Cowboys 2014 draft: How Other Teams' Interest In Top Targets Affects Dallas' Draft

Aaron Donald says hello to the top half of the first round, where he's very popular. - Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Judging from the recent visits to the ranch, it's pretty clear that the Cowboys top targets are the draft's best defensive front-seven players. How likely is it that one of them will fall to the mid-point of the first round?

Throughout the draft season, we have been pretty clear about the optimal draft scenario: a top ten type defensive player - at a position other than cornerback - falls to the Cowboys at the sixteenth pick. A cursory scan of the top of the first round gives us a short list of candidates who fit that description:

DE Jadaveon Clowney
OLB Kahlil Mack
DE/ OLB Anthony Barr
DT Aaron Donald

And that's it. Let's look at this a bit closer. Each draft has a handful of "blue chip" prospects, the guys who are, by consensus, the cream of the draft crop. This year, there are, by my estimation, five such characters: Clowney, WR Sammy Watkins, OT Greg Robinson, Mack and OT Jake Matthews. It's almost a certainty that these five players will be taken in the first seven picks; by extension, it's unwise for the Cowboys to consider any of them as a serious candidate to fall within striking distance, even with a trade up.

Just behind this group are the "red chippers," dynamic players who might have a ding or two on their respective resumes. It's in this category that we find both Barr (thanks to uncertainty about his ideal NFL position) and Donald (who is smaller than some teams would prefer). Because of these barely visible moles, it's possible that either player could fall within Dallas' range. The Cowboys' braintrust certainly thinks so, or else they wouldn't have wasted a Valley Ranch invite on either one. Moreover, they have clearly envisioned a position for Barr - weakside defensive end - and Donald is an ideal fit for their system. So, as far as the Cowboys are concerned, the moles other teams perceive are, in these cases, beauty marks.

In an ideal scenario, then, one or both of these dynamic talents will fall to the Cowboys and they will leave the first round with that utopic combination of high need and high value. Other than one of the aforementioned blue-chippers tumbling far, far down the draft ladder, this is the situation we are all hoping for. As we inch ever nearer to the draft, therefore, we must ask: what is the likelihood that such a dream might come true? Are we reduced to closing our eyes tightly and crossing our fingers in hopeful, anxious anticipation?

Yes, and no. We can tell a lot about where players will end up by looking at which teams have interviewed, arranged a private workout, or, like Dallas, invited them to their facilities. What I've done is to compile a lost of other teams that are interested in the Cowboys recent invitees in order to give us a more concrete example of the various gauntlets these players will have to run to get to pick number sixteen:

Pick Team Anthony Barr Aaron Donald Zack Martin
1 Houston X
2 St. Louis
3 Jacksonville X
4 Cleveland
5 Oakland
6 Atlanta X
7 Tampa Bay X
8 Minnesota X X
9 Buffalo X
10 Detroit X
11 Tennessee X
12 NY Giants
13 St. Louis X
14 Chicago X
15 Pittsburgh X X

As this table makes clear, for either Barr or Donald to get to the Cowboys, they'll have to make it through a gauntlet of interested teams. I think it unlikely, due to reasons stated above, that either Houston or Cleveland opts for either of these guys. To my mind, then, the legitimate run begins with Atlanta (who, like Dallas, is focused on upgrading its D-line; the Falcons have almost exactly the same group of defensive ends on their national visit list), runs through Minnesota (where their new head coach saw firsthand the benefits of a dominant defensive line in Cincy) and then begins to percolate in earnest with picks 13-15, all of whom have interest in at least on of our preferred targets.

And that's why I've included Zack Martin. Another glance at the Cowboys list of invitees shows that they want to continue the refurbishment of the offensive line begun in 2011, with the selection of Tyron Smith, and continued last year, when the nabbed Travis Frederick. Almost every first- and second-day guard/ tackle combo player was at the Ranch last week, with Martin clearly atop that list. To get to the Cowboys, the only interested team Martin has to scootch past is Buffalo - and the ninth pick seems a bit rich for him, even if several pundits are claiming that he's a top-ten caliber talent. That's why I think he's the most likely Cowboys pick if they stay at #16.

Via email, BTB member Danny Phantom recently proposed the following thought experiment: the Cowboys must draft one offensive and two defensive linemen in the first three rounds; which ones do I choose? I like this scenario for several reasons, one of them being that it correlates to the Cowboys apparent plan: hit DE, DT and OG early. I responded that my ideal scenario would be:

1. Aaron Donald
2. Demarcus Lawrence
3. Trai Turner

However, I was already concocting this post, and was doubly aware of the unlikely nature of this dreamscape coming to fruition (in no small part due to the scanty chance that Lawrence would be available at #47, which will be the subject of another, similar post on second-round targets). With that in mind, I proposed a more likely set of picks:

1. Zack Martin
2. Kareem Martin
3. Will Sutton

One of the useful aspects of experimenting with scenarios such as these is that it prepares us for the draft's protean, unfolding nature - and how the choices made in round one effect the rest of the draft (because, of course, the Cowboys cannot afford to follow a "pure" BPA philosophy, should it cause them to neglect the D-line). Sure, we can hope that Barr or Donald are available and build the rest of the draft on that (seemingly low-percentage) assumption. Or, we can prepare to build a draft on more likely footing: starting with Zack Martin and working forward from there.

As promised above, in the next few days I'll take a similar look at the Cowboys' second round targets and the teams that have also expressed interest in them.

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