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Dallas Cowboys Combine Preview: Top Targets, Sleepers and Prospects to Watch

Jonathan BalesAnalyst IFebruary 16, 2014

Dallas Cowboys Combine Preview: Top Targets, Sleepers and Prospects to Watch

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    The measurables recorded at the NFL Scouting Combine should matter to every NFL team, including the Dallas Cowboys. Measurables are important because they allow us to quantify what we see on the field, which in turn allows for a scientific approach to football.

    Science is marked by improvement—namely an improvement in predictions. We can sit and watch game film all day, but how do we improve that process? How do we get beyond “this guy has great hips” to make more accurate predictions?

    With analytics, we can run tests to see which metrics are the most important, creating models to aid us in making predictions. The key, though, is that different measurables matter for different positions. The 40-yard dash, for example, is extremely important for players at certain positions, while basically useless at others.

    The degree to which a measurable is useful extends only insofar as it helps make better predictions about a prospect’s future. One of the common qualms with a drill like the 40-yard dash is that “players almost never run 40 yards in a straight line during a game.”

    Who cares? Employees don’t need to take IQ tests during work hours, but that doesn’t make an IQ test completely useless when screening job candidates. If a measurable helps us forecast the future, it’s useful, regardless of whether or not it occurs during a game.

    With that in mind, here are eight prospects whom the Dallas Cowboys (and you) should monitor during the NFL Scouting Combine, along with the measurable that might be the most important.

Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    What to Watch: 40-Yard Dash

    The Cowboys should draft a wide receiver in 2014. There are some early-round wide receiver prospects who should intrigue Dallas, and Penn State’s Allen Robinson is one of them.

    If you’re a fan of Robinson, you should root for him to run a mediocre 40-yard dash. Wait, what?

    Although teams seek speed in wide receivers, the 40-yard dash isn’t all that predictive of NFL success at the position. Instead, size matters most, and Robinson has it.

    Robinson is fighting with a group of talented wide receivers to sneak his way into the first round, but he could drop well into the second with a poor 40-yard dash. If he’s in the 4.55 range, that would be great—slow enough to drop but fast enough to excel in the NFL.

James White, RB, Wisconsin

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    GM Andrews/Associated Press

    What to Watch: 40-Yard Dash/Broad Jump

    Like with Robinson, you should be watching the 40-yard dash for Wisconsin running back James White. Unlike with Robinson, though, fans of White should root for him to turn in a blazing time.

    Straight-line speed is incredibly important for running backs, yet teams don’t value it enough. They actually seem to value size more in backs and speed in receivers, when it should be the other way around. The 40-yard dash conveys explosiveness, as does the broad jump.

    Projected by NFLDraftScout.com, via CBSSports.com, to go somewhere around the fourth or fifth round, White’s 40-yard dash time will be important. If he’s sub-4.50, he’ll be valuable in that range.

Stephon Tuitt, DT, Notre Dame

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    What to Watch: Arm Length

    Arm length matters a whole lot for all defensive linemen, but we don’t know that measurement for Notre Dame’s Stephon Tuitt. He’s a tall defensive tackle at 6’6”, but that height could be a negative if it isn’t accompanied by long arms.

    So productive at Notre Dame, Tuitt could be a first-round option for Dallas if his arms are at least 33.5 inches.

Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State

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    Don Ryan/Associated Press

    What to Watch: Arm Length

    Tall pass-rushers perform better than short ones in the NFL, but that doesn’t mean teams should do everything they can to draft tall ones. Actually, it’s the short pass-rushers with long arms who often offer the most value.

    Teams pay for height in defensive ends, so those who are tall with long arms often don’t provide a great return. Those who are short with long arms, however, can find a ton of NFL success, but they come with a much cheaper price tag.

    Oregon State’s Scott Crichton is relatively short at 6’3”, and there are rumors that he has good length, but we don’t know for sure. He’ll be an outstanding second-round value if his arms are long compared to his height.

Michael Sam, DE, Missouri

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    What to Watch: Weight

    Missouri defensive end Michael Sam is the exact sort of defensive end who can offer value on draft day because he’s short (6’2”) with long arms (33.25 inches). He’ll drop because of his lack of height, but Sam’s arm length suggests he should be able to produce in the NFL.

    Also monitor Sam’s weight, which should be around 260 pounds. That’s up from his playing weight at Missouri, and he’ll need all the bulk he can get to play as a 4-3 defensive end. If Sam reports any heavier than 260 pounds, it will be interesting to see how he moves.

    Some are arguing that Sam’s draft stock has fallen since admitting he’s gay, but that’s just another reason to be bullish on him. If Sam's value indeed drops because he’s gay, too short or whatever, it will just allow whichever team drafts him to acquire a high-upside player at a bare-minimum price.

Antone Exum, CB, Virginia Tech

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    Steve Helber/Associated Press

    What to Watch: 40-Yard Dash

    Do the Cowboys need a cornerback? Maybe, maybe not. They’ve got a ton of money committed to the position, but all of it is going to players who stand under 6’0” and weigh less than 200 pounds. You can never have too many talented cornerbacks, and second-year man B.W. Webb struggled badly in his rookie campaign, so perhaps the ‘Boys will once again look at the position late in the draft.

    If they do, Virginia Tech’s Antone Exum should be on their radar. At 6’0”, 220 pounds, Exum is absolutely massive. He’s the type of cornerback who could dramatically help the Cowboys in the red zone right out of the gate.

    Speed is so crucial for cornerbacks, though, so Exum’s 40-yard dash will be important. If he can clock in under 4.50, he’ll probably be highly undervalued.

Charles Leno, OT, Boise State

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    What to Watch: 10-Yard Split

    As with pass-rushers, arm length is of extreme importance for offensive linemen, particularly offensive tackles working on the outside. At 6’4”, Boise State’s Charles Leno doesn’t have elite height, but his 34.75-inch arms are some of the longest out there. If he can pair those arms with quickness in the first 10 yards of the 40-yard dash, that would be a great sign.

    Projected by NFLDraftScout.com, via CBSSports.com, to be in the fourth- or fifth-round range, Leno could very well be on Dallas’ radar.

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama

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    Dave Martin/Associated Press

    What to Watch: 40-Yard Dash

    For Dallas, the decision will really be “do we want to draft Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton Dix in the first round, or do we want to wait a while on a free safety?” Clinton-Dix is a potential blue-chipper in a draft class that’s unimaginably weak at safety. That will inflate his value, so Dallas will need to determine if the safety is worth its top pick.

    One thing to like about Clinton-Dix is that he has great size at 6’1”, 208 pounds but the fluidity to turn and run in man coverage. If he also has the requisite speed (preferably sub-4.50), Clinton-Dix could give the Cowboys some versatility to cover different sorts of players from various areas on the field.

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