Each draft season, we see the same pattern: the very top of the draft begins to take shape in the weeks following the Senior Bowl and Combine. The players to whom almost every team would assign an elite grade rise, like cream, to the top of the list. These are the "blue chip" talents. These are the players NFL clubs slather over, because they are simply more athletically gifted than their astonishingly talented peers. In a league filled with the world's top athletes, they possess off-the-charts production and/ or measureables - and usually both. Consequently, they are able to win one-on-one matchups consistently, draw double-teams, and cause rival coordinators lots of sleepless nights.
In a typical year there are usually about 6-8 of these blue-chip players. That, of course, is why it's good to have a top-ten pick: the likelihood of nabbing one of these game-changers goes up dramatically. And, with the new CBA, the cost of retaining a blue-chipper's services has lowered considerably, so teams in the middle of the round are more willing to spend what it takes to jump up, into the rarified air where blue chippers fly. Last year, we saw the Cowboys do exactly this, trading up from fourteen to six to grab Mo Claiborne.
What is interesting is that 2012 was the third consecutive draft in which Dallas secured a blue-chip player. In 2010, Dez Bryant, a consensus blue-chipper fell far enough, due to character questions, for them to engineer a trade up; the following season, they had the ninth pick and selected Tyron Smith; last year, it was Claiborne. Perhaps more importantly, they managed to get blue chippers at what I like to call Positions of Great Import (POGI). Those are QB, OT, WR, CB and pass rusher. In the 2010-2012 drafts, Dallas obtained elite prospects at three of these five crucial positions.
Can they make it four in a row? NFL war rooms run innumerable draft scenarios, and prepare for all possible/conceivable contingencies. A key part of this exercise, and one the Cowboys' war-room has almost certainly considered, is to determine who the 2012 draft's "top of the top" are and where they might fall. By the time the draft rolls around, they will have a plan in place should they see a repeat of 2010's scenario, when a blue-chipper fell far enough for them to trade up at moderate cost. Might they do the same thing this year if, say, Central Michigan's Eric Fisher should tumble into the early teens?
One way to determine how the Cowboys' organizational triumvirate might react in such a situation is to determine who the draft's blue-chip talents really are. Who are the guys that must be chosen, regardless of position, because they offer such thrilling, game-changing skillsets? To answer this question, I decided to create a list of the players that appear to be consensus blue-chippers on most draft boards. I referenced the most recent edition of "Scouting the Scouts" to ensure that only the most respected scouts were included (adding Rotoworld's Josh Norris, who I have come to respect a great deal since the StS release).
In compiling this list, I included only players that at least six of the eight draftniks included in his top fifteen, and threw out the lowest grade. If a given player was ranked lower than fifteenth more than once (and thus couldn't have more than one "bad grade" thrown out, I gave him a thoroughly unscientific grade of 20. I then organized the survivors according to this handy chart:
I noted above that most drafts have between 6-8 blue-chip prospects. Here, in mid March, I'd say that there are five such candidates. And it's what former Giants GM George Young used to call "the dance of the elephants": OT Luke Joekel is a clear consensus number one, followed by OT Fisher, OG Chance Warmack, and DTs Star Lotulelei and Sharrif Floyd. That's a lot of big, sweaty men at the top of the draft. It's possible that in the next six weeks another name or two might join this list. In fact, I would expect both Alabama CB Dee Milliner, whose Combine 40 time helped to secure his good tape, and Oregon DE/ OLB Dion Jordan, a freakish athlete, to join the big uglies in the blue-chip category.
At this point in the annual draft process, it's usually difficult to find consensus; in 2013, this is especially true, as the above chart suggests. Last year, when I did this exercise, every draftnik had Andrew Luck as his number one prospect; this time around, eight pundits offer up five different number one prospects Moreover, it looks like, after about the sixth pick, consensus goes out the window and "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" will dictate what transpires. Several guys didn't make the above list despite getting some serious love from at least one draft expert: Jarvis Jones (number two on Wright's list); Barkevious Mingo (Pauline, 3); Bjorn Werner (Galko, 1); and Kenny Vacarro (Lande, 5) all sneak into somebody's top five. To get drafted early, all it takes is one team to rank them similarly.
What might this mean for the Cowboys? For a team with needs on both lines, the news is both good and bad. On one hand, all the names we have been bandying about as possible OL and DL fortifiers might well be gone long before Dallas is on the clock; on the other hand, few of these - especially offensive guard - aren't considered glamour positions. As such, a blue-chip player might well fall into the late teems. If All-Universe OG David DeCastro could fall to the 24th pick in 2012, how soon should we expect Warmack to be snatched up? It's certainly not out of the realm of possibility, as the most recent SBNation mock indicates. How far might Star Lotulelei's heart condition cause him to fall?
In most drafts, the likelihood is that all the blue-chippers will be gone by the eighteenth pick, and Dallas would come away with a "red-chip" talent. But the plain fact that at least one of the blue chippers plays a non-POGI suggests that a difference-maker has a decent chance to fall to them, or close enough to them to warrant a trade up. Which leads us to the scenario game: if Warmack or Lotulelei is on the board at, say, pick 15, does Jerry pull the trigger? Is it worth it to sacrifice a third rounder to get Pauline's second-best player (Lotulelei) or Norris' top-ranked guy (Warmack)?
Could be interesting...