My goal for this year’s draft build-up is to know what the Cowboys are going to do on draft day before they do it. I have my own opinions about draft needs and player ratings, but I’m more interested in understanding what Jerry’s strategy will be and then watching it unfold. There are a couple of ways to get there, with the best of course being reliable inside information. But since I don’t have any connections (and wouldn’t trust them in this smoke-and-mirrors season anyway), the best I can do is to look at drafts from the past to see how Jerry thinks on that all-important day.
Looking at draft-days gone by, the following trends emerge. I’m calling them “Jerry’s Draft Rules” and it’s a work in progress, so anything you can add would be welcomed.
Rule #1: The First Pick is for Making Money. It’s all about marketing—The Star needs stars, and the first pick is the one everyone remembers. Jerry has to make a splash and get a player he can showcase at a high profile position or at least a "wow" guy with special athletic ability. Defensive players usually make the quickest impact so DBs and pass rushers come first, but the occasional offensive skill position guy with home-run ability can generate some serious publicity as well. Meat-and-potatoes positions can be filled later; nobody is buying season tickets and jerseys because of a guy with his hand in the dirt.
Rule #2: Offensive Line is a Secondary Draft Priority. Jerry realizes the importance of the offensive line. The big bucks he spends at the position in free agency attest to that. He also realizes that building the OL through the draft is a cheaper option; at least, he says as much in public. The trouble is, the safest way to build the OL is in the first round—and that brings it into direct conflict with Rule #1. So the best Jerry can do is target OL in round 2, but recent years have seen more and more OL prospects rise into the second half of round 1 and the Cowboys have missed out on the second-tier guys they've targeted.
Rule #3: Round 3 is for Proving You’re Smarter Than Everyone Else. Raw talents, character concerns, positional misfits, and plain ol’ reaches litter the third rounds of Jerry’s draft history. This is the round where the draft often turns into a flea market; there is value to be had if you can sort through the junk. Jerry hasn't been a very good bargain hunter, so he prefers to use this round for gambling or trading (3 of the past 6 drafts have seen Jerry trading his third round pick.) Expect the third round pick to surprise, then disappoint.
Rule #4: Draft Grades and Boards Are Subjective. Most teams target players for positions of need or just because they like them, and Jerry does this as well. Getting a view of the Cowboys actual draft board from the “War Room Cam” last year was both informative and mysterious; the Cowboys had players graded by round, then ranked within those rounds. On the one hand, the board dictated the Cowboys moves, as they traded up to get both Dez and Sean Lee after they slid past their projected value and into attainable spots. On the other hand, Dez and Lee weren’t the only players to slide, and the Cowboys could have gotten great value by trading up for those or even by staying put—but does anyone really think that the Cowboys would have traded up to get Bryan Bulaga or Jared Odrick, even though they were rated just 2 and 4 spots behind Dez? All this to say that the draft board is a helpful tool as a composite work of the scouting and coaching teams, but the draft process is more organic and interactive than just choosing the top available player on the board.
Rule #5: Trading is Better Than Staying Put. In search of draft value, targeted players, hearing his name called more than anyone else, or the simple thrill of making a deal, Jerry loves to move. He seems to move up in the early rounds and move down in round 3 and beyond more than the other way, but any deal is better than none. History proves that draft weekend is Jerry’s favorite time of the year and he takes full advantage of having total control from the one seat that most of us would love to be sitting in on that day.
Rule #6: Rules Are For GMs With Lesser Instincts. Jerry doesn't always follow his own draft tendencies and the rules above. Jerry doesn't draft first round WRs? Not anymore, says Dez. Jerry doesn't draft Arkansas players? Welcome to Dallas, Felix. The Cowboys love guys from the SEC? Try just two in the past five drafts. Maybe Jerry just loves to buck the trends and surprise people. Or maybe he genuinely tries to learn from the past and adjust to an ever-changing NFL. Either way, draft day is always a wild ride for Jerry and America’s Team, because Jerry goes with his gut and works out the justifications post-draft.
Any other rules to add? Any exceptions to point out from draft days past? Any disagreements? Bring ‘em on…