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DL Big Priority for Cowboys, But Not Only Need

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The Dallas Cowboys didn't draft a defensive lineman last year even though they were switching to a scheme that required one more.

Executive vice president Stephen Jones kept calling it a "position of strength," a claim the son of owner and general manager Jerry Jones can't make now that the Dallas has released franchise sacks leader DeMarcus Ware. And even though the Cowboys added several free agents to their front four, the search is on for their next elite pass rusher.

Dallas has plenty of other needs after a third straight 8-8 season and a fourth consecutive year without the playoffs. The Cowboys have the 16th pick Thursday night.

"I think where you get in trouble is, if you're drafting 16 ... and your 24th-ranked player is a defensive lineman, and you pass over eight players to get to that defensive lineman, I think you make a mistake," NFL.com draft analyst and former Dallas player personnel director Gil Brandt said in an interview for the team's website. "I just think you have to take the best player available and build your team from that."

The biggest problem with the Cowboys saying they thought they were set up front a year ago was them knowing nose tackle Jay Ratliff was injured and disgruntled, refusing to use the team's medical staff in his rehabilitation.

Now Ratliff is in Chicago after his midseason release without playing for Dallas last year, Ware is in Denver as a cost-saving move, and 2013 sacks leader Jason Hatcher has moved on to Washington.

The Cowboys did re-sign Anthony Spencer on a scaled-back one-year deal after keeping him under the franchise tag for two straight seasons. He only played one game last year because of a left knee injury.

Dallas also added defensive tackle Henry Melton, a starter in Chicago before injuring a knee last year, and journeymen Jeremy Mincey and Terrell McClain.

Five things to know about the Cowboys going into the draft:

MOVING UP OR DOWN: Dallas has done each the past two years. The Cowboys moved up eight spots to grab cornerback Morris Claiborne at No. 6 in 2012, a pick getting dangerously close to becoming a bust if the former LSU player doesn't have a productive season this year. They went down 13 spots last year to get center Travis Frederick with the 31st pick. While Dallas was criticized for not getting more from San Francisco in the trade of picks, Frederick was a starter from the first day of rookie camp and by all accounts had a solid debut.

ROMO'S REPLACEMENT: This question will get more prominent every year, particularly with 34-year-old Tony Romo coming off two back surgeries. Barring setbacks or major injuries, Romo is the starter at least for two more years. His contract basically dictates that. But the Cowboys are closer to life after Romo, and there's a persistent theory that former Texas A&M star Johnny Manziel's stock is falling enough that he might be around when Dallas picks.

Brandt's been here before with the Cowboys, who drafted Craig Morton with the fifth pick in 1965 despite Don Meredith being the incumbent. "We just thought that Morton had a chance to be our Manziel, and be the future of this team," Brandt said.

WHAT ABOUT SEAN LEE: Linebacker isn't a dire need for Dallas as long as Sean Lee stays healthy. But if they consider the fact that he's missed nearly half the games the past two seasons with injuries, the Cowboys will have to make sure reinforcements are in place. They took DeVonte Holloman in the sixth round last year, and he showed some promise.

SAFETY NET: Barry Church is entrenched at strong safety, and he was good enough last year that they actually played him in a linebacker role when injuries decimated that unit. The Cowboys think they have a starting free safety in J.J. Wilcox, a third-round pick last year, but they might be hedging their bets -- and possibly in the first round.

BUNDLE OF PICKS: The Cowboys have six picks in the seventh round because of compensation for free-agent losses from last year. With the loss of their sixth-round pick in a trade that brought defensive end Edgar Jones last year, Dallas goes into the draft with 11 selections.

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