Buccaneer running back Doug Martin's big night in Tampa Bay's victory over Minnesota on Thursday Night Football got me thinking back to April, when we was one of the Cowboys' national pre-draft invitees. Each NFL team, you may recall, is allowed to invite thirty players to its training facility for a more in-depth look. In the past couple of off-seasons, noting the clear correlation between who these players are and who (and what positions) Dallas drafts, the writers here at BTB have taken a very close look at these "Dallas Days" players. Carried away by this, in fact, Ol' Rabble has spent the better part of the last two Aprils filling these pages with detailed scouting reports on each of these players.
Because of this, these names remain at the forefront of my otherwise dim memory, such that, when a guy like Martin goes off, I am much more likely to remember him, albeit largely as a potential Cowboy who is now playing well. Often I'll say something to myself like, "Hmmm. Looks like the Cowboys go that one right." The interesting thing is that I have had this experience a lot recently; the Valley Ranch invitees from the 2010-12 drafts - and the last two in particular - have made early cases that they are legitimate NFL players.
In 2011, you'll recall, the Cowboys drafted Tyron Smith, Bruce Carter and DeMarco Murray in the first three rounds. All three are starters and look to be anywhere from good to great players. Did they get lucky with these three, or did they do an effective job identifying guys that could play at positions of perceived need? Dallas was interested in several other players at the same positions; looking at them could help us to answer this question.
The other offensive tackles in whom they expressed interest were Anthony Castonzo, drafted by the Colts, Nate Solder, picked by by the Pats, and Derek Sherrod, who was tabbed by Green Bay at the end of the first round. Castonzo and Solder have started every game they have played in the last two seasons; Sherrod was a back-up in 2011 and is currently on the PUP list. In addition to Carter, Dallas invited linebackers Martez WIlson (now a DE in New Orleans), Kelvin Sheppard (Bills) and Nate Irving (Broncos). Sheppard has been a starter for Buffalo since stepping off the bus in Orchard Park; Wilson is a rotation player for the Saints and Irving is a special teams ace in Denver. The two running backs they looked at other than Murray are Bilal Powell, who is in the Jets' backfield rotation, and Stevan Ridley, who is on the verge of stardom in New England. Oh, and one more: a guy named Phillip Tanner. Tough runner. Good pass protector. Yep, he's now Murray's backup.
At other positions, some names on the Cowboys short list include budding superstar DE J.J. Watt; CBs Aaron WIlliams (starter in Buffalo) and Prince Amukamara (ditto for the Giants). But these guys, were all clearly good players. What is more impressive is how well the Cowboys scouted lower-round players such as Ridley, current Jacksonville wideout Cecil Shorts, and defensive backs like Johnny Patrick (Saints), Da'Norris Searcy (Bills) and Eric Hagg (Browns). Most of these guys needed a developmental year to get stronger and learn the scheme while playing special teams. With that under their belts, many are logging meaningful snaps. In fact, the only 2011 target not in the league is small-school CB Korey Lindsey.
The most recent crop looks even more promising. The Cowboys traded up for the best corner in the draft; had they not, players like Casey Heyward, Josh Norman and Jamell Fleming wold likely have ended up Cowboys. That wouldn't have been a bad thing, as all three are getting significant playing time and acquitting themselves well, albeit with the occasional rookie hiccup. Other Cowboys targets such as DL Michael Brockers and Fletcher Cox, linebacker Bobby Wagner, and wideout T.Y. Hilton are beginning to assert themselves in their rookie campaigns.
One need only to look back to 2009 to recognize that this has not always been the case. That was the year of the famous "special teams draft," in which the Cowboys sought to bolster their depth. Given that they had none, I take no issue with that strategy; rather, we must question who they picked, and the process by which they arrived at those picks. Valley Ranch insiders have noted that, under the Wade Phillips administration, coaches were given far too much leeway in judging collegiate talent. The scouts knew Jason Williams couldn't play; Phillips, insisted he could, and he became Dallas' first pick in that draft (in round three).
Under Garrett, the son of a long-time scout, this is changing. He respects the work that scouts do and, reportedly, honors the board that Director of Player Personnel Tom Ciskowski sets up every April. And the results seem to be positive: in addition to the 2011 crop's three-starter yield, the 2012 draft shows early promise; although only first-rounder Mo Claiborne is currently starting, third-rounder Tyrone Crawford figures in the DL rotation and TE James Hanna has made plays on the rare occasion when he is called upon.
So everything is rosy in talent acquisition land? Not exactly. Although the 2010-12 drafts have been generally strong (2010 brought the team Dez Bryant, Sean Lee and Sean Lissemore), Dallas' propensity for trading up (something they did in two of those three drafts) has cost them valuable draft choices: a third and a fifth in 2010, and a fat, juicy second-rounder in 2012. If we accept that the organization is doing a good job evaluating talent, then any traded pick becomes all the more likely to represent a solid-to-great NFL player.
When we bemoan the lack of progress under Jason Garrett, one of the key points we must consider is that the front office has traded away several key building blocks in recent years. The Cowboys' braintrust must start to place greater value on draft picks, regardless of round. While trades up for the likes of Lee and Claiborne certainly appear from this perspective to have been good moves, losing potential players is bad business. For a team that desperately needs quality depth across the roster's bottom third, trading away picks can offset any gains brought about by hitting on first- and second-day picks. Two steps forward and one back? Sounds about right...