Perception versus Potential: A Draft is the Sum of its Parts

As the long process of information gathering slowly draws to a close, the elite players have risen amongst the crowd and teams are finalizing their draft boards. GMs, coaches, scouts, analysts, players, agents, and fans are all debating and campaigning for or against the perceived prospects’ potential and possible draft outcomes. Inevitably, the conversation centers on the cream of the crop that will go in the 1st round, especially the Top 10. But in the shuffle it’s often forgotten that how we perceive the success of the draft will be defined by when we grade the success reaped from that potential. While the 1st round pick, especially one in the Top 10, will always be the most important, 4 years from now we will look to all the picks and judge all of their contributions to the team…though next year we will concentrate primarily on the rookies that started and still not know enough about majority of the draft class.

Because draft picks are made while considering both immediate and future production, every team will invariably take into account their current roster in judging a prospect’s potential. Besides the difference in scouting reports and talent evaluations, NFL franchises will always have differing draft boards and strategies. There is no pure best player available strategy. BPA is a myth because each team must judge the best player available for them not only in perceived talent, but also with the level of potential contribution to the overall success of the team - all the while considering what potential can be found in various draft clusters across all positions that are team needs. What is the potential a draft pick will contribute to the team while maximizing the potential of the entire team’s roster and draft picks? It is why we know the 1st overall pick in any draft will depend on which team is making the pick.

As we prepare for that wonderful holiday known as the NFL draft, where our favorite team’s future is tied to the same hopes and dreams we share alongside the nation’s greatest athletes, let’s remember our immediate reactions will inescapably be defined without the copious information known only by the Dallas Cowboys coaching staff and Jason Garrett’s plans for the future. It is not as simple as saying most pundits perceive Player A to have greater potential than Player B.

In final preparation, let’s consider the most likely Cowboys’ draft strategies while trying to take into account the many variables and Garrett’s vision for his team.

(Yes, I think Jason Garrett wins the tie breaker and will draft according to HIS plan even if Jerry Jones wants a particular shiny toy, but it would require a separate post to explain why I think Jerry does believe enough in Garrett to let him lead the war room. Though there is some great conversation on this topic in the comment section of greatwhitenorth's excellent fanpost.)


While we will never know the intimate knowledge the coaching staff has on the current roster and their plans for the future, it seems safe to assume we have three great and immediate needs.

- Offensive Tackle: While upgrades are necessary across the o-line depth chart, our greatest need is to replace aged and underperforming veteran Marc Colombo and hope we can retain talented and tendered free agent Doug Free.

- Safeties: A perennial mess, Alan Ball painfully proved he isn’t a starter and we allowed Gerald Sensabaugh to test the free agent market, which says a lot in and of itself.

- Defensive Line: Marcus Spears was also allowed to enter FA market and Igor Olshansky has proven to be no more than adequate, we clearly need some talent infusion.

Other, dare we say, minor needs include increasing depth in several positions where a starter will be needed in the near future.

- Cornerback: For the majority of last season we had only 3 active CBs on our roster. Terrence Newman is still an above average player, but his age and contract have him on thin ice. We could improve both depth and need to find a future (perhaps immediate) starter.

- Inside Linebacker: We hope Sean Lee can take over for the dogged but aged Keith Brooking, and while Bradie James is more than serviceable, he can’t have much left in the tank.

- Offensive Guard and Outside Linebacker require better depth.

Clearly, we aren’t in great shape. While some of these positions have young talent that could prove themselves capable, specifically defensive line and defensive backs, it is clear the team needs to hit on as many picks as possible and find several starters in the draft, especially with the CBA debacle and resulting uncertainty of free agency. While I believe a pure BPA strategy is a myth, this is even more of a reason it won’t or shouldn’t happen. If we were a Championship team that had such capable starters in every position we did not see a need to increase a particular one any more than another, then you can take whichever player your team (not the pundits) consider the most talented and likely to succeed and best fit in your system…clearly, we are far from having that luxury.

Trading Options

Trade Up: There is really only talk of trading up for two players, elite tier talents perceived to be surefire (if there’s such a thing) prospects, those being Patrick Peterson and Von Miller. Considering neither is from a position of our greatest needs, I am understandably not keen on losing any draft picks to trade up to get one. Personally, I consider trading up when already in the Top 10 a greedy risk (nothing is 100% certain) usually punishable by some kind of karmic backlash. Logically, it seems unlikely either will fall past the Top 5 and thus I find it unlikely that losing so much draft currency to get them will seem a favorable strategy to Jason Garrett.

Trade Down: With all the needs described above, I feel this is by far the greatest way for the Cowboys to optimize the potential of this year’s draft picks, especially since this draft class seems light on elite prospects yet deep with top tier talent in many positions (more on this later). But it requires a partner to dance on draft day, and while this may very well be plan A to the Garrett regime, plan for the worst and hope for the best.

Ranking the Draft Class

As previously mentioned, it is nearly impossible to create an overall draft board because each team will have players ranked differently. Everyone is guessing the likelihood a rookie succeeds on their team. NFL rookies are not a defined quantity that can be ordered or graded as easily as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… However, by analyzing the limited (compared to NFL franchises) information available we can begin to group the potential of the prospects in tiers…at least for the first few rounds and still with plenty of question marks. Ordering them something like 10 > 8 > 6 or (chance of success) 90%, 80%, 70%, etc.

Elite Tier

Top Tier

Top Tier

2nd Tier

2nd Tier

P. Peterson

N. Fairley?

V. Miller

D. Bowers?

AJ Green

R. Quinn?

M. Dareus ?

C. Newton ?


B. Gabbert

J. Locker

R. Mallett

C. Ponder ?


J. Jones

T. Smith ?


M. Ingram ?


T. Smith

A. Castonzo

G. Carimi

D. Sherrod

N. Solder

B. Ijalana ?


M. Pouncey

D. Watkins


JJ Watt

C. Jordan

A. Smith

A. Clayborn

R. Kerrigan

Phil Taylor

M. Wilkerson

S. Paea

M. Austin

C. Liuget ?

C. Heyward ?

C. Ballard?


J. Houston

M. Wilson?

A. Ayers?


P. Amukamara

B. Harris

A. Williams

J. Smith


Rahim Moore?

Positions of Need Only


J. Carpenter

M. Gilbert

W. Smith

OT - OG in NFL

M. Cannon

D. Love

C. Boling

J. Pinkston


S. Wisnieswski

J. Moffitt

R. Hudson

Positions of Need Only


P. McPhee

L. Guy

K. Ellis

J. Sheard

D. Nevis


K. Sheppard

C. Matthews

B. Carter

M. Foster

C. Carter


C. Marsh

C. Brown

R. Carmichael


A Black

R. Sands

D. Williams

D. McDaniel

J. Jarrett

M. Gilchrist

Q. Carter

Elite Tier: Prospects considered immediate starters, a cut above all others athletically and with the highest likelihood of NFL success. In a decent year the top 10 picks are all elite players. Some drafts are better than others, and unfortunately for us, this class in not top heavy.

Top Tier: Prospects likely to succeed as starters their rookie year, players team’s would happily draft in the 1st round. It appears they will spill over into the 2nd this year.

2nd Tier: Prospects expected to contribute their rookie year, but have questions surrounding their ability as full time starters.


- It is clear that the draft is not heavy with elite talent, not even filling out the Top 10 even after adding several prospects with enough concerns or question marks to note.

- The draft is much deeper on the defensive side of the ball.

- Of our greatest needs, only DL has depth in all tiers, there is virtually no elite or top tier safeties, and the OT class has a few top tier prospects but the talent takes a serious drop afterwards.

- Seems pretty clear that our 3rd round pick could yield one of the top 10 safeties in this draft, which says a lot about the talent level of the rookie safeties in this class and our likely strategy.

- Having picks in the Top 10 of each round leaves us with some interesting options with 3 picks in the Top 75. Especially since it appears there are over 40 top tier players worthy of a 1st round pick and our 2nd round pick is at #40.

So What’s the Plan?

Let’s assume Garrett intends to target our three greatest needs with our three top picks, makes sense, right?

That would mean our hope is to come out of the draft with three rookies with a high probability of starting or heavily contributing at OT, Safety, and DL. How much we maximize the potential of each position/pick will depend on the order by which we make those picks and the clusters of players available when we pick. Makes sense, right?

While there are no elite tier prospects for OT and Safety, we could get an elite DL (albeit with question marks) to drop to us at #9. But is making that selection the best way to optimize our overall draft?

If our #9 pick is DL, it means we need one of the 5 or 6 top tier OT or the 1 top tier Safety to fall to us at #40 to maximize our first two picks in the draft. Anyone really like those odds? They seem even worse when considering the alternative. If we take a top tier OT at #9, we then need one of the 11 top tier DL to fall to us at #40. Let’s make this clear. Simply considering the number of prospects at each position, we have twice the chance of landing a top tier DL at #40 than landing a top tier OT.

(When I think of the other teams’ needs and likely draft pick clusters, I actually believe the difference is far greater and getting top tier OT at #40 is VERY unlikely)

I know there are some people who will doubt NFL teams think in this manner. Are you one of those that don’t believe coaches and franchises consider more than just BPA for their 1st round pick? The most recent, yet more drastic, example is the Jacksonville Jaguars. Just ask Jack Del Rio (or listen to his excellent and frequent interviews on satellite radio "Moving the Chains") about the 2010 draft. It was perceived by most pundits that Tyson Alualu was a top tier talent likely to be drafted near the end of the 1st round, but not elite or worthy of a top ten pick. Yet Del Rio had a plan for his team (and 2nd year GM Gene Smith believed enough in him to accept the plan) and their greatest need was to improve the DL and pass rush and he believed Alualu presented the best potential to do so with their #10 pick. He couldn’t find a partner to trade down, so he took the man he thought best fit his system for his greatest need. Of course, the story is slightly different from our current situation because the Jags didn’t have a 2nd round pick. This made the decision much easier to accept while listening to Mel Kiper and Todd McShay harp on BPA and the stupidity of passing on a perceived top notch prospect like Tim Tebow with their #10 pick. This story is far from over, but so far it seems it is heading towards a happy ending.

So, is taking an elite DL with question marks while significantly lowering our chance for a top tier OT really a better strategy than getting a top tier OT with double the chance for a top tier DL with our 2nd pick? Now, consider we also have some young DL talent that has shown promise in ’10, but really only one young OT with potential who hasn’t even played a snap. Finally, consider the fact that Rob Ryan will use a DL rotation but the OT will play 100% of the snaps. Do you think the Garrett regime perceives the potential contributions of Bowers, Dareus, Watt, or Jordan (or Prince A.) so much greater than Smith, Costanzo, or Carimi that they would accept having half the chance of drafting a second top tier talent at a position of need with the #40 pick? I hope not. While some may scream about BPA after our #9 pick, I would happily accept the "reach" in hopes of maximizing the sum of all our draft picks.

(Author’s note: It was a fight to refuse my instincts and urge to put T. Smith and JJ Watt in the elite tier with a question mark, especially since I don’t think Newton belongs there but figure some teams might)

So what do you think BTB nation? Considering our current roster, our needs, and the 2011 draft class, if we can’t find any trade partners and we pick at #9, #40, #71, how would you distribute the picks amongst our positions of need to optimize our draft?

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.