NFL Draft 2013: Cowboys Priorities - Hitting A Moving Target

Al Bello

Everyone who follows or writes about the Dallas Cowboys has an opinion of how the team should use their first round draft pick. But what is best for the team to do will not be completely clear until the Pittsburgh Steelers pick at 17.

Sometimes an idea that sounds really smart can actually be pretty bad. Something what makes sense now can become nonsensical with just a few changes in the surrounding circumstances. A lot of things have been said about the 2013 NFL draft, and much, much more is still to come. And most of it will turn out to be more or less ridiculous when the actual draft picks are finished.

This occurred to me when I was reading an article by Dan Graziano on his NFC East blog at ESPN that seemed pretty good at first glance. He started it with a sentence that many here will find themselves agreeing with, at least partly.

If the Dallas Cowboys don't pick an offensive lineman in the first round of next month's NFL draft, their fans officially have permission to quit.

While the idea of quitting on your team may not sit too well with everyone, most of us understand the sentiment. The Dallas Cowboys absolutely should draft to upgrade the offensive line this year, not only because they need to do something to protect Tony Romo and give the running game a fighting chance, but because the draft is deep at the O line positions.

But our old frenemy JimmyK brought up a very pertinent question (although it was pretty much answered in the article).

That got me thinking. Graziano got it right - but wrong at the same time.

His argument is mostly pretty sound. He points out that the team has not used early draft picks often to bolster the line, and that a lot of talent at the "skill" positions (a term I have never liked, since an NFL guard has skills I could never master) has been wasted because of poor line play in recent years. He points out that there are at least five offensive linemen that would be worthy of the eighteenth pick (Luke Joeckel, Eric Fisher, Lane Johnson, Chance Warmack and Jonathan Cooper), and possibly a sixth (D.J. Fluker), and it is highly likely that one or more of them may still be available when Dallas goes on the clock. I would be thrilled to see either Warmack or Cooper, who are becoming the sexy choices for many of us (as our draft guru Archie pointed out), wind up with Dallas. But when I read the article, after Jimmy's question above (which I had read before the article), I just felt more and more uncomfortable.

First, Graziano made one of those logically inconsistent mistakes that we all pretty much fall prey to. He makes it a point to mention that, prior to Tyron Smith being taken in 2011, Dallas had not taken an offensive lineman in the first round since 1981.

That's 30 flippin' years. If you go 30 years without drafting an offensive lineman in the first round and offensive line is consistently one of your most crippling weaknesses, eventually the light bulb's going to go on, right?

Yeah, you'd think so. Except for a little oversight there. See, in the early nineties, there was this offensive line in Dallas that was a product of that exact approach, not using the high draft picks on them. The offensive line that won three Super Bowls in four years.

While this does not invalidate the fact that the Cowboys have undervalued the offensive line in the draft, it does point out a simple fact: There may be more than one way to get something done. Dallas did build an outstanding offensive line, or at least an outstandingly successful one, without using the first round of the draft.

But that oversight can be forgiven. To balance things, free agency is not as useful now as it was back in the Jimmy Johnson days, thanks to the salary cap, so that early nineties approach may not be viable now. However, there is an even bigger issue for me, and a lot of you have probably seen it as well: No matter how you frame it, Graziano is drafting for need. Purely.

I just don't think you can set a hard and fast rule like that. There has to be some flexibility involved. That is why I tend to favor the hybrid approach of drafting best player available at a position of need. And the real work of the draft has to be done before the first pick. The team needs to build a draft board that accurately assesses the acquisition strategy and properly evaluates the talent available. When Dallas goes on the clock, as long as it has players still on its board, it should be able to pretty much make the decision quickly, by taking the highest remaining player.

Admittedly, this is going to be a bit harder this year than normal, due to the fairly flat talent curve. There are virtually no blue chippers. There may be about 40 or so players who could arguably be given a first round grade. Sitting at 18, Dallas is almost certain to see at least ten or so good, solid first round prospects to pick from.

But as much as we may think we can figure things out, no one can really say for sure that there will be a first round worthy offensive linemen available to them. It would seem highly likely, given the history of the draft, particularly regarding guards. But highly likely and certain are not at all the same. If all the offensive linemen that Dallas really feels are worth that eighteenth pick are gone, then the team not only should, but really has to go another direction, most likely defensive line or safety (based not as much on need, but on which positions are deepest this year).

Graziano talks about trading up a few spots to get a player if necessary. And there, I really part ways with him. I do not see any benefit to trading up. Dallas only has six picks this year. With the characteristics of this draft class, I could see trading down, but I do not think trading up would pay for the Cowboys. They need all the picks they can get.

So, I don't plan to quit on the team if they fail to land an offensive lineman in the first round. (Well, I don't plan to quit, anyway, but you know what I mean.) I just want the team to get the best player available from the key areas this year. There is still some quality to be found in later rounds, so the team will have more than one chance to address the line. Would Graziano still feel they failed if they got O line help in rounds two and three after going somewhere else in round 1? I wouldn't.

We really won't have much idea until the draft is well underway, and the Cowboys' decision may come down to who the Pittsburgh Steelers pick at seventeen. Until that moment, the team needs to be flexible. Stick to a plan - but don't let your plan stick it to you.

I like Graziano. He is one of the best national writers covering the Cowboys. I just differ with him here. You can't decide what makes or breaks a draft until the names have been picked.

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