The magic that is the NFL draft is just a day away, when the hopes and future of your favorite team transform from hundreds of man hours, interviews, scouting and strategies, into the all important draft card that gets sent up to the podium. Boom or bust, the next great players or disappointments in the NFL are on the horizon. Even better, Jason Garrett has been true to his process of team building, and the Dallas Cowboys go into the draft - for the first time in what feels like ages - with the ability to draft the best player available instead of being desperate to fill a particular need on the roster.
Every year fans debate about the proper approach to the draft. Should a team take the best player available or aim to fill the needs of the team. Reality in the NFL appears to be a mix of the two, the scale dependent on how well the team is already constructed. Teams that groom players "in-house" and are successful in both their scouting and development of prospects can usually avoid the traps that lead to a purely need based draft approach. Teams that always seem to struggle in finding a replacement for their Darren Woodson or Larry Allen end up forcing picks or making bad trades or free-agent signings, always trying to fill the need but pressing the issue and often continuing the horrendous cycle.
It seems those dark days have ended in Dallas. Jason Garrett has always preached a philosophy of competition, continual growth and improvement, and it appears he is true to his word. A month ago at a breakfast media session, Cowboys Head Coach Jason Garrett once again commented on this process.
Jason Garrett told reporters that Dallas Cowboys planned to make a hype and competition in the NFL through the selection of a strong team. By adding in the best available player that suited the game plan of Dallas Cowboys best, the team chooses from the best available options. Jason Garrett further explained that by creating competition the team meant that they looked for the best players around. Dallas Cowboys management evaluated each player and estimated their upsides and best abilities. They also noted if the genre of player suited with the game plan of Dallas Cowboys for season 2012. Then once the team was done with short listing their final options, they did their best to make the player available for Dallas Cowboys.
Few would call Coach Garrett an "open book" when talking to the media. He tends to reiterate messages and often appears to be talking more to his team than the reporters (something he surely learned from Jimmy Johnson), but sometimes what he doesn't say and the themes between the lines are crystal clear. Garrett didn't explain the weakest part of the Cowboys defense was the secondary and thus the signing of Brandon Carr and release of Terence Newman were vital to improving his team. He didn't state that Bradie James and Keith Brooking were the right kind of guys that could no longer produce on the field and thus had to be released. Instead, he simply signed Brodney Pool and Dan Conner to provide some new competition for starting roles. Garrett didn't state that he wanted a younger, hungrier offensive-line, but the last of the veterans were released, a fortune was not thrown at Carl Nicks, and competition was added to the interior line. Garrett didn't say the team knew Anthony Spencer was talented but uncertain if he deserved a long contract. They also didn't leave the team desperate for an outside linebacker to start opposite DeMarcus Ware. They simply decided Spencer was the best option available and applied the franchise tag.
And now that the team has at least average players to compete for a starting job in every position on this team, Jason Garrett is preparing to take the best available player in the draft to fit the Cowboys game plan, not just their needs.
Let's be clear, the team is not perfect and still has some suspect players and weak spots. But they also appear to have a roster that could already line-up and play without any blatant holes along their starting lines while still providing some competition for starting roles.
Many fans may disagree with me on this one, but even the Cowboys interior o-line could be NFL worthy after a good offseason. If Bill Nagy, Phil Costa, and David Arkin continue to improve, and Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau do the same while providing strong competition, Mike Woicik and Bill Callahan can help bring out the best in these young players and strengthen the weakest aspect of the Cowboys offense. Moving Tyron Smith to left tackle might be risky, but the young man-giant has shown he is up to the task and has the character to work hard at becoming the franchise left tackle many of us hoped prior to the 2011 draft. Doug Free had a tough year on the left side, but he could again excel as a right tackle, giving the Cowboys one of the better book-end duos in the NFL.
I considered simply writing Jason Witten and nothing else, but it should speak volumes that Martellus Bennett is no longer on this team though John Phillips is still. One might have had more physical ability and natural talent, but the other seems to be the right kind of guy.
Potentially one of the most exciting competitions to see at camp, Felix Jones and (former rookie sensation) DeMarco Murray will provide an excellent tandem for the Cowboys backfield. There may be injury concerns for both, but they are both fast and capable receivers. Murray packs more of a punch, Felix more of a shifty x-factor, but both have the potential to break big plays and help Tony Romo and the passing game in various ways. Fans should also be pumped to see Lawrence Vickers added to this unity. I'm sure Arian Foster would be more persuasive about what Vickers brings to a team, but I will guarantee many of the 2012 Cowboys rushing highlights will have Vickers leading the way with a solid block.
Miles Austin and Dez Bryant could become one of the best WR combos in the league. Both are fast and physical and hard workers. While the overall depth of the receiving core could be considered a weak spot, I am really excited about the competition between Dwayne Harris and Raymond Radway (or perhaps Kevin Ogletree will finally prove himself). Andre Holmes and Teddy Williams could have some upside as well. Surely the unit should be strengthened, but obviously not a need that would overrule best player available when it comes to the Cowboys draft strategy.
Kyle Orton is a starting NFL quarterback. If something happens to Tony Romo the Cowboys are covered and likely won't need to change their game plans much. Romo haters will now even have a name to bring up when they mistakenly and begrudgingly call for Romo to be executed, exiled, and/or excommunicated.
Again, I am sure fans might disagree with this one - quite a few adamantly disagreed with me when I was saying the same before the 2011 draft - but our d-line is not desperate for a top notch draft pick. (Again, many disagreed with me on this point) Jason Hatcher and Sean Lissemore provide reasons to hope this d-line can improve even without the addition of a new starter, while Kenyon Coleman and Josh Brent provide some power to stop the run. The debate on Jason Ratliff playing out of position will continue and we will eventually need a new star to replace him along the d-line, but while this group can obviously be improved through the draft, the team certainly does not need to reach for someone out of need.
Yes, I am still a true believer when it comes to Anthony Spencer, but I think the franchise tag was the best move this offseason. Provide him another year to prove he is worth a long-term contract, but admit this team is in big trouble without him. The team does still need a future star at outside linebacker, but they will not need to reach for one in this draft to assure they have a starter opposite Ware in 2012. As mentioned above, I respect them both but the release of James and Brooking were necessary. Dan Conner provides some depth and a potential starter depending on how much Bruce Carter improves this offseason. Victor Butler can continue to provide pass rushing support as a sub, and he can continue to improve his overall game without being forced to start earlier than necessary.
The addition of Brandon Carr was excellent, in my book a great improvement over Newman. While it is the same story with Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick, still waiting for them to prove they are better than average, at least they will come into this season healthier and more learned in Ryan's organized chaos. Gerald Sensabaugh and Brodney Pool are not my pair of dream safeties, but things could (and have been) be much worse. Sensabaugh's best qualities are his physical ability and Pool brings with him some veteran leadership and knowledge of a Ryan defense, and perhaps together they will overcome their individual weaknesses. Most importantly, they can both play as either free or strong safeties and provide Ryan the flexibility his intricate defense requires. The secondary was the Achilles' Heel of the 2011 Cowboys defense, but already this unity has improved over last year's starters due to the additions of Carr and Pool. Perhaps the best thing about this unit it that while the need to add talent to the defense's weakest link still exists, the Cowboys do not need to draft a starter for the secondary with their #14 draft pick.
So what does this all mean? This was not simply an exercise or attempt to make the current Cowboys roster appear better than they were heading into the 2011 season. While in my opinion they are better, this is really a testament to Jason Garrett's process. If anything, this is my ode to the new leader of the Cowboys franchise. It seems Jason has earned enough trust from Jerry Jones and is in fact in charge, a question often asked the past couple of years. I would also like to indirectly thank Coach Garrett for being a man of his word. He has continued to create competition for starting roles on this team and has held veterans accountable for their paychecks and play on Sunday. In a short time, the Cowboys have become a much younger team with the ability to progress and improve from within. A few years ago it seemed impossible the team could improve from one year to the next without any new additions, yet Garrett has already transformed the majority of this team from veterans near the end of their careers to hard working young guys that are instilled with the benefits of competition and the process of learning everyday and trying to be great.
For the first time in years, I can sit back during this draft and be happy with a variety of choices the team can make with their #14 pick. Last draft I was holding my breath until I heard the name Tyron Smith. This year, DeCastro, Gilmore, Kirkpatrick, Barron, Upshaw, Poe, it seems no matter what name is called, I will be content. Not only has Garrett brought this team around to where they can follow a more strict BPA policy during the draft, but he has also proven to me that I can trust his judgment on the players selected much more than I could in the past. Without a recent playoff appearance this may seem difficult to accept, but it is a good time to be a Cowboys fan.
Thank you for being true to your word Coach Garrett.