In early April, I authored a post that offered an unsettling dictum: the NFL draft, after the first pick, is a voyage into chaos theory, the NFL's version of the butterfly effect. Indeed, as we saw a couple of weeks ago, the third pick, when Jacksonville surprised everyone by selecting Blake Bortles, impacted everything after, and in career-changing, global ways that won't become evident for several years. The draft's fundamentally elastic nature makes it next to impossible to predict what will happen after about the first five selections (mock drafts after the first handful of picks tend to be about as accurate as NCAA tournament brackets). I dare you to find a mock draft that had the Bills trading up for WR Sammy Watkins.
As a result of the draft's protean nature, teams are often caught in a bind; no matter how carefully they plan, no matter how many draft scenarios they play out in preparation, the players they want might not be there when they are on the clock. Unless they reach for a position of need, then, teams can spend several years chasing the desired combination of need and value at a given position. We see this all the time: a team loads up on an already solid position while neglecting a weaker position simply because their draft position doesn't conveniently align with where the players at the position of need happen to be placed on their board - and those of other teams.
This is precisely the bind in which the Cowboys have been caught in recent drafts as it pertains to the offensive line. Sure, one major reason for the collapse of the O-line starting in 2010 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.
Since Jason Garrett dismantled the offensive line by cutting a cadre of aging veterans just before training camp in 2011, Dallas has been chasing offensive linemen. For the majority of this time, they have been chasing offensive guards. Let's review the history, shall we?
2011: After jettisoning Marc Columbo, the Cowboys, in need of an offensive tackle, extend national invites to all the first round OTs in a draft rich with them. Remember the names? Tyron Smith, Anthony Castonzo, Derrick Sherrod, Nate Solder, Gabe Carimi. At the ninth pick, they were able to nab the best of them in Smith, securing the left tackle position for the next decade but leaving them with soft spots across the middle of the O-line.
In 2012, the draft was rich in offensive guard candidates. Dallas invited a slew of them to Valley Ranch for pre-draft visits, making clear their intention to take a guard 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.
In 2013, they again demonstrated interest in the guard position, extending invites to top-ten OGs Johnathan Cooper and Chance Warmack as well as to Kyle Long and Justin Pugh. Their fervent hope was that, since offensive guard tends to be an undervalued position, Cooper or Warmack would fall to them at the eighteenth pick, but both were snapped up far in advance of that spot. As we know, the Cowboys then opted to trade down, presumably with the intention to corral Pugh or perhaps Long, but both were taken in the picks immediately following that which Dallas had traded away. Travis Frederick was the Cowboys' consolation prize.
The larger point here is that, for two consecutive drafts, the Cowboys, thinking that offensive guard was a high enough priority that it warranted a first- or second-round pick, had every intention of landing an elite interior lineman but, for various reasons, never found one at the desirable intersection of need and value. Simply put, the 2012-13 drafts never broke the way they had hoped.
Which is what makes the 2014 draft so ironic. Like the others, it didn't break the way Dallas wanted it to; the Cowboys' priority was to bolster the defensive front seven, and the front office targeted three first-round talents - Anthony Barr, Aaron Donald, and Ryan Shazier - as capable options. As happened the previous year, when Cooper and Warmack went off the board before they had any chance to nab them, Barr and Donald, were snapped up in advance of their pick. Then, just as they were poised to select him, Shazier was drafted the pick before Dallas'. As we know, they went to their "consolation option," offensive guard Zack Martin.
The Cowboys weren't only interested in defensive linemen in the 2014 draft; they also extended invitations to every first- and second-day OG candidate on their board: Martin, Gabe Jackson, Trai Turner, Billy Turner and Jack Mewhort. Strangely, after so many years of making offensive guard a top priority and striking out, Dallas now landed one, after bumping OG down the "must have" list.
And here's the crazy thing: they ended up with a better (or, to be fair, a more highly-graded) player than they would have had the draft fallen their way in 2012 or '13. On a recent edition of the "draft show" on The Mothership, former scout Bryan Broaddus and top-notch draftnik Dane Brugler (who will likely soon be working for an NFL team) were asked to rate Martin against Cooper, Warmack and DeCastro. They unhesitatingly rated him ahead of Warmack and DeCastro and were in a quandry about whether he or Cooper was the better prospect. With this in mind, I unearthed my store of draft guides to compare grades on these players and Martin indeed consistently fares better than any of them except perhaps Cooper.
That's what's so funny and fascinating about the NFL draft: a team chases a position for multiple drafts to no avail and then, when looking elsewhere, lands a better player than those over whom they (and their rabid fanbase) were salivating in previous years. Go figure...