Cowboys take Notre Dame’s Martin in first round

BOB WIENEKE
South Bend Tribune

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Guard? Probably.

Tackle? Maybe.

Center? Not out of the question.

First-round NFL Draft choice? No question there.

The Dallas Cowboys on Thursday used their first-round pick, the 16th overall, on former Notre Dame offensive lineman Zack Martin, who could fill a number of roles along the Cowboys’ line.

“I couldn’t be happier to come to Dallas and be part of this great organization,” Martin told the Dallas Morning News. “It’s a great storied organization, so I’m very excited to get down there and start competing and be a part of this team.”

The Cowboys were in turn excited to have Martin.

"I think his track record as a player speaks for itself," Dallas head coach Jason Garrett said. "To be a four-year starter at Notre Dame, an outside player there playing left tackle, but again, having the position flex (to play) inside, smart, tough, dependable. Everything you want."

Minutes after the Martin choice was announced, a story on the Cowboys’ website pointed out that Martin, who started 52 games at tackle for Notre Dame, is expected to play guard right away as a pro, although he could slide outside to his college position, or even see time at center.

“Wherever they decide to play me I’ll be excited and willing to help out the team,’’ Martin said in an interview on the Cowboys’ website.

“I think one of my biggest strengths in this process has definitely been my versatility with teams and showing that although I played tackle in college I can play multiple positions at the next level. So I think that’s something that’s definitely helped me out in this process.”

"We feel like he can play across the board on the offensive line," Garrett said.

Regardless of where Martin plays, his value was noticed by draft analysts.

“I think Zack Martin could be the best offensive lineman in this draft,” former NFL coach Jon Gruden said during ESPN’s broadcast of the draft. “I like this kid a lot.”

“He’s consistent. He’s got some toughness,” former NFL linebacker and Detroit Lions executive Matt Millen said on NFL.com. “Very rarely do you ever see mistakes out of him. He’s reliable.”

Martin’s selection ended speculation that Dallas would use its pick on Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. When told that he would be remembered as the player who was picked over Manziel, Martin told the Morning News, “That’s fine by me. I can live up to that.”

Cowboys fans seemed to agree with the Martin selection. A poll on the Morning News website asking fans their thoughts of the selection showed that 71 percent gave it a thumbs-up with 29 percent handing it a thumbs-down.

Manziel later went to the Cleveland Browns with the 22nd overall selection.

Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones told the Morning News that the team fielded trade offers during its time on the clock.

“We spent a lot of time on possible trades. We spent almost eight or nine minutes looking at that,” Jones said. “By definition, you could count some offers that we had there as firm offers. We obviously didn’t take it or we would’ve made the trade.”

Martin was the only Notre Dame player selected in Thursday’s first round. Defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix had at times been projected as first-rounders, but both will have to wait until Friday, when the second and third rounds of the draft will be held. Rounds four through seven will take place Saturday.

Martin is the fourth Notre Dame player drafted in the first round in the past three years. Wide receiver Michael Floyd (No. 13 overall, Arizona) and safety Harrison Smith (No. 29, Minnesota) went in the 2012 draft while tight end Tyler Eifert was picked 21st overall last year by Cincinnati.

Martin is the highest drafted ND offensive lineman since Seattle picked Andy Heck with the 15th pick in the 1989 draft. Former Irish standout Aaron Taylor went with the 16th pick to Green Bay in the 1994 draft. Martin also became the first Irish offensive lineman selected in the first round since center Jeff Faine was picked 21st overall by Cleveland in 2003.

Martin has a dose of familiarity with Dallas. He helped the Irish to a 37-34 victory over Arizona State last October at the Cowboys’ home, AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

The Cowboys ranked 14th in the NFL last season in rushing offense. Martin will be charged with protecting Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. Romo is 34 years old and is coming off two back surgeries.

By grabbing Martin, the Cowboys have now used their first-round pick on an offensive lineman three of the last four years. In 2011, Dallas picked Tyron Smith ninth overall. The first time they had picked an offensive lineman in the first round since 1981. Last year, the Cowboys took center Travis Frederick with the 31st pick. Frederick started all 16 games as a rookie.

Martin, who was listed at 6-foot-4, 308 pounds at the February NFL Combine, is the 478th Notre Dame player to go in the draft, which began in 1936, and the 64th to go in the first round.

Martin played at Indianapolis Bishop Chatard, where he helped his team win two state championships. His younger brother, Nick, is ND’s starting center, and his father, Keith, played at Kentucky. Martin, a two-time captain at ND, played (and started) 52 career games, a school record.

Fifty of those starts came at left tackle, the other two at right tackle during his redshirt freshman year in 2010.

Martin, during ND’s March pro day, worked in front of scouts snapping out of the shotgun.

Martin was the fourth offensive lineman selected in Thursday’s first round. St. Louis used the second overall pick on Auburn tackle Greg Robinson, Atlanta picked Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews with the sixth spot and Michigan’s Taylor Lewan went to Tennessee at No. 11.

With Martin off the board, the attention for ND fans now turns to where former Irish defensive linemen Tuitt and Nix go. Both had been projected to go in the first two rounds, and it would be a stunning freefall if either drops out of Friday’s segment, which comprises rounds two and three.

Analyst Scott Wright of DraftCountdown.com wasn’t surprised that neither Tuitt nor Nix was selected in the first round, although he expects both to go Friday.

“It’s a really fine line between the 25th pick and the 45th pick,” Wright said, offering that Nix could be a good fit for Houston, which has the first pick in the second round, with Tennessee and San Diego also possible landing spots.

He also said that Tuitt’s versatility — he can play in a 4-3 or 3-4, inside and outside — makes him an attractive pick.

“He’s going to be in the first half of the second round,” Wright said.

Other names to watch during Friday’s portion are tight end Troy Niklas, who, like Tuitt, bypassed his senior season to enter the draft pool. Offensive guard Chris Watt also could hear his name called during Friday’s portion of the draft.

In all, 15 former Notre Dame players (including Martin) were hoping to be selected, although several will join rosters as undrafted free agents.

Notre Dame's Zack Martin (70) during the game between Notre Dame and Purdue on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette. Notre Dame beat Purdue 31-24. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)