The Cowboys recent run of acquiring elite players at key positions began with Dez Bryant in 2010
In the past, I have referenced what I call the Five Positions of Great Import: QB, WR, LT, pass rusher and CB (RB used to be the sixth POGI but, with this increasingly a passing league, it is no longer so). These are the positions at which teams, to be successful, must have good to dominant players. In a pass-happy league where everything, as Ron Jaworski is quick to remind us, is about match-ups, its precisely these positions that are involved in the match-ups that have the most influence over a game's outcome: quarterback and receiver vs. corner; left tackle vs. weakside pass rusher (and, by extension, any OT vs. any DE/ OLB).
As statistics have made increasingly clear, to win in the NFL, a team must pass and defend the pass well; the rest is gravy. An elite WR or DE/OLB keep rival defensive coordinators up at night; a top-flight LT or CB allows his coaches to sleep easier, knowing they have a guy who they can put "on an island," and trust to contain the threat. This is why these positions are overvalued at draft time; as QBs, CBs, WRs and pass rushers rise, guard, safeties, and TEs fall. Ideally, an organization can acquire a "blue-chip" player at as many POGI as possible. This is no easy task, however; in a typical year there are only about 6-8 of blue-chip players, the rare collegians who possess both off-the-charts production and measureables. When your squad has players who can dominate match-ups at the POGI, it becomes difficult for the opposition to pass or to defend the pass.
Consequently, when building a team, its critical to find the best possible players at these positions. In looking at the Cowboys' roster, it appears that they have done a good job of doing just this. Consider: they have Pro-Bowl caliber players at QB (Tony Romo), WR (Miles Austin) and OLB (DeMarcus Ware); and guys who, should they continue on their current trajectories, will soon join them in LT Tyron Smith and WR Dez Bryant. Moreover, they spent the offseason (my, how they did spend) upgrading the fifth POGI, adding the best available CBs in free agency and the draft, respectively, in Brandon Carr and Mo Claiborne. Thus armed, Dallas is prepared to do battle in the aerial circus that is today's NFL.
We'll review Dallas recent drafting history at the POGI after the jump...
In the last three drafts, the Cowboys (whether intentionally or otherwise) have invested in POGI in the draft's opening round. More importantly, they have managed to pick up elite players - blue-chippers - at these crucial positions. Perhaps a short review is in order; let's begin our little journey in April, 2010, shall we?
2010: Dez Bryant: You can say all you want to about Dez's knuckleheadery, but the guy is an elite talent. Going into the 2010 draft, both of these aspects of his game were universally acknowledged. Nevertheless, Pro Football Weekly's Nolan Nawrocki had Dez as the #5 overall player in the draft; the Dallas Morning News's Rick Gosselin, whose annual top 100 list reflects what NFL front offices think of players, had him floating in the top 6-8. When Bryant fell to 24 due to his immaturity, the Cowboys took a gamble on a rare, blue-chip caliber talent, a guy capable of matching Calvin Johnson's athleticism (if not his speed).
2011: Tyron Smith: After a bad 2010 campaign, the Cowboys managed to snap up the consensus best OT in the draft. As a junior entry, Smith starter draft season off most pundits' radar, but once they watched tape on him, it was evident that he was an elite, blue-chip talent. In Michael Holley's War Room, a history of the Patriots' front office (as well as those of the Chiefs and Falcons, whose GMs come from the Patriots' ranks), a chapter is dedicated to the 2010 draft. In it, Bill Belichick comments, when Smith goes off the board, that he's one of the best four or five players in the 2011 draft.
2012: Mo Claiborne: This April, as you know, Dallas once again traded up to nab a blue-chipper. This time around, it was the the best CB, and the consensus best defensive player, in the draft. Both Wes Bunting and the aforementioned Nawrocki had Claiborne second on their respective boards, after once-in-a-generation QB Andrew Luck. The Cowboys crowed that he was the best corner they had scouted since Deion Sanders. Of course it remains to be seen how well Claiborne will perform as a pro, but the early returns are good; he conducts himself professionally, which suggests that he'll get the most out of his immense talent.
In three consecutive drafts (and at the cost of a couple of premium draft picks), the Cowboys have managed to acquire a blue-chip talent at a vital position, a feat typically reserved for singularly bad teams that continue to labor to bottom-five final records. The takeaway here is that the Cowboys have found "match-up busters" at the positions where they are most needed. The remarkable fact is that all three are all under 25, so they should continue to grow and develop and play at a high level for an extended period. .
At pass rusher and signal caller, on the other hand, Dallas has established, but aging, stars. And QB and DE are perhaps the two most difficult of the POGI to find elite players (that's why these are the two positions that rise the most on draft day). Romo is 32; Ware is 30; both probably have a couple of elite years left and, we hope, three more solid seasons to follow. That said, both sit at precisely the ages where players at their respective positions tend to decline. Consequently, the Cowboys cannot sit on their hands; it is incumbent upon them to continue to build the roster by acquiring elite talents at QB and DE.
Luckily, the 2013 draft is rich in talent at those positions. As I noted in an earlier post, potential positions of strength in the 2013 draft correlate neatly with Dallas' positions of need. According to early returns, as many as eight quarterbacks are expected to go in the top 100 picks, and more than 20 DE/ OLB types are expected to go in the first three rounds. To add to this, it appears that, after several lean years, the safety crop will once again be bountiful.
After so much work this offseason to rebuild the defense, the Cowboys still have not found a safety who we can pencil in as a starter for the next few years, nor an adequate complement to (not to mention a replacement for) All-World OLB DeMarcus Ware. And speaking of aging core players, what better time to begin the annual search for the guy to groom as Tony Romo's replacement than the potentially quarterback-rich 2013 draft?
Who might be some viable candidates at these various positions? In separate posts over the next few days, Archie and I will take a gander at the 2013 draft's top signal callers, pass rushers and safeties. Later in the month, we'll do the same for the upcoming NFL free agents. If this all feels a bit premature, I'll remind you of one of Bill Parcells's favorite sayings: "the NFL is a talent acquisition business." In his estimation, a franchise should always be thinking of how to upgrade the roster, by whatever means available. In short, teams are perpetually (re)building. I guarantee the Cowboys personnel departments will be watching training camp practices with one eye on the 2013 draft and another on potential veteran additions; why, then, shouldn't we?