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Cowboys 2013 Draft: Spending Resources To Make "12" Personnel Dream a Reality

For years, the Cowboys have been in pursuit of a second tight end capable of making the dream of "12" personnel a reality; in 2013, they spend a second round pick on a tight end for the third time in eight drafts - a move decried by pundits as wasteful. A quick look at the Patriots recent drafts shows that teams have to spend big to make dreams into realities.

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In the wake of the Cowboys draft, those who have taken a negative view of Dallas' haul have bemoaned the fact that the organization has spent yet another second-day pick on a tight end. In their view, Gavin Escobar immediately aligns with failed second-rounders Anthony Fasano (2006) and Martellus Bennett (2008), both of whom were drafted to be integral parts of a two-TE offense intended to provide match-up challenges and to offer defenses less clear reads on the offense's intentions, in terms of run-pass as well as strong vs. weak sides. In neither case, negative wags point out, did this dream come to fruition.

Bill Parcells drafted Fasano in the 2006 draft's second round (after the team, in a familiar story, missed out on offensive guard Darryn Colledge) and immediately explained to confused pundits that the Notre Dame product reminded him of former Giants TE Mark Bavaro and that he liked the idea of using "12" personnel (one running back, two tight ends) as the offense's base package. The reasoning was simple: successful offenses sell run and then pass, or sell pass and then run. When a team has two tight ends in the game, both of whom are receiving threats, they become extremely difficult to defend. If a team kept its safeties back to defend the pass, Dallas had a numbers advantage in the running game. If a team thought the Cowboys were going to run and brought a safety up into the box, Dallas could exploit a size or speed mismatch and pass to either tight end against either a linebacker or the out-of-position safety.

In the 2008 draft, the Cowboys traded Fasano to the Dolphins and spent another second-rounder on the more athletic Bennett, who more properly fit Jason Garrett's idea of a second tight end: whereas Fasano was intended to be an "F" or "H" back, Bennett was seen as in-line "Y" tight end who could block the edge as well as outrun linebackers down the seam. After a middling 2008, Bennett was one of 2009 training camp's big stories. During the season, however, the 'Tellus experiment largely failed to pan out as hoped and the two tight end formation became increasingly defensible when he was in the game, leading in part to the emergence of John Phillips at the end of the year (remember Phillips' big catches in the Cowboys huge upset of New Orleans?). In 2010, it appeared that Jason Garret, frustrated by Bennett's inability to provide a reasonable passing game threat, put the dream of "12" personnel away for good.

Apparently, it was only on the back burner. With Escobar, the Cowboys will once again resume the experiment - and for all the reasons articulated above. Consider which offensive huddle is more anxiety-producing to rival defensive coordinators: one with Lawrence Vickers in it (where will he line up other than at fullback?) or one with Witten and Escobar, who would line up in myriad ways: in the backfield, on the same side, out wide, on opposite sides...

In other words, they can be used much as New England uses Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Both are flexible enough athletically to play anywhere on the field, and they can be used in a mind-boggling array of combinations, most of which provide some sort of nasty mismatch. The Patriots have mined the potential Parcells saw in "12" personnel back in 2006. In fact, a strong argument can be made that the Cowboys were trying to copy the Patriots (who are always ahead of the NFL's learning curve) back then.

But here's the interesting thing for the pundits who decry the fact that Dallas has spent yet another second rounder on a second tight end. Look at how many tries it took for Belichick to get it right. Since he took over as head coach in 2001, the Pats drafted TEs as follows:

2001: Jabari Holloway (4th round); Arthur Love (6th)
2002: Daniel Graham (1st)
2004: Ben Watson (1st)
2005: Andy Stokes (7th)
2006: David Thomas (3rd)
2010: Gronkowski (2nd); Hernandez (4th)
2011: Lee Smith (5th)

In his Patriots tenure, Belichick has spent two firsts, a second, a third and two fourths on tight ends. In the same period of time, Dallas has now spent three seconds, a third, a fifth and two sixth rounders on the same position. The moral of this story? If you want to pursue a promising schematic vision, you must be prepared to throw resources at it. In fact, one could make the claim that the Patriots succeeded largely because they were willing (and able) to spend more to make their vision of "12" personnel a reality than were the Cowboys.

With this in mind, if Escobar works out, I'd say we've cheated fate...

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