ciskowski said.
Defensive end is another major need. Free agency will thin the club's depth there, and Dallas would like some upgrades anyway. However, it's rare to find a 3-4 end who is good enough to be a run-stuffer on first and second downs, then a pass-rusher on third downs.
"If we're going to pick a guy that high, we'd want him on the field all three downs," Stephen Jones said. "If that guy were there — and there are guys like that in this draft — then you'd have to consider that."
Could he be there? That's where things get interesting.
Jerry Jones is hoping for a run on quarterbacks, one of the few positions the Cowboys don't need, because that would drop other guys toward them. It also would increase the value of their pick in case he wanted to trade down and still get one of the four players Ciskowski expects to be available at No. 9. There's also the chance Jones would trade up to get someone who starts slipping a bit.
Jones pointed out that when he's had picks near the top of the draft he has gone for the safe pick, the guy expected to have a long, productive career. He offered cornerback Terence Newman, defensive end Greg Ellis and safety Roy Williams as examples.
"When we've been there, which has been not very often, we've been pretty sound, I think," Jones said.
Sound might be all they need — or, at least, all they think they need.
"I don't consider us to be rebuilding," Jones said. "I consider us to be a team that's trying to add to what we've got so that we can compete. Last year's record does not indicate that, but I don't view it that way."
Also Tuesday, several players showed up at team headquarters but didn't stay long. Despite the lockout being lifted, they were not allowed to work out. Third-string quarterback Stephen McGee, backup offensive linemen Phil Costa and Sam Young, and fullback Chris Gronkowski all arrived in the morning and were gone within an hour.
"We are in the process of determining throughout the league as to just how we'll proceed and when we'll open the new year across the league, the new football year," Jones said. "We have not done that."