I'd like to start this article with two of Bill Parcells' favorite aphorisms. The first, which he often directed at reporters who, he felt, misunderstood the NFL draft as the only real opportunity to improve a roster, was "the NFL is a talent acquisition business." The second, a common response to the innumerable questions about the sport's most important position: "quarterbacks don't just grow on trees, you know." If we combine these, we see the conundrum that NFL front offices face: they are constantly in search of talent that is rarely there when they need it. In other words, value (and cost) must meet opportunity.
This is particularly true of the NFL draft which, after the first pick, is a voyage into chaos theory, the NFL's version of the butterfly effect: the second pick effects everything after, sometimes in global ways that aren't evident until years after. That's why draft weekend is one of the most riveting multi-day events on the annual sports calendar (I'd rate it in the top three, alongside NFL's wildcard weekend and the first four days of the NCAA tournament). But its very changeability - its fundamentally protean nature - makes it next to impossible to predict after about the first five selections (mock drafts tend to be about as accurate as tournament brackets).
For teams like the Cowboys, who are drafting roughly in the middle of each round, that means there will be a lot of chaos that takes place before each of their picks. As a result, no matter how carefully they plan - no matter how many draft scenarios they play out in preparation - the players they want (or, more importantly, the players we think they should want) might not be there when they are on the clock. In 2014, the position group that almost all observers agree they must address is defensive line. But what happens if, every time they are on the clock, there are no defensive linemen that offer value?
In fact, the Cowboys have been caught in a similar bind in recent drafts as it pertains to the offensive line. Sure, one major reason for the collapse of the O-line from 2010-2012 and into last season was the organization's propensity to draft lousy players, from Jacob Rogers (2004) to James Marten (2007) to Sam Young (2010). But another - and, I think, more important factor - was that they simply didn't get lucky in the same way they did when talented players like Flozell Adams and Andre Gurode fell to them in the second round of the 1998 and 2002 drafts. Such luck is an optimal scenario: the meeting of good value with opportunity.
This is something the Cowboys just couldn't manage from 2003-2010. Some times, it was the absence of opportunity, sometimes it was the absence of value. Lets review the history, shall we?
Problems of opportunity:
2006: they liked Boise State OG Darryn Colledge, who was gobbled up by Green Bay at # 47 (after at trade with Atlanta) two picks before the Cowboys were slated to go to the podium. A dispirited Dallas war room then traded down four spots before selecting the forgettable Anthony Fasano. Colledge enjoyed a very solid eight-year career with the Packers and Cardinals.
2009: the Cowboys were sitting at # 51, hoping a player they liked might fall to them. Going in, they felt confident that one of the highly-rated center/ guard types--Alex Mack, Eric Wood or Max Unger--would drop into the second round. As we know all too well, the last of these three, Unger, began to fall. Suddenly, he was snapped up by Seattle, who traded up to pick him at # 49. He has started 61 games for the 'Hawks, and made the Pro Bowl in 2012 and '13.
Problems of value:
2010: Dallas, with the 27th pick, targeted three mid first-rounders: safety Earl Thomas, OG Mike Iupati, and WR Dez Bryant. Jerry Jones revealed after the draft that the team was poised to trade up and snatch any of the three who fell far enough to make a trade up reasonable. As it turned out, Thomas went 14th to the Seahawks and Iupati 17th to the 49ers. Had Iupati fell a couple more picks, he could conceivably have been in trading range. But the opportunity was never there. Too bad; Iupati has started every game he's played as a 'Niner, and, like Unger, was a Pro Bowler in 2012 and '13.
2010 redux: The Cowboys didn't just miss out on Iupati. They spent that entire draft chasing the OL board. Sure-fire first-rounders like Trent WIlliams and Russell Okung were taken in the first six picks, but after that, almost all the offensive linemen on their board (we know thanks to 2010's leaked draft board) were taken a full round ahead of where the team graded them. To wit:
|Player||Where Drafted||Cowboys' Board|
|Bryan Bulaga||1 (23)||1, 13|
|Maurkice Pouncey||1 (18)||1, 19|
|Anthony Davis||1 (11)||3, 2|
|Rodger Saffold||2 (33)||3, 18|
|John Asamoah||3 (68)||3, 24*|
|Zane Beadles||2 (45)||3, 28|
|Vlad Ducasse||2 (61)||4, 3|
|Mike Johnson||3 (98)||4, 11|
|John Jerry||3 (73)||4, 12|
|Mitch Petrus||5 (147)||4, 18*|
|Shawn Lauvao||3 (92)||5, 1|
|Sam Young||6 (179)||5,4|
|Jared Veldheer||3 (69)||6,1|
|Eric Olsen||6 (183)||6, 9**|
First, some notes:
*Both Asamoah and Petrus look like they might have offered value, but were drafted before the Cowboys initial third- and fifth-round picks, respectively, In addition, Dallas didn't actually have either of those selections, as they were traded for Dez Bryant (third) and Montrae Holland (fifth).
**Olsen would seem to represent value. However, when the Cowboys went on the clock in round six, Sam Young, another OL they had graded much higher, was still there. So they took Young.
If we compare the Cowboys' draft board to the sequence of OL picks, we can see that Dallas drafted an offensive lineman the first instance that value met opportunity. But, thanks to several factors, it wasn't possible until the sixth round, when the rostrum had been picked over.
2012: In a draft rich in offensive guard candidates, especially second-rounders, Dallas invited a slew of them to Valley Ranch for pre-draft visits. It was clear the team was going to take a guard with its second round pick if at all possible...and then the Rams offered the sixth pick in the draft for the opportunity to select the highest-rated defensive player on Dallas' board in Mo Claiborne. As it turned out, they may not have been able to snag one of the OGs anyway; Kevin Zeitler, Amini Silatolu and Jeff Allen were all taken before the Cowboys would have come on the board at pick #45, and the next OG invitee, Brandon Brooks, wasn't taken until pick number 76. So, its a fair bet they wouldn't have found value on the board.
The larger takeaway here is this: in each of these draft, the Cowboys went in thinking that offensive line was a high enough priority that it warranted a first- or second-round pick, and came away with nothing (or, in 2010, a sixth-round consolation) because the draft simply didn't break the way they had hoped. And, to a lesser degree they suffered the same ill luck in terms of the defensive line in 2011, when they hoped one of a group of late-first or early-second-round five techniques would fall to them in round two and none did, and last year, when they saw two first-round DL targets in Sheldon Richardson and Star Lotulelei get snatched up in the handful of picks before Dallas was on the clock.
I write all of this because I think its important to be psychologically prepared should the draft not break the way we hope it will. It's conceivable that Aaron Donald could go before the sixteenth pick, Kony Ealy, Dee Ford, Scott Crichton and Timmy Jernigan could be off the board when Dallas selects at #47, and Demarcus Lawrence, Dominique Easley and Will Sutton are gone by the 78th pick. Or, should this catastrophic scenario seem too unlikely, its entirely possible that the team has graded some of these players much differently than national draft pundits have, and don't take a DL when we're expecting them to because they don't see value when it comes time for them to pick.
The alternative is to overdraft - to reach for a player at a position of need. I think we've safely established that that's not an optimal way to conduct business, especially over the long view, which is the philosophy this rebuilding team must adopt. Would I like to see them overhaul the D-line with several dynamic picks? Sure. But there's no guarantee that will happen so, rather than focusing on one position, I'm devoting my hopeful energies to the idea that the Cowboys get good value with each pick, as they did throughout the majority of last year's draft.