If you've been paying attention to the mock drafts that have been published since the end of the regular season, you will have noticed that almost all of them have either a defensive or offensive lineman as the Cowboys' top pick. And it's not hard to understand why that's the case: Quality linemen on either side of the ball are arguably the Cowboys' biggest need heading into the 2013 draft.
As an experienced draftnik, the words "need" and "draft" in the same sentence should send cold shivers down your spine. Yet here we are as Cowboys fans, discussing the relative merits of offensive guards Chance Warmack and Jonathan Cooper or how defensive tackles Sheldon Richardson and Jonathan Hankins stack up against each other.
Going into the draft with such obvious needs runs counter to what we know Jason Garrett and the Cowboys want to do. We know that the Cowboys, at least recently, are proponents of Best-Player-Available approach, and various members of the organization have reiterated that point repeatedly over the last couple of years. With that in mind, let's review last year's talent acquisition process with a view to understanding what that process could look like this year.
Here's a statement Jason Garrett made in a year-end TV interview with Brad Sham in 2011, in which Garrett said that filling needs in free agency is a key priority in order to enable the team to go BPA in the draft.
"In a perfect world, what you want to try to do is go into the draft without needs," Garrett said. "I think you tend to draft worse when you say, "I think we need to draft this position or that position. And regardless of how objective you want to make that process, you invariably say, 'OK, we have a need here, so maybe we bump a player up ahead of this guy when they're really probably pretty similar.
"In an ideal situation you want to address your needs prior to the draft. Hard to do that, but you're trying to do that so you can draft as purely as possible. Couldn't do that last year."
What followed a couple of months later in free agency was what felt like the most methodical, process-driven and determined approach to free agency we've seen from Jerry Jones and the Cowboys, and it's not a stretch to think that the growing influence of both Stephen Jones and Jason Garrett was behind this.
The Cowboys had an extensive shopping list heading into free agency, and addressed almost every position on that list:
- Starting cornerback: Check.
- Starting free safety: Check.
- Starting fullback: Check.
- Backup quarterback: Check.
- Backup inside linebacker: Check.
- Starting guards: Check, Check.
- Second tight end: fail
Not every acquisition panned out the way the Cowboys had hoped (Brodney Pool for example didn't even make it past the first week of training camp), and the Cowboys failed to sign the tight end they had targeted, Kellen Davis. But overall, they did manage to sign seven of eight free agents they had targeted.
Shortly after making those acquisitions, Garrett reiterated the point that the Cowboys' free agency activities were an attempt to fill holes in order to gain more flexibility in the draft.
"That was one of our objectives. You want to address the needs where you can in free agency," Garrett said. "We tried to address some needs with players that we really liked in free agency and hopefully that will allow us to be a little bit less need-based in the draft and take the best players, guys who can help our football team.
And just as importantly, Jerry Jones agrees with the Garrett and with The Process.
"If we're going to pinpoint a player that's probably best served in a free-agent decision. But when we get in that draft, we need to look at where we've got them on that draft board, where we've place them. That's a process I feel very good about."
"Now, if you're trying to jerry-rig that board to help at a certain position, first of all, nothing's assured that that player can come in and play for you that year. It's important to us that we look to real positions of need, and say, 'Well, if we're going to do something different, different from within, then we probably need to address that first and foremost in free agency.'"
Allow me a little detour here: The prevailing storyline in Dallas is that what the Cowboys really, really, really need is a head coach who is strong enough to "stand up to" Jerry Jones. I think that's total baloney.
What Jerry Jones needs above all else is a coach who can formulate a long-term strategy that Jones can buy into. Because when it comes to football decisions, Jerry Jones is a short-term thinker, a win-now type of owner. In many ways, this is pretty remarkable because in his business dealings, in his role in the NFL and in building the new stadium, Jones has shown that he can be an outstanding strategist. But when it comes to football, well, not so much. Perhaps this is a result of his early socialization into the NFL: in his first seven years as an owner, he took a 1-15 team and turned it into a 3-time Super Bowl winner. Which is why Jones remains convinced to this day that winning can be a short-term thing.
The perfect antidote to that short-termism is Garrett and his long-term plan for the Cowboys, and Jones is buying into that (for now). Jones is a good listener, and if he likes what he's hearing from his head coach, he'll start parroting many of the themes and strategies that head coach espouses, if there's anything worth repeating. And if you think about it, there really are only three coaches whose concepts, verbiage and mantras have made it into Jones's vernacular: Jimmy Johnson, Bill Parcells and Jason Garrett.
Back to the topic at hand: Jones repeating some of the things Garrett (and the whole Cowboys organization) is saying about BPA is a good thing, because it means Jones has bought in to The Process.
And that process will likely be repeated this year. If the Cowboys agree with the majority of observers that the offensive and defensive lines are the biggest needs heading into the 2013 season, they will address both in free agency. Doug Free will likely be cut, both for salary cap and performance reasons, and the Cowboys don't have anything at OT beyond Jermey Parnell, so they'll have to get somebody. There might also be a need at guard.
The defensive line is a work in progress heading into the new 4-3 scheme, particularly with the uncertainties surrounding Jay Ratliff and Josh Brent. It would be a lot to ask a rookie to solve all the D-line issues in one go, so reinforcements are likely to come via free agency there as well.
Other positions that might warrant some attention in free agency are running back, tight end, safety and perhaps a fullback or a corner. The Cowboys may not pursue another top-tier free agent like they did with Brandon Carr last year, but they also won't let their purported lack of cap room stop them from addressing their needs in free agency, at least according to Stephen Jones:
"'Room' always makes me chuckle," Jones said. "That's irrelevant. What we have on a given day really doesn't relate to what you're ultimately going to have and how you're going to manage. All I can tell you is we can make the moves that we need to make, hopefully to get prepared for the draft, to make us the type of football team we need to be."
On April 25, the Cowboys may very well end up drafting an offensive or defensive lineman with their top draft pick. But if the Cowboys have done their homework in free agency, they'll be able to follow their board to the best player available. And that best player could just as easily be a safety, a corner, a linebacker or perhaps even a tight end or wide receiver.