Each NFL team is permitted to invite up to 30 national draft prospects for a pre-draft visit every year. Per league rules, these visits are not workouts, they are strictly meet and greets where the team can get a better feel for the players and the medical staff can conduct more thorough medical checkups. Additionally, teams can invite as many local prospects as they want for a workout, and the Cowboys regularly conduct their "Dallas Days" for draft-eligible players who grew up in the area or attended area colleges.
In recent years, these visits have been a pretty good indicator of which players and which positions the Cowboys were going to select in the ensuing draft. The Cowboys' last five top picks — Bobby Carpenter, Anthony Spencer, Felix Jones, Jason Williams and Dez Bryant — all visited Valley Ranch as part of the Cowboys' pre-draft visits.
For the last three years two to three pre-draft visitors actually ended up being drafted by the Cowboys, and the "Dallas Days" also delivered their share of Cowboys players with the likes of Patrick Crayton, Brandon Williams, Jacques Reeves, Stephen Hodge and most recently Bryan McCann.
Jerry Jones on what happens during these visits:
"We get a feel for them personally. We're serious when we bring them in here. We're interested in them but you get a feel for what they are as individuals but then the work we get when they come out here. The coaches work with them on the board and basically show them particular plays and terminology and then turn around 30 minutes later and say, 'Jump up and show me I X 54 3x right,' and watch them go. That tells you a lot."
Tom Ciskowski, the Cowboys' Director of College and Pro Scouting, sees the Dallas Days as another chance to evaluate local talent that may not have received the amount of media exposure others have.
"We've seen them all on film," Ciskowski said. "Maybe a couple of them didn't go to the combine. We want to see how they compare to the others who went to the combine. We'll grade their attitude, how receptive they are to coaching and how well they compete. We can view the tape to find out how they play as a player."
At the bottom of this post I've summarized all the players (that I could find) invited for pre-draft visits to Valley Ranch over the last three years. And with the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to say that the invite list is a good indicator of whom the Cowboys will draft, but if I were to hand you a list of 30 players for 2011 and ask you to point out which players Dallas will pick, your chances of making the right pick will be slim at best. Once we have the list for this year, we will do exactly that exercise though.
The last top pick the Cowboys did not invite was DeMarcus Ware in 2005. Perhaps the Cowboys brass thought they knew all there was to know about Ware. More recently another Cowboys first round pick did not receive an invite to Valley Ranch: although the Cowboys invited eight cornerbacks with 1st or 2nd round potential, Mike Jenkins wasn't invited in 2008. Perhaps that was all part of a big subterfuge to get Jenkins to Dallas without tipping the Cowboys' hand early? Who knows.
The one thing that appears to be a good indicator though is the amount of invites per position. The Cowboys were looking for a corner and a running back in 2008 and brought in eight corners and five backs. In 2009 they went looking for linebackers and found one. In 2010, the priorities appeared to be corner again, receiver and a whole shopping list worth of offensive linemen. After only inviting three linemen in the two previous year, the Cowboys suddenly wanted to talk to eight of the big guys at once. The Cowboys did end up picking a lineman with the 179th pick in Sam Young, but that was perhaps not as high as their shopping list would have indicated.
The chances are good that this year's invites will once again be heavy on the O-line. Notice also that the Cowboys visited with two quite highly ranked defensive linemen in 2010, up from none in 2008 and one third rounder in 2009.
Watch closely over the next few weeks as word trickles out about which players have received invitations to Valley Ranch - will 2011 be the 6th consecutive year the Cowboys bring their top draft pick in for a pre-draft visit?
Pre-draft visitors to Valley Ranch, 2008-2010
* denotes players who count as a local prospects