Cowboys Drafting Success Primer, Part II: The Results Of The Long View

In yesterday’s first installment of our draft "Primer," I looked at the importance of long-term thinking when building a roster. In Part II, I’ll examine the most important ways this thinking can positively manifest on draft day.

In the years since Jimmy Johnson’s departure, Dallas has employed numerous draft-day strategies. They have been patient and let the draft come to them (2005); they have exercised patience and missed out on guys they had targeted (2006 and 2009); they have saturation-bombed specific positions (CB in 2000; DL in 2001; RB and CB in 2008; LB in 2009). Here's the thing: we can apply to draft strategy the old adage I've heard applied to starting quarterbacks: if you have more than one, you don’t have one.

Dallas approaches each draft with a new strategy, seemingly formed in reaction to what didn't go well the previous year. 2009: trade back and acquire depth! 2010: that failed, let's spend picks to get the guys with the highest grades! Jerry Jones is anything but patient; he tends to over-react to the most recent input--which is the epitome of short-term thinking. Thus the kind of players targeted and the way their skills are valued has changed from year to year, as has the Cowboys' strategy in the late rounds (which flip-flops from small school guys with athletic upside to less talented BCS-conference guys with big-game competition under their belts). In other words, they don’t have a long-term, global strategy, a rubric against which they can measure draft-day decisions.

Much more after the break...

The better drafting teams—the Packers, Eagles, Steelers, Patriots, and Colts—don’t suffer from this sort of organizational chaos. They have developed a coherent philosophy, have specific player profiles that they follow and have articulated their draft-day priorities so that they know how and when to act—and at what cost. For instance: since the beginning of the Tony Dungy era we have known precisely what kind of players the Colts are interested in: smaller, quicker front seven players, zone corners who can tackle, smart offensive linemen, usually taken in the later rounds. Under Andy Reid, Philadelphia hasn’t been afraid to spend premium picks to trade up in order to secure a player they like (Shawn Andrews in 2004; Brandon Graham last year); they also tend to collect a lot of middle to late round choices to maximize their chances of hitting on a couple of them (no better example than 5th-rounder Brett Celek).

The better drafting organizations massage the draft in order to acquire maximum value from it. In a FanPost of the Week column in early March, I championed a post in which BTB member PhilipKDick had opined that the traditional "draft value chart" is skewed, such that high picks are overvalued. As a result, "clever" teams exploit this overvaluation by trading down and getting multiple picks or trading current picks for future picks. Indeed, the Eagles and Patriots have done this masterfully in recent years, approaching each draft as merely one opportunity to accumulate draft value over the course of five to ten years. Take a look: the Patriots had ten picks in 2006 and a whopping 12 each in 2009 and 2010; the Eagles piled up 11 choices in 2005, ten in 2008 and 13 in 2010.

Many of these picks were acquired by trading a current pick for one from the next draft (or a player with some tread still left on his tires for future picks--see: Seymour, Richard). These teams are willing to trade the known present for an unknown future because they see the long view—that value is not accrued just in one draft, but over the course of multiple drafts. Of course, a team can only make long-range decisions when the coaching staff and GM have job security. It’s no coincidence that Philly and New England boast the league’s two longest-tenured head coaches. 

This strategy not only builds draft value, but brings in crucial extra picks. For even the most brilliant talent evaluators, the draft is an inexact science. There are always surprises and disappointments, not to mention holdouts, injuries, personality clashes, and the like. It’s a pretty simple equation: if 40%-60% of the players a team drafts are going to disappoint, they will increase their chances of finding guys who can play by drafting more guys—especially guys in the first three rounds.

New England plays this game expertly. In 2007, for instance, they ended up with only one selection in the first three rounds—because they embarked on a series of trades down and for future picks that ended up netting an astonishing haul: in 2008, they had an extra third-rounder; in 2009, 6 of the top 97 picks (with four second rounders) belonged to the Pats; in 2010, Belichick and Co. had five of the first 90. This year? Two picks in each of the first three rounds.  So, even though ’07 netted only the underwhelming Brandon Meriweather, the long-terms results have brought exponentially more value to the team.

The more guys a team can draft in the first two days (i.e., rounds 1-3), the more likely they are to replenish their talent base. Lets assume that to do so, an organization must find three quality players (starters or impact non-starters) in every draft. Which teams consistently bring in three or more players who fit this definition?  I’m going to use Pro Football Reference’s matrix for "Weighted Career Approximate Value" to determine whether an individual player can be considered a "successful" pick—assuming that players chosen in 2005 must have a higher WCAV than those selected in 2010. For each of the teams in question, any season with three or more "hits" will be considered a success.

Patriots:

2005: Logan Mankins; Ellis Hobbs; Nick Kaczur; James Sanders; Matt Cassel
2006: Lawrence Maroney; Dave Thomas; Stephen Gostkowski; Ryan O’Callaghan
2007: Brandon Meriweather
2008: Jerrod Mayo; Johnathan Wilhite
2009: Patrick Chung; Ron Brace; Darius Butler; Sebastian Vollmer; Brandon Tate; Julian Edelman
2010: Devin McCourty; Rob Gronkowski; Jermaine Cunningham; Brandon Spikes; Aaron Hernandez

Packers:

2005: Aaron Rodgers; Nick Collins; Brady Poppinga
2006: A.J. Hawk; Daryn Colledge; Greg Jennings; Jason Spitz; Tony Moll; Johnny Jolly
2007: Brandon Jackson; James Jones; Aaron Rouse; Korey Hall; Desmond Bishop; Mason Crosby
2008: Jordy Nelson; Jermichael Finley; Josh Sitton
2009: B.J. Raji; Clay Matthews; T.J. Lang, Brad Jones
2010: Bryan Bulaga; Morgan Burnett; Andrew Quarless; C.J. Wilson

Eagles:

2005: Mike Patterson; Reggie Brown; Todd Herremans; Trent Cole
2006: Brodrick Bunkley; Winston Justice; Max Jean-Gilles; Chris Gocong; Jason Avant; Omar Gaither
2007: Kevin Kolb; Stewart Bradley; Brent Celek;
2008: DeSean Jackson
2009: Jeremy Maclin; LeSean McCoy; Brandon Gibson; Moise Fokou
2010: Brandon Graham; Nate Allen; Clay Harbor; Jamar Chaney; Kurt Coleman

Steelers:

2005: Heath Miller; Bryant McFadden; Trai Essex; Chris Kemoeatu
2006: Santonio Holmes; Anthony Smith; Willie Colon
2007: Lawrence Timmons; LaMar Woodley; William Gay
2008: Rashard Mendenhall; Ryan Mundy
2009: Ziggy Hood; Mike Wallace; David Johnson
2010: Maurkice Pouncey; Jason Worilds; Emmanuel Sanders; Antonio Brown

Colts:

2005: Marlin Jackson; Kelvin Hayden; Dylan Gandy; Tyjuan Hagler
2006: Joseph Addai; Tim Jennings; Freddie Keiaho; Charlie Johnson; Antoine Bethea
2007: Anthony Gonzalez; Tony Ugoh; Clint Session; Keyunta Dawson
2008: Mike Pollack; Jacob Tamme; Pierre Garcon
2009: Donald Brown, Fili Moala; Jerraud Powers, Austin Collie
2010: Jerry Hughes; Pat Angerer; Brody Eldridge; Kavell Conner

A lot of very successful drafts here—and in consecutive years. In the comments section following Part I, one of our readers, tdships, noted that the Colts have averaged a staggering 4.4 contributors per draft in the Bill Polian era. Look at the Packers’ drafts; Ted Thompson has had astonishingly consistent production--no wonder they have the deepest team since the 90s Cowboys. The Pats' last two drafts make me shudder: that's a lot of good young players. Along these lines, its no wonder that all these teams are perennially in the hunt for conference and Super Bowl championships.

The Cowboys, on the other hand, have not been nearly as consistent. Using the same criteria, let’s look at the number of "hits" the Dallas braintrust has managed in the same period:

2005: Ware, Spears, Burnett; Barber; Canty; Ratiff
2006: Anthony Fasano
2007: Spencer, Free, Ball
2008: F. Jones, Jenkins, Bennett, Choice
2009: N/A
2010: Dez Bryant

We know the 2005 draft was a bonanza. Ware, Spears, Burnett, Barber, Canty and Ratliff have all had terrific careers, many far exceeding expectations for the round in which they were chosen. Furthermore, both 2007 and 2008 have satisfied our basic criteria: to hit on at least three players—and of those, three (Spencer, Free, Jenkins) have Pro-Bowl potential at important positions. Still, the top-tier drafting teams do this every year. Also note that the two best drafts herein (’05 and ’08) were those in which Dallas had traded for a future first-rounder the previous year. They twice acquired value—and, as a result, had "successful" drafts even when second-round picks failed to fulfill their promise.

But look at the other years; the players in 2006 totaled 14 starts, nine of them from Watkins’ rookie year, when he was pressed into service before he was ready. 2009’s class has amassed a grand total of four starts—all from John Phillips, when they began games in two-tight end sets. And, as I suggested in part I, 2010 has potential, but the jury remains out. Worst of all, as teams like New England and Green Bay are getting both younger AND better, the Cowboys are aging with few, if any, replacements seemingly in the fold. Consequently, I worry that Dallas isn't equipped to compete with the likes of these teams at present. To my mind, this is further evidence that they must concentrate on building for the long term--its the only way they can amass enough firepower compete at a championship level.

It remains to be seen what kind of impact Jason Garrett will make in the Cowboys' war-room. His ability to evaluate talent is less important to me (I trust Tom Ciskowsi and his guys; the Cowboys scouting department, by all insider accounts, does an excellent job evaluating players and setting up the board) than whether or not his steadying presence gives the organization the ability to adopt the kind of long-term thinking that allows them to see the draft as...wait for it: a "process." Can they accrue overall value, even if that means deferring value this year? Trade down and acquire an extra third? Trade that 2011 third rounder for a second rounder in 2012 (assuming such a trade is a viable option given the CBA troubles)? And still get the kinds of players they like?

Jimmy Johnson, the steely-eyed gambler, pioneered the draft value chart and, by doing so, revolutionized the draft. I want to see his combination of innovation and cool calculation return to the Cowboys warroom. Hopefully Garrett, one of Johnson’s smartest pupils, will do a reasonable impression of the master come Thursday—and beyond. I’ll be in the front row, watching for signs.

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