Cowboys 2014 Draft: Playing The Scenario Game

If Oklahoma St. CB Justin Gilbert is the best player left on the Cowboys' board, do they pull the trigger? - Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

As the NFL universe crawls ever nearer to the 2014 draft and draft boards take shape, it's time to begin playing out draft-day scenarios. Today: a "worst-case" scenario for your contemplation.

The Cowboys draft is about to ramp up: in mid-April, they will host their allotment of 30 national invitees and hold the annual "Dallas Days" for local prospects. Immediately thereafter, the scouts and front office personnel will gather to build the draft board, slotting and ranking players.

At some juncture after the draft board is established, the team must gather in the war-rooms to play the scenario game. Every team must be prepared for each possible scenario that might unfold: "If, by our pick, these three players are on the board, we will select player A; if these two players remain, we will pick player B; If these five players remain, we will trade down x spots and still get a guy we like." Although it often appears during the live broadcast that teams are making trades while "on the clock," the vast majority of trades have already been agreed upon in principle in the days before. And here is the key: it's only by running through possible scenarios that teams can make those loose agreements.

The past two drafts offer salient examples of pre-draft scenario work at its best and worst. In 2012, you may recall, they received a call from the Rams in which St. Louis shopped the sixth pick. The Cowboys braintrust immediately went into overdrive, and they decided that there was only one player who was worth giving up that much to get: Mo Claiborne. If he was still on the board, they agreed, they'd make the deal - and that's what happened.

Last year, on the other hand, they neglected to consider every scenario. Dallas had the 18th pick and a list of prime targets: guards Johnathan Cooper (who went seventh to Arizona) and Chance Warmack (11th, Titans);defensive tackles Sheldon Richardson and Star Lotuleilei (13th and 14th, to the Jets and Panthers) and safety Kenny Vaccaro (15th, to the Saints). When Vaccaro went off the board, as they had decided upon after playing out possible scenarios, the Cowboys opted for a trade back with the 49ers that had already been fleshed out in principle (the 'Niners, as the Cowboys had the previous year, decided that they would trade up if the guy they wanted was still on the board. In this case, it was safety Eric Reid, and they pulled the trigger).

On one hand, Dallas was to be commended; they had clearly played out a (doomsday) scenario in which none of their first round targets (who are are a subset of the players to whom they give first-round grades) were available, and had put out feelers for a trade down should the draft play out that way. That's good work. However, due to laziness, oversight, poor communication, or some combination of all three, the team never played out the "what if Sharrif Floyd falls to us" scenario - and were (and continue to be) excoriated in the media for that failure. The lesson in the Floyd debacle is that, since the draft has so many moving parts, war rooms must prepare for every eventuality, or else they'll get caught with their pants down (indeed, it appears that Will McClay was promoted specifically to ensure that the organization's trousers stay around its waist).

On TV, the draft sometimes appears to be chaotic (all those trades!). But its a very well-rehearsed chaos; teams must play out ALL the possible scenarios that might unfold and have a viable set of contingencies for each. Within each potential pool of draftees, they have a very good idea which player they will select or, if the pool is big enough, when they might trade down and still nab their guy. In advance of the draft, they will have called numerous teams to inquire about their interest in making a trade at given points in the draft, so that they have a good sense of where and when they can move up or down the draft ladder.

This preparation and resultant movement up and down the draft is a key draft reality that the annual "running of the mocks" fails to take into account. As intelligent and informed fans (which, by virtue of your being on BTB, you are), it behooves us, therefore, to entertain as many scenarios as possible. For example, what do the Cowboys do when facing the "worst possible scenario"? I had a chance to witness this during a mock drafting exercise (run by highly knowledgeable fans from each team) to which I was privy. In fact, it was that exercise that prompted this post, so I'll share the first 15 picks with you here:

1. Houston Texans: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
2. St. Louis Rams: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
4. Cleveland Browns: Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
5. Oakland Raiders: Blake Bortles, QB,
6. Atlanta Falcons: Kahlil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
8. Buffalo Bills: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
9. Detroit Lions: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
10. Tennessee Titans: Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
11. Minnesota Vikings, Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
12. NY Giants: Taylor Lewan, OT, MIchigan
13. St. Louis Rams, Hasean Clinton-Dix, DS, Alabama
14. Chicago Bears: Calvin Pryor, DS, Louisville
15. Pittsburgh Steelers: Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh

Obviously, the real gutter here is that the Steelers take Donald one pick before the Cowboys. But let's take a deeper look at what happened:

1. Four quarterbacks were taken in the first eleven picks: This would appear to be terrific news for the Cowboys, who are unlikley to spend a first round pick on a signal caller. The run on QBs thus pushes other players at positions of need down to pick 16. Ideal scenario, right? Not so fast...!

2. All the blue-chippers are off the board. The best case scenario is that a top player at a position of need falls to Dallas. The second-best is that a blue chipper of any kind falls, regardless of position. In this draft, there appear to be five consensus blue-chip players: Clowney, Robinson, Watkins, Mack and Matthews. With four QBs taken in the top 11, that increases the chance that one of those guys is available at #16. Alas, in this case, it was not to be...

3. The second tier players at positions of value and/ or need went off the board. This is the real killer. Recall the above discussion of Dallas' targets in 2013: two guards, two DTs and a safety. Similarly, in 2010, they targeted three players - Earl Thomas, Mike Iupati and Dez Bryant - all of whom played positions that needed upgrading. Here, taken from CBSSports's big board, are the "red chippers," the cluster of players from which Dallas might select reasonable mid-first round targets. I've drawn a line through those who were selected before Dallas was on the clock:

Anthony Barr
Justin Gilbert
Eric Ebron
Taylor Lewan
Mike Evans
Aaron Donald
Zack Martin
Darqueze Dennard
Hasean Clinton-Dix
Calvin Pryor
Timmy Jernigan

Yikes! The best remaining players on their board are a tight end, two cornerbacks, a one-technique DT, and an offensive lineman. Chew on this a minute:
  • Tight end and cornerback, along with quarterback, are positions where the team has already invested a lot of capital, and in young players. As a result, a first rounder is unlikely to start, and the team annually claims it wants to find starters in the premium rounds. So, although Gilbert, Ebron and Dennard are all excellent prospects, none would be likely to fit this criterion.
  • According to Bryan Broaddus, the team sees Jernigan as a "one-tech" defensive tackle, and aren't likely to spend a first rounder at that less-than premium position.
  • Although Martin is well thought-of, it's important to note that he's a guy whose best NFL position scouts can't agree upon. Is he an NFL-caliber OT? Or will he, with less than ideal length and lateral range for tackle, have to kick inside to guard? If I'm spending a first-round choice on a guy, I'd like to have a clearer idea about his position.
Let's contemplate this scenario further: in a deep draft, teams are far less willing to trade up and lose those extra-valuable third and fourth round picks than in a draft that's less deep. In short, dance partners are harder to come by. Consequently, the Cowboys might have difficulty repeating 2013's first-round dance, finding a trading partner when all their first-round targets are off the board when it comes time for them to pick.

So there it is, BTBers: one potential "worst-case" scenario. Put on a Skeletor mask and play GM for a moment. What would you do if this scenario unfolds? Personally, I'd hit the sauce.

Go to the comments section and let us know who you'd pick, and whether or not you'd be happy with the choice.

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