Dallas Cowboys Draft Strategies (Pt 4): Emulating The Colts and Patriots

Follow me on a little trip down memory lane. It's the end of the 2009 season. Your team has just lost its final postseason game in a fashion that was not in line with the performance in most of the previous games, both during the regular season and the playoffs. Your GM even publicly scolded your teams’ offensive line:

"Our offensive line, by our standards, did not have a good game. They were outplayed by our opponents’ defensive line. […] Therein lies the result. It had nothing to do with strategy or preparedness or toughness or effort."

Many observers argued that the performance of your offensive line has been sugar-coated anyway, because the few positive stats your offensive line accumulated were more a result of the mobility and quick release of your Pro Bowl quarterback than anything else.

Heading up to the 2010 draft, most analysts believed your team would beef up an offensive line that was widely felt to be in need of some talent upgrade. Your team plays right into this perception by cutting a player from the left side of the O-line. Now imagine that your team, despite a publicly perceived dire need along the offensive line, does not pick an offensive lineman in the first three rounds of the 2010 draft. Nope, your teams goes out and drafts positions that many felt were in fact relative positions of strength.

Sound familiar so far? Believe it or not, the team we're looking at here are not the Dallas Cowboys.

The team I just described are the Indianapolis Colts, widely recognized as one of the more successful drafters of the past decade or so. In today's post, we'll look at the Colts and Patriots and see what would happen if the Cowboys emulated those teams' draft strategies. Once again we'll use Drafttek's Online Draft Simulator (ODS) to run our mock drafts for each scenario. Read up on it here if you missed the first couple of parts.

Indianapolis Colts

About a year ago, David Syvertsen at the now defunct newerascouting.com analyzed the Colts past 12 draft classes and concluded that the key to the Colts success was following a three-point philosophy:

1. Build around your strengths
2. Find players that fit the system
3. Draft the overachievers

During last year's combine, Colts GM Bill Polian explained his draft strategy:

"We always try to draft the best player available, and the best example I can give is Reggie Wayne," he said. "We had a big need for a cornerback that year, but we could not agree on who that should be. So we turned around, traded down, and took Reggie Wayne, who was the best player available at that pick. And it turned out to be the right thing.

And it always is, you should take the best player. You might be wrong in the assessment of the player, but as long as you take the best player your odds of success are very much greater."

An argument could be made that the Colts are one sack away from being a perennial 7-9 team, but since that is likely true for most other teams as well, we'll shelve that discussion for now.

While Bill Polian has come under criticism lately for his draft results, the Colts have been quite successful despite picking at the very bottom of each round for most of the last decade. So let's try to figure out what the Colts' three-point strategy could look like for the Cowboys.

First off, outside of a personal interview, I don't know of any measurables that would identify 'overachievers', so I'll skip that point, which leaves 'building your strengths with players that fit your system'. Over the last few years the Cowboys strengths have arguably been the passing game and the pass rush, along with a solid, if unspectacular running game.

In the logic of the ODS (see detailed explanation here) that would make receivers and OLB's a P3 priority, where you want to get a starting caliber prospect without reaching. The QB and RBs get a P4 grade, which should give you some solid depth at those positions.

Historically, the Cowboys game has always been built around solid linemen on both sides of the ball, so I'll add the big guys with a P5 code. What I'm looking for here are some safe guys that I can groom and who will eventually become my starters. They may never make the Pro Bowl, but if I can get enough of them I'll make the playoffs. Here’s how the Priority Codes might shake out in a Colts scenario:

Offense Defense
P3 WR P3 OLB
P4 RB, QB
P4 - -
P5 OT, OG, OC
P5 DE, DT
P9 All others P9 All others

So now we feed these positional priorities into the ODS, where we also mix in a little Drafttek Big Board, add the team needs for the other 31 NFL teams, spice it up with Drafttek's proprietary algorithm, et voilá: a Cowboys seven-course draft menu:


1st Round 2nd Round 3rd Round 4th Round 5th Round 6th Round 7th Round
Player Robert Quinn, OLB, North Carolina Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama
Chris Hairston, OT, Clemson
Greg McElroy, QB, Alabama Cedric Thornton, DE, Southern Arkansas Anthony Gray, DT, Southern Miss Jeff Maehl, WR, Oregon
Reach/ Value -1 +22 +19 -11 -9 -22 -29

This mock gives the Cowboys a fearsome passrusher in DeMarcus Ware's mold. And although RB is not that high of a priority for the Cowboys, when they see Ingram still on the board for their second round pick they immediately grab him. The Cowboys are surprised to see Hairston still available when they pick in the third and take him. With the fourth pick, the Cowboys grab QB Greg McElroy. Like RB, QB isn't a need position, but if you think the Colts know something about drafting, this could be one scenario that fits that BPA strategy. McElroy, like Garrett, may never become a starter in the league, but could be a good backup with McGee. Plus, the Cowboys get a head start on a guy who could be their coach twenty years down the line...

The remaining picks are strictly for depth. Following the Colts strategy (and the mock above is just one permutation of many such draft outcomes) carries the real risk of not drafting any immediate starters for the O-line - then again, the last time Bill Polian drafted an offensive lineman in the first round was in 1995 when he was in charge of the Panthers. It also doesn't address the needs in the Cowboys secondary. Both points go to show that a strict BPA approach is not much more than a fairy tale.

Having said that, there are names on that mock that I really like, but filling all the holes on the roster via free agency may be too much to ask of the Cowboys front office.

New England Patriots

This year the Patriots have an astonishing six picks in the top 100, two each in the first, second and third round. This is no coincidence. The Patriots are the classic draft pick stockpilers, a strategy that favors quantity over quality.

Contrary to what many believe, the Patriots are not great drafters, but by collecting as many picks as they reasonably can, they are playing a math game and simply increasing their odds of hitting on a starting-caliber player at a relatively low cost.

This is a strategy that can be particularly effective if you have a core of players that you want to build a team around, but it is not a good strategy for finding those elite players that you need in order to have someone to build a team around. Or as BTB member White Wolf so eloquently put it:

They [Patriots] can’t afford all these picks/players. They need something besides smurfs at the skill positions.

A stockpiling strategy is about finding value low in the first round and acquiring multiple second and third round picks. The Patriots achieve this by doing three things:

1. Player trades: trading veteran players (usually at the end of their contracts) for draft picks.
2. Draft-day trades: trading down to the end of the first round or top of the second, where talent is good and contracts are cheap. And then trade down some more to get even more picks.
3. Future picks: trading a draft pick in this year's draft for a pick in next year's draft.

Jerry Jones is no slouch himself when it comes to trading down, and he claims to already have received two offers to trade down at No. 9, so let's see how that strategy could work out for the Cowboys. Importantly, 'stockpiling' is about stockpiling in the first three rounds, not about picks in the fourth round and lower like the Cowboys' 10 triple-digit picks in 2010.

Trading for future picks is (nearly) out of the question. Unless it's a deal that's just too good to pass up it's not something we're likely to see this year where the Cowboys have a lot of holes to fill. Similar situation for player trades. The Cowboys have four veteran players whose contracts expire in 2012 (McBriar, Brooking, James, Spencer), and I don't think any of them are suited to get the Cowboys the high draft picks they would be looking for with a stockpiling strategy.

Here are two trades designed to maximize the number and value of picks in the top 100 for the Cowboys:

          1. San Diego 18 + 61 + 89 (1337) for Dallas 9 (1350)

When Robert Quinn is still around at number nine, the Chargers pull the trigger and trade up to re-establish a semblance of a pass rush in San Diego.

          2. Chicago 29 + 62 (924) for Dallas 18 + 170 (924.4)

Chicago is desperate for O-line help, and when Anthony Castonzo is still around when Dallas is on the clock, the Bears know they must jump ahead of the Giants to get him.

Ignoring compensatory picks, the Cowboys now have nine picks, a first rounder (29th), three second rounders (40, 61, 62) two third rounders (71, 89) and their original fourth, fifth and seventh rounders (109, 139, 210).

Here’s how the team at Drafttek currently see the Cowboys team needs:

Offense Defense
P3 OT P3 CB, DE
P4 OC P4 DT, OLB, ILB, FS, SS
P5 OG P5  - -
P9 All others P9 PK

We will use these pre-set needs to run the ODS with the Patriots/Stockpiling scenario for the Cowboys. Here is what that draft could look like:

Round / Pick
Player
Reach/ Value
Rationale

1st (29th)

Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin

+3

Let's hear it from Gabe Carimi himself why he would be an instant upgrade on the right side of the line for the Cowboys:
"Four potential first-round players I've gone against this year. I have a better resume of going against better talent than anyone else. I know I'm the best tackle out there, so I'm just going to play like it and act like it. I have a better knowledge of the game than any other tackle out there. I'm a draft-ready tackle that will be able to start in the NFL this year."


2nd (40th)

Mike Pouncey, OG, Florida

-9

Pouncey's size and versatility make him the top guard in the draft and the Cowboys are delighted to get him in the second round.


2nd (61st)

Allen Bailey, DE, Miami

+6

Allen Bailey is a classic Cowboys pick. Outstanding athleticism and skill set, great combination of size and speed, but he's never quite put it together for a dominating performance. The Cowboys believe they can coach him up and add a little more bulk to his frame without losing his athleticism.


2nd (62nd)

Curtis Brown, CB, Texas

-9

The 6-0, 184 pound corner has great speed and great hands. Brown is easily a top 5 corner, but his draft stock wasn't helped by the Longhorns' 2010 season. Brown is a recent riser on many draft boards after posting very good Combine numbers. He'll see a lot of action on special teams and in nickel/dime packages, and may be Newman's successor as early as 2012.


3rd (71st)


Tyler Sash, SS, Iowa

-9

Sash is probably the second best strong safety in the draft after Clemson's DeAndre McDaniel. Sash played in a pro-style zone defense and would likely challenge for a starter spot immediately. At 211 pounds he may need to add some weight, but he has good speed and is a solid tackler. He's also shown that he can lead a defense.


3rd (89th)

Titus Young, WR, Boise State

+28

Titus Young simply represents too much value to pass up at the end of the third round. Young is a burner who's drawn comparisons with DeSean Jackson for his blazing speed. A good route runner who's a home run threat with the ball in his hands.


4th (10th)

Chris White, ILB, Mississippi St.

-6

White is a tough inside linebacker with good instincts and a great football IQ.


5th (139th)

Jeremy Beal, OLB, Oklahoma

-13

Beal was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and a first-team All-Big 12 pick in 2010, putting up 66 tackles, 18 for loss, 8.5 sacks, six pass breakups and three forced fumbles. He had a very bad showing at the Senior Bowl which saw his draft stock plummet significantly. As late as November 2010 Beal was considered a potential first round prospect.


7th (210th)

Tejay Johnson, FS, TCU

-15

Johnson is said to have good leadership skills on the field, and great instincts which make up for his lack of speed.


The Cowboys end up parlaying their first round pick into two additional second rounders and one extra third rounder. On paper (or on your screen, as it were), this looks like a solid draft. All the major need areas are addressed with good prospects. It's likely that more players in this draft class would make it in the NFL than in a draft class without any trades.

But are there enough difference makers here, or have the Cowboys just drafted a bunch of role players? Only time will tell, but based on this mock, it's easy to understand the allure of a stockpiling strategy. Except of course if you draft a bunch of smurfs.

[Tomorrow we'll have the fifth and final part in this series up, as we look at what drafting against the other teams in the NFC East could look like]

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