Of Magpies and Dragons: The Cowboys Offensive Line Revisited

I'll begin with a dire warning found on Sixteenth-Century maps: hic sunt dracones (here be dragons)...

Now that we have been assured that Kyle Kosier and Marc Columbo are going to be in the lineup this Sunday against the Bears, it seems a bit less necessary to continue on about the offensive line. Indeed, we have beaten this particular horse to death all week; in bringing the Dallas o-line up once again, it is not my intention to hand out more cudgels. Rather, I'd like to ruminate upon the ways in which the current state of our o-line reflects a set of organizational priorities, particularly as they pertain to Jerry Jones' philosophy of talent acquisition. 

In the past several years, much has been made of the Cowboys' inability to draft offensive linemen. The standard line of thought goes something like this: the Cowboys scouts don't have the ability to recognize what makes an NFL-caliber offensive lineman. As exhibit A supporting these claims, naysayers turn to the disastrous 2004 draft, when Bill Parcells reached for Jacob Rogers and Stephen Peterman, in the second and third rounds, respectively. Exhibit B, the selection of James Marten in the third round in 2007, leaves similarly bitter flavor. A trio of late-round choices, all of whom failed to develop, rounds out this chamber of drafting horrors: Rob Petitti (6th round in '05) is joined by '06 seventh rounders Pat McQuistan and E.J. Whitley. Lastly, the jury remains out on '09 third-rounder Robert Brewster and this year's sixth round selection (and, eek, James Marten clone), Sam Young.

Certainly, many of these picks haven't panned out, or have yet to pan out; this is indisputable. However, I'd like to take a longer look at the issue; I'd like to compare the success rates of Cowboys' o-line draft picks with those of the other 31 NFL teams. For the purposes of this micro-analysis, I am limiting my field to the "post-Lacewell" era: 2003-2010. My reasoning herein is that, since the departure of Larry Lacewell, the Cowboys scouting department, although comprised of more or less the same people, has undergone a philosophical shift initially instituted by Bill Parcells. A key aspect of this shift is that they have a much clearer idea of what kind of player they are looking for and, by extension, what skill set(s) they prioritize for their system(s). All this and more after the jump:

For statistical evidence, I am turning to the fine folks at Pro Football Reference. Specifically, I am using their assessment of "Career Aproximate Value," wherein they attempt to ascertain a given player's value to (in this case) his team's offense over the course of his career. Obviously, players who have a) been in the league longer or b) have been starters longer or c) have been on good teams for a greater percentage of their careers will garner a higher value rating.

So, from 2003-2009, here are the average CAVs of offensive linemen drafted in each round:

Round 1 (32 players drafted): 20.2

Round 2 (34): 16.5

Round 3 (35): 11.8

Round 4 (47): 7.6

Round 5 (45): 8.2*

Round 6 (48): 4.9

Round 6 (59): 2.7

*the fifth-round CAV appears skewed largely because of the unusual (and early) success of Patriots center Dan Koppen, selected in the fifth round in '03.

A comparison of the various Cowboys O-line "busts" is instructive. It cannot be argued that Jacob Rogers and James Marten ever lived up to their draft status; both have CAVs of zero. That said, '03 second rounder Al Johnson's CAV of 16 is nestled right in amidst the 2nd round averages, as are Stephen Peterman's 12 and Pat McQuistan's 2 for the third and seventh round averages, respectively. Although Doug Free's current CAV is a mere 4, the fact that he's now starting at LT for a (hopefully) prolific offense is sure to raise it, and probably by a goodly amount. Curiously, Rob Petitti's CAV of 9 dwarfs the average for linemen drafted in the sixth round. The upshot of this decidedly unscientific comparison is that the Cowboys success rate is more or less in accord with the average CAV for linemen drafted in the same round. What these CAV numbers suggest is that the Cowboys are generally no worse (nor no better) than other teams when it comes to selecting offensive line talent.

What is also evident is the paucity of higher round picks Dallas has spent on O-line in the past eight drafts. Other than the second rounders used to select Al Johnson and Jacob Rogers, the Cowboys have spent no "premium" picks to bolster their offensive line. Several theories have been advanced to explain this; perhaps the most plausible is that Jerry Jones wants his premium picks to contribute immediately, and the likelihood of an offensive lineman--especially one taken after about pick #20--being able to do so is minimal at best.

This doesn't mean, however, that the Cowboys haven't TRIED to draft offensive linemen with premium picks. Indeed, there have been multiple occasions in the years under consideration that the 'Boys' braintrust has placed a draft bullseye on an offensive lineman, only to have him snapped up--on a couple of occasions a mere two picks before Dallas' selection. A look at three enticing draftables who got away:

2004: Cowboys fans, haunted by the nightmare that was Troy Hambrick, were clamoring for a running back and crossing their fingers that a top flight runner--ideally, Stephen Jackson--would fall to them. When he did, the Cowboys traded the pick--a move that was greeted by stunned disbelief. As it turns out, Dallas' first round target wasn't a back, but offensive lineman Shawn Andrews, whose nimbleness (he played tackle in the rough and tumble SEC) and raw power at the point of attack had Parcells salivating. He thought there was a reasonable chance that Andrews would fall to the Cowboys, who had the 22nd pick in the first round. Sadly, Andy Reid sold the fort to trade up and corral the big tackle at #16. Andrews ultimately proved to be the king of the knuckleheads, and was therefore a perfect fit in Philadelphia. For the first few years of his career, however, he was dominant, and was rewarded with All-Pro selections in 2005-07.

A side note on the Andrews fiasco: it could be argued that Parcells was so focused on Andrews that, when the Arkansas tackle was scooped up, he panicked and, desperate for a lineman, overdrafted both Rogers and Peterman.

2006: After bagging the illustrious Bobby Carpenter in round one, the Cowboys had their sights set on Boise State's Daryn Colledge in round two. Colledge, a small school prospect with good, if not great, size (6'4", 305) and excellent feet, would have bolstered the Cowboys' interior line. However, he was gobbled up by Green Bay at # 47, two picks before the Cowboys were slated to go to the podium. A dispirited Dallas war room then traded down four spots before selecting the forgettable Anthony Fasano. Colledge has started at left guard in 62 of the Packers' 66 games since he was drafted.

2009: The Cowboys--without a first round pick--were sitting at # 51, hoping a player they liked might fall to them. Going in, they felt confident that one of the highly-rated center/ guard types--Alex Mack, Eric Wood or Max Unger--would drop into the second round. As we know all too well, the last of these three, Unger, began to fall. Suddenly, he was snapped up by Seattle, who traded up to pick him at # 49. He has started every game for Seattle since.

Why do I rehash this insidious history? I find examples wherein players who the Cowboys were targeting were scooped up a couple of picks before the Cowboys were scheduled to select to be curious, especially given the fact that Dallas--Jerry Jones in particular--has shown a willingness to wheel and deal on draft day. Often--much to the collective consternation of Cowboy fans--this means trading down. But on multiple occasions, he has traded up to get his man: in 2005's fourth round, the 'Boys moved up to get Chris Canty; in '06, they bumped up 12 spots to obtain Pat Watkins; in '07, after some draft-trade derring-do, they moved back up into the first round to tag Anthony Spencer. Twice in 2008, they moved up to get players where they saw value, climbing up three spots to get Mike Jenkins (at the cost of a fifth and a seventh) and 12 spots to select Orlando Scandrick (at the cost of another seventh). And of course, the most recent draft's trade up double-dip: moving up three and four spots to grab Dez Bryand and Sean Lee, respectively.

The larger point here is that Jerry has historically proven that he'll trade up to get a player Dallas is targeting--except, apparently, when that player is an offensive lineman. As I noted in a previous post, Jerry operates according to a "magpie" talent acquisition philosophy: he's attracted to shiny things. Splashy moves. History suggests that, to Jerry, trading up for an O-lineman doesn't make the same kind of splash. And the Cowboys have been suffering the consequences for years now, whether it be the need to acquire costly free agents (if, for example,Daryn Colledge had fallen to the Cowboys, would they have needed to sign Kyle Kosier? Leonard Davis? Perhaps one, but not both) or to rely on the Alex Barrons of the world as back up tackles.

The Cowboys' front office has collected an array of elite talent. Star power that shines brightly. Jerry wouldn't have it any other way. But this glittering dragon sports a dark, shadowy underbelly. For all our sakes, I hope this monster doesn't show its bloated, mottled belly again this season. It ain't pretty.

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