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IRVING Monday's press conference at Valley Ranch was mandatory and Cowboys owner and GM Jerry Jones made sure to stress that. All the media would get was "soft answers," he said.

And that's how the annual pre-draft conference began.

The Cowboys have the 18th pick in the first round of this year's NFL Draft, which will be held Thursday night. The second and third rounds are Friday and rounds four through seven are Saturday.

Head coach Jason Garrett says the Cowboys will stick to their philosophy of drafting the best player available.

"If you draft too much by need, your team gets worse," said Garrett.

The needs are many for this team: first and foremost, its offensive line. The Cowboys did not protect quarterback Tony Romo well in 2012, and after signing him to a $108 million dollar extension, it's imperative they do.

They also need some big interior lineman on the defensive side. New defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is bringing a 4-3 alignment, which requires more and bigger defensive tackles.

Whoever is available for the Cowboys when it's their turn to pick, Tom Ciskowski, the Cowboys assistant director of player personnel, said they'll be ready.

"We've got a good feel and vision in each round as to what a player can do for us," Ciskowski said.

Jerry Jones and Executive Vice President Stephen Jones both spoke about the importance of getting significant contributions from young players, which includes rookies. They said over the last few years, the salary cap has become more of a "hard cap."

"There has never been a time since I've been in the NFL that the cap has more credibility than it has today," said the senior Jones. "It's a factual, hard cap if there's ever been one."

Drafting has been a weakness for this franchise for a long time. Their 2009 draft class was the most famous failure as none of those players are on the team anymore. That has to change for this team to move out of mediocrity and back into contention.

Email tmadden@wfaa.com

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