A professor of mine once gave a firm warning on the importance of triage. He explained, "Every year, I tell my class that each exam question is worth the same amount. And yet every year, I read the exams of students who wrote near-perfect and exhaustive answers to the first question, but who clearly did not leave enough time to answer the other two. It’s the product of an inherently flawed thought process: ‘If I just make the one answer perfect enough, it will make up for the others, despite the fact that they’re worth an equal number of points.’ Well, it won’t; it can’t, and at the end of the day, you’ll do poorly."
This warning was stuck in my head as I watched the Dallas Cowboys’ 2013 draft, a draft that seemed as focused on perfecting the areas where the team already excels, rather than improving on the team’s glaring weaknesses.
The Cowboys are a team that finished 6th in the NFL in total offense and 19th in total defense in 2012. They’re a team that had the 11th ranked offensive DVOA and the 23rd ranked defensive DVOA. What’s more, if you break down the team’s offensive ranking, you’ll find that that the 2012 Cowboys ranked 3rd in the NFL in passing offense but only 31st in rushing offense. They also had Football Outsider’s 7th best passing offense, but only it’s 24th-ranked rushing offense.
I could get more granular with these numbers, but the takeaways are pretty clear: Based on 2012, the Cowboys’ defense needed much more help than the offense. And when evaluating the offense, the passing game was in far better shape than the run game. So how did the Dallas brain trust react to this information?
By using their three highest draft picks on offense, with two of those three players only serving to help Dallas’s passing attack.
So Why Two Receivers?
Those two players, TE Gavin Escobar in the second round and WR Terrence Williams in the third, are easily the most puzzling of the Cowboys’ selections in the draft.
That’s not to say that these two young men are not talented. Escobar, by all accounts, has the tools to succeed at the pro-level. And as an admitted t-shirt fan of the Texas Longhorns, I’ve witnessed firsthand how dangerous Williams can be against an unprepared secondary. But the Cowboys’ offense already features Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Jason Witten, and can boast one of the league’s consistently strongest passing attacks. With this personnel already under contract, both of these draft picks are absolute luxuries.
What’s more, Dwayne Harris stepped up at the end of the season and showed a great deal of potential as the team’s third wide receiver. And the story of the Cowboys’ 2012 training camp was how many of the promising young receivers the team would be able to hold onto. While I expect both Escobar and Williams to be quality players, Dallas’s front office was clearly augmenting an area where the team is already strong, rather than patching up its weaknesses.
The most obvious issue in Frederick’s selection is the trade the Cowboys made before picking him. In principle, I agree with the idea of trading back for more picks in the early rounds, particularly in a draft where the talent distribution is considered to be fairly flat. I particularly like the idea of Dallas getting an extra "lottery ticket" when trying to evaluate talent.
But it’s hard to feel too good about what Dallas received from San Francisco to move back thirteen spots in the draft. That move only cost the 49ers a mere third round pick.
There are a number of different trade value charts out there, some of which have the Cowboys coming out ahead, some of which have them getting fleeced. But I look at Buffalo, who moved back eight spots (from 8 to 16) and received a 2nd and a 7th round pick in return. I see St. Louis, who moved back eight spots (from 22 to 30) and gave up their 7th round pick in exchange for a 3rd and 6th round pick. And I think that Dallas could have gotten more for their money.
But what’s more problematic than what Dallas did is what they didn’t do. Dallas could have taken Eric Reid at #18 to shore up a perennially lacking safety position, or Sharrif Floyd to bolster an aging D-Line at the same spot. They could have even made the same trade with San Francisco and taken Jonathan Cyprien, another safety who could provide help where it was sorely needed, at #31.
Then, instead of blowing their second round pick on a duplicative tight end, they could have likely held out for Frederick at #47 in the second round. Most outlets graded Frederick as a second or third round talent, and it’s probable that he would have been available at that point in the proceedings. Or, if Frederick were off the board, there would be another quality interior lineman prospect like Larry Warford available in a draft that was considered deep at the position.
Smarter Than the Room
Now maybe the Cowboys’ brain trust saw all of the offensive linemen coming off the board and did not want to risk losing their man. That’s an eminently defensible position, and I would certainly applaud the team for reaching a bit to help fix a longstanding weakness than go for the "value" pick at a position where the team is well-stocked as they did with their subsequent two picks.
But the fact remains–the Cowboys could likely have had their cake and eaten it too. There was only one other offensive lineman taken between the 31st and 47th picks. (Oakland selected OT Menelik Watson with pick 42.) There’s a good chance that they could have taken a talented player in the first round and still had Frederick putting on the star, or at least still found a solid addition to their O-line in a draft with an abundance of talent at a non-marquee position.
All of these picks, where Dallas is drafting players higher than they were expected to go, reek of "we’re smarter than the room" thinking. This is problematic because first and foremost, the people who have looked at the issue have determined that over the long haul, no one is smarter than the room. That is to say, when evaluating draft classes over time, no team is better than any other at evaluating which players will succeed and which will fail.
What’s more, the Cowboys do not have the kind of track record to give them confidence that they are smarter than the room. There’s something to be said for not being a slave to the wisdom of crowds, but it’s disconcerting to see Dallas trying to beat the market when they’ve have trouble with that type of thinking in the past.
Frederick seems like a great player, but the process that went into obtaining him raises a number of red flags, as well as the specter of the opportunities that Dallas left on the table.
Stocking the Defense’s Cupboard
But what isn’t sound is the Cowboys’ overall strategy at the draft. Looking at the numbers from 2012, it’s clear that the defense was in worse shape than the offense. The D could not produce turnovers, struggled to rush the passer, and in general had a suspect pass defense. The switch to Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli’s Tampa 2 defense was made to help alleviate these issues, but it also requires the team to add the type of players who can thrive in that system.
Instead, the Cowboys did not select a defensive player until their fourth pick in the draft, and each defensive player they selected is something of a project who is unlikely to be able to provide any sort of immediate help.
Meanwhile, every prognosticator in the country predicted the Cowboys would take a defensive lineman somewhere in the draft. And why not? With a switch to a new scheme, and a starting front four who are all nearly thirty, it makes sense to inject some new blood into the mix, particularly in order to find a true "under tackle," one of the biggest cogs in Kiffin’s defense.
But yet again, the Cowboys stood pat, and left their fans wondering not only how the team would manage in the coming season, but also whether the front office was setting the team up for bigger problems down the line.
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And so, it seems that the Cowboys have made the same error in judgment my professor warned us so strenuously about. Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones, and Jason Garrett seem to think that if the Cowboys just continue to add to their already effective passing game, the rest of the team’s problems will sort themselves out.
This is the problem with a pure "Best Player Available" or "BPA" strategy for a team with a number of major weaknesses. If you ignore a team’s needs, you end up fielding a lopsided roster–a team that may excel in one facet of the game, but will be woefully thin in several others. And that kind of team cannot succeed.
It’s a failure in triage.
The Dallas Cowboys’ 2013 draft did bring some talent back to Valley Ranch. But, unfortunately, too many of the problems that have been plaguing the team for years now will persist, unaddressed. And all the fans can do is watch as the team’s needs, and their hopes, go unfulfilled for yet another season.
This article also posted at TheAndrewBlog.net.