As invested fans, our job is to reverse-engineer what we are privy to, in an effort to figure out what our beloved team's front office thinks. Here's my attempt at reading the tea leaves at the bottom of the cup at the conclusion of the 2014 draft:
Adventures in Self-Scouting: After spending the summer establishing a list of the prospects for the next draft, NFL scouts spend the initial weeks of training camp accomplishing two specific tasks: 1) getting to know the current roster, so they can determine whether a given college player would offer an upgrade, and in what way, over the players currently manning the depth chart at that position and, as an extension of this, 2) ascertaining the roster's talent, specifically positions of strength and weakness.
We can see the results of this self-scouting in the lead-in to and execution of the Cowboys 2014 draft, particularly as it pertains to offensive guard. Dallas invited six offensive guard types (including collegiate tackles whose NFL destiny likely was at guard) and a seventh, Brandon Thomas, who was injured before he could accept the request. And, they ended up drafting one, Zack Martin, and almost had a deal to acquire another third-round pick that was believed to be targeted for LSU's Trai Turner, who was selected a couple of spots ahead of where the Cowboys trading partner was situated.
What this suggests to me is the Cowboys believed OG to be a position much in need of not only an upgrade but a significant one. And that didn't change, even when the O-line appeared to perform better in the final six or so games in 2013. The fact that they were willing to sacrifice a "futures" pick to get Turner suggests that, even after drafting Martin, they are not at all content with their interior O-line, from a depth, quality, or contractual standpoint. Which leads us to...
Bad Contracts: As I have written in the past, to understand the decisions a team makes over the course of draft weekend, it's important to follow the money. In last year's draft, many were puzzled by the acquisition of Gavin Escobar and Terrance Williams, but the moves made great sense when we stopped to "follow the money"; both were looked at as replacements for Jason Witten and Miles Austin, players not likely to play to the value of their contracts for much longer. Indeed, we have already seen this come to pass in the case of Williams and Austin.
After several years of cleaning up the cap in such a manner, the Cowboys were left with three "bad" contracts, belonging to Tony Romo, DeMarcus Ware and Doug Free. Romo's deal is too big to do anything about at present, so let's shelve our discussion of the Cowboys next quarterback for at least a year. However, notice the positions played by the other two men on this list: right tackle and defensive end. Yep, the two positions targeted in the 2014 draft's first two rounds. As fans, we look at drafts according to what we see transpire on the field. NFL clubs (in addition to that) look at drafts according to what happens on their ledgers. Which brings up another misperception:
Misperceptions by the Armchair Brigade, D-line Edition: The Cowboys were probably more satisfied by the players they had at DT than most of us were. Their best chance to trade up for one of their first-round targets was to get Aaron Donald, and they opted not to. By trading up for Demarcus Lawrence, they essentially passed on the likes of Timmy Jernigan and Will Sutton (who they reportedly weren't high on). In round four, they took a linebacker instead of Princeton's Caraun Reid.
In retrospect, it seemed that they were content to upgrade the position but didn't think it paramount to find a starting-caliber defensive tackle, since they already had them in Henry Melton and Terrell McClain (a proposition I explored here). Since they think they already have their starters, they could wait until the seventh round (or later) to find guys like national invitees Ken Bishop, Davon Coleman and Chris Whaley. The fact that such late-round guys were invitees at all suggests that Dallas intended to find its D-tackle depth there all along.
On the other hand, the Cowboys looked at their roster and decided that weakside defensive end was the one hole on the roster that absolutely had to be filled via the draft. We can say whatever we want about how much the Cowboys gave up to get Lawrence (and I will have plenty to offer on this topic below), but the plain fact of the matter is that they simply had to get a weakside end or face the prospect of sending George Selvie out there as the team's premier rusher late in close games. As much as they like Selvie, that's a terrifying prospect. In retrospect, the collection of strongside end types - Kony Ealy, Kareem Martin, Will Clarke - to whom Dallas extended national invites were thought of largely as insurance, stopgaps to fall back on should the team prove unable to secure one of the draft's three legit RDEs: Jadaveon Clowney, Anthony Barr, and Lawrence. That said, the Lawrence pinch in which they found themselves was largely attributable to a set of past behaviors, which I'll call...
The Chickens Come Home to Roost: As has been well documented on these pages, Jason Garrett believes in using free agency to fill roster holes so that the Cowboys can have the "purest" draft possible - i.e., select the best player available rather than draft according to need, thus leaving a better player on the board. In 2013, the Cowboys failed to adhere to this philosophy in first round, but then largely adhered to it the rest of the way, with the result being a successful draft. Last weekend, their overall effort was, much like 2013's, largely successful. But there were two notable exceptions to the "pure" drafting strategy about which Garrett evangelizes: Lawrence and fourth-rounder Anthony Hitchens. Let's unpack both of these, shall we?
Lawrence: In late February and early March, I penned a series in which I graded various aspects of the Cowboys' front office's work. I gave them two grades below a "C": a "D" for their propensity to trade up in the draft rather than trading down, and an "F" for history of having too much dead money on the cap - which is a byproduct of giving big contracts to aging veterans with diminishing skills. Why bring this up now? Because both of these previous organizational ailments were in play with the Lawrence pick.
In free agency, the Cowboys added cheap rotation players like Jeremy Mincey and Terrell McClain. That's excellent and necessary work. But the Kiffinelli Tampa-2 is predicated upon generating pressure with only four rushers; of those four, it's the three-tech DT and the open-side, "seven or nine" DE who fuel the pass rush engine. In short, these positions are exceptions to the "use FA to set-up the draft" rule, as you cannot get by with try-hard rotation guys if the team wants to get stops in key late-December division games. However, because the Cowboys had so little cap space due to the aforementioned bloated contracts, they didn't have the financial wherewithal to find difference-makers to fill both of these key holes on the roster.
Dallas did nice work to land a young, Pro-Bowl-level talent at three-tech in Henry Melton - and at a very reasonable price. And they certainly tried to secure a top-flite DE, offering reasonable contracts to Julius Peppers and Jared Allen, and trying to bring DeMarcus Ware back at a reduced rate. But none of them bit, because Dallas simply didn't have the green to compete at market value. To be fair, they are exercising much more financial prudence of late, so they might not have spent the going rate for any of these aging players. But we'll never know, because they had spent more than 17 million dollars in dead money in both 2013 and '14 on players no longer on the roster.
Enter Lawrence. Due to cap mismanagement during the Wade Phillips years, the team found itself forced to violate one of its central tenets: go into the draft with a clear, distinct need. We often heard (and wrote) in the lead-up to the draft that the Cowboys would spend the draft "chasing defensive ends"; when there are only three worth pursuing, it's a short chase. When teams embark on such a chase, two things happen, both of them bad: 1) they overpay to get the player they want at the place in the draft where value and need meet - exactly what happened with Lawrence; 2) they reach for a lesser player. Which brings us to...
Hitchens: Let me be clear: I like this player, and had him on my short list of linebackers in whom the Cowboys might be interested; I think he's a good scheme fit. But he wasn't the best player on their board when they came on the clock in round four. How do we know this? Because the Cowboys brass crowed that fifth-rounder Devin Street had a third-round grade. What that means is that, in round four, the Cowboys chose to leave at least one player with a grade a round higher (and, since they later chose him, at a position where they wanted to add a guy) on their board. You know what this is called? Yep, a reach.
In this case, the Cowboys were forced to go against their stated drafting philosophy because of the health of their incumbent middle linebacker and their inability to find a competent middle 'backer in recent years despite throwing so many resources at the position. Now, because the Cowboys have invested so much money in Sean Lee, they cannot afford to draft a first or second day player to take his place who, if Lee somehow manages to stay healthy, won't see the field.
The solution? Draft a capable back-up, who won't cost much should he remain a backup for the better part of his career. I found this unsettling, largely because it reminded me of the last couple of times the Cowboys employed such a strategy: the 2009 and 1995 "backup" drafts. If Jason Garrett wants to develop "competition throughout the roster," how does drafting a perpetual backup do anything other than take us back to the stars-and-scrubs eras that engendered those horrible drafts?
As I mentioned above, I think the Cowboys had a good draft. In particular, I found their seventh round to be superb: they got tremendous value with all of their five selections. To my mind, this reflects the increasing stability and clarity within the organization as the Garrett administration continues the massive cleanup of the mess created by the Wade Phillips gang - a Augean task indeed. As with many long-term cleanups, however, there are residual after-effects that cause minor messes. Due to the sins of their figurative fathers, the Cowboys were forced into two unsavory situations: sacrificing a third-round pick and making a fourth-round reach.
With only one more untenable contract on the books (Tony Romo), we can only hope that this is the last time we will have to endure the sins of less focused past administrations. They are like paper cuts: enough of them have the ability to kill.