We've covered a lot of the free agency and NFL Draft topics here on BTB, but there is something I wanted to really focus on. The Dallas Cowboys have come out and publicly stood by using free agency to the best of their ability to plug up their needs and then use the draft as a method of taking the best player available.
Back in February of 2012, Jason Garrett talked about free agency and draft strategy. His comments give us a pretty clear picture of what the organization is trying to accomplish in the offseason.
"In a perfect world, what you want to try to do is go into the draft without needs," coach Jason 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. We couldn't do that last year."
That is actually a very fundamentally sound strategy because it allows the franchise to enter the draft without having to reach for a player because of a certain need, but there are going to be times where you have to address the needs of your team. It's very difficult to draft with a clear conscience when you have a glaring need at a certain position and this is exactly what happened to the Cowboys back in 2011.
Back in the 2011 NFL Draft, the Cowboys war room held the 9th overall pick and had a difficult decision to make. It really came down to two players for them to pick from. J.J. Watt was the up-and-coming defensive end who was the type of player that could have come in and started for them day one at defensive end and became a great player in the 3-4 defense that was being run at the time. The Cowboys didn't exactly have premier talents on their roster at defensive end, but they had a couple of players who would give them solid but not spectacular results.
The other player they had to choose from was Tyron Smith and he was the 20-year-old physical freak that was considered to be the best offensive tackle prospect to enter the draft in a very long time. There were far too many issues on the offensive line for the Cowboys to ignore and they wanted to erase the memories of Marc Colombo at right tackle. The decision to take Smith may have come down to need, but there was also the possibility that the war room felt he was the best player available on their board.
In January of 2011, Stephen Jones said that the team was going to take the best available player.
"We're going to take the best player that's available when it comes time for us to pick," Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. "I know that's the old saying that people get tired of hearing about, but that's what we need to do with this team. You never know who is going to be injured and who is not going to work out from year-to-year, so you just need to take good football players, and that's what we're going to do."
It's easy to sit here and play the hindsight game now, but the Cowboys really couldn't go wrong with that selection. They were either going to get a franchise defensive end or a franchise offensive tackle. Both players fit a need, but they were also the best players available for the Cowboys. Bob Sturm took a closer look at the decision, but he also comes away with a similar conclusion that the Cowboys couldn't go wrong with either player.
I remember the discussion like it was yesterday with some people close to the scene: There is no wrong answer here. It is a play on "What is versus What could be". That means, quite simply, that JJ Watt is seen as a very productive player who is a really hard worker and team leader. But, Smith is the youngest player in the draft and could be a generational talent at left tackle. He is good, but he could be amazingly great.
So, given that both positions were positions of extreme need, you are going to have to choose. And whichever you don't choose, will likely have a void at that spot until you address it down the road.
At the time, I was completely sold that Smith was the right pick. Especially given the Cowboys state of chaos at offensive line. They knew that they had Doug Free, but otherwise, the cupboard was bare at tackle throughout the entire organization. Meanwhile, they at least had replacement level defensive ends for the 3-4. And, they treated that position as a very low-level priority in that scheme anyway, explaining to all who would listen that the job of the 3-4 DE is not to rack up stats. Even though we know that this is not true in many places not named Dallas.
So far into free agency, the Cowboys have remained quiet because currently they don't have the money to address some of their pressing needs. After looking over the current roster, it's becoming obvious that the Cowboys have their biggest needs at offensive line, defensive line and safety. We can throw in SAM linebacker and running back to the needs list, but with only so many picks, the Cowboys aren't going to be able to fulfill all of their needs and there will be some tough decisions that have to be made.
When the time comes, this draft is going to be one of the most interesting events of the past couple of years because there is so much uncertainty with the players closer to the top of the board.
For instance, Damontre Moore could fall to us at 18, but with Anthony Spencer receiving the franchise tag would the Cowboys ignore their other needs to possibly draft the best player available? What if they have Tavon Austin rated as the next Percy Harvin type of wide receiver who would line up all over the field and provide the offense with another dangerous playmaker?
This is why the draft isn't an exact science, there are so many variables that come into play. It's actually a very difficult process to decide whether adding the best player available or adding a player who solves a need is the best the course of action. A dream scenario is selecting the best player available who actually plays the position that is the need you're looking for.
However this draft plays out for the Cowboys, I believe that the organization is finally back on the right track and knows the type of players they want for their system. Since the 2009 draft class was a complete disaster, the Cowboys have turned it around and have had very successful drafts. With that recent success, it gives us some confidence that the war room is going to handle the draft in the correct way and make the best decisions possible.