The Dangerous Lure of a Third Round Pick

Back in 1996, the Cowboys received a gift from the football gods -- and promptly threw it back.

High off their third Super Bowl win in three years, the Cowboys had the 30th and last pick in the first round. Their top need was a defensive end, since Charles Haley's back was giving out and '94 first rounder Shante Carver was showing no signs of becoming an impact player, much less a good one.

As the first round wore on, Texas DE Tony Brackens began to slip. The second rated DE that year behind Illinois' Simeon Rice, Brackens was rated the 12th best player overall by Pro Football Weekly. When the Cowboys came on the clock, Brackens was at the top of the board. Jerry Jones even called Brackens, asking him if he was ready to become a Cowboy. Given that Brackens was not only a Longhorn, but a real life cowboy who competed in rodeos, selecting him would have been a PR coup.

But something funny happened on the way to a perfect fit. The Cowboys received a late offer from Washington. The Redskins' GM Charlie Casserley was desperate to draft Penn St. OT Andre Johnson, and was convinced he would not be around when Washington picked at 37. In exchange for moving down seven spots, Washington offered its high third round selection.

In the language of draft value charts, this was a steal. The difference between pick 30 and 37 is only 160 points, but Dallas got a pick from Washington that was worth 260 points. Jones left Brackens hanging and jumped at the deal. Washington got Johnson. Brackens lasted until pick 33, when Jacksonville scooped him up. Dallas, still needing an end, rolled the dice on McNeese St. end Kavika Pittman. With the extra third the Cowboys selected Florida St. center Clay Shiver.

The trade down caused an uproar. When he tried to defend the deal, Jones pointed to the value of the third rounder, saying without the trade there was no way Dallas could get a center like Shiver. And center was a need for the '96 Cowboys. Starting center Ray Donnaldson was old, and had suffered a serious ankle dislocation in the '95 Thanksgiving Day game against Kansas City.

The flaw in Jones' thinking is that he put the value of an extra third rounder above the value of his first. What's worse, he put the value of the points he got above the value of Brackens. If you are looking for the signature of Jerry's failed drafts this is it -- he seems to value getting a great deal on "points" more than getting quality athletes.

Points don't play on Sundays and Jones, in his giddiness to squeeze an extra hundred out of his rivals in Washington, failed to recognize the points he had been gifted; Brackens may have been available at pick 30, but his value was in the 12-16 range. The points difference between 16 and 30 is 280, something Jerry didn't take into account.

Jones paid a steep price for his fuzzy math. Brackens was a quality starter right out of the box for Jacksonville. Pittman and Shiver were both busts.

With all of Jones' talk of trading down and getting value in the later rounds, the Brackens' deal keeps flashing through my mind. Dallas scored in its trade down with Buffalo last year, but as long-time fans know, nobody is worse when he is on top than Jerry Jones. Nobody's gambling tendencies are more enabled by one good roll of the dice than our owner's.

Jerry is not alone in the war room anymore. He has Bill Parcells and new personnel man Jeff Ireland to act as buffers. It is my hope for tomorrow that Jerry and Co. do not get so obsessed with recovering a third round pick that they overlook value in the first. The Buffalo trade in effect allowed them to move up from the early third to the late first. Dallas has not "lost" anything. Let's all hope Jerry understands that this time.

Copyright 2005 by Rafael Vela

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