If you're a hardcore draftnik, one of the things you'll be looking forward to the most is the annual pilgrimage of draft prospects to Valley Ranch for pre-draft visits. Every year in early April, the Cowboys are allowed to bring in up to 30, usually high-profile, national draft-eligible players for official pre-draft visits. Additionally, they also bring in as many draft-eligible local prospects as they like for visits and workouts during "Dallas Day", also sometime in April.
While others may be busy concocting methodologically suspicious mock drafts, the hardcore draftnik will be scanning the news wires and social media outlets for any mention of a prospect making his way to Dallas during that time. Why?
Over the last eight years, seven of the Cowboys' eight top picks in the draft all visited Valley Ranch as part of the Cowboys' official pre-draft visits. Bobby Carpenter (06), Anthony Spencer (07), Felix Jones (08), Jason Williams (09), Dez Bryant (10) and Tyron Smith (11) were all brought in for pre-draft visits, while Morris Claiborne (12) became the exception that confirms the rule: Claiborne became the first Cowboys top pick since DeMarcus Ware in 2005 to not be invited to Valley Ranch prior to the draft. But the Cowboys got right back on track when they invited Travis Frederick for a pre-draft visit last year.
In 2013, the pre-draft visitors proved to be a veritable bonanza for the Cowboys personnel department: Cowboys draft picks Travis Frederick, Terrance Williams, J.J. Wilcox, B.W. Webb, and Joseph Randle were all brought in for pre-draft visits, as were UDFA signings Jakar Hamilton, Brandon Magee, Kendial Lawrence, Taylor Reed, Lanear Sampson and Devin Smith.
Prior to last year, between two and four prospects from the pre-draft visitor list eventually joined the Cowboys (detailed overview here). So we know that the predictive value is pretty good when we look at the list after the fact. But is there something we can glean from the invitation lists ahead of time? To find out, let's review the visitor lists of the past three years.
In 2011, the Cowboys invited every single offensive lineman drafted in the first round, with the notable omission of Danny Watkins and Gabe Carimi. The Cowboys dodged a bullet there, as both players were early fan favorites (especially in the myriad trade-down scenarios proposed prior to the draft), but have both since been released by their teams.
- Watkins was released by the Eagles at the end of training camp last year, and went through waivers unclaimed. He was eventually picked up by the Dolphins, where he played a grand total of six snaps last year, two more than former Cowboy David Arkin.
- Chicago traded Carimi to Tampa last offseason for a sixth-round pick. He started the first two games at left guard, but only saw 90 snaps for the rest of the season. He was cut by the Bucs a week ago.
Here's what the 2011 invitation list looked like (limited to invitees drafted in the top 100). I've added some coloring to highlight some positions. Note that players marked with a (*) were invited to Dallas Day workouts and were not part of the national pre-draft invite list.
|1||2||Von Miller*||LB||Texas A&M|
|1||22||Anthony Castonzo||OT||Boston College|
|1||32||Derek Sherrod||OT||Mississippi State|
|2||34||Aaron Williams||CB||North Texas|
|2||40||Bruce Carter||LB||North Carolina|
|3||67||Nate Irving||LB||North Carolina State|
|3||72||Martez Wilson||LB||East. Illinois|
After looking at the five highest-ranked offensive linemen for their first-round pick, the Cowboys invite list suggests they were looking for linebackers in the second round. They invited four linebackers who had mid second-round grades, three of those linebackers slipped to the top of the third, while the Cowboys drafted the fourth, Bruce Carter, early in the second round.
I think it's fair to say that the Cowboys were looking for an offensive lineman in the first round of the draft, and probably were looking for a linebacker in the second round - if the invitation list is anything to go by.
In 2012, it looks like the Cowboys went an entirely different route. Instead of carpet-bombing a specific position in the first round like they did in 2011 with the offensive line, this time it looks like they were ready to go BPA. In fact, a look at the 2012 invite list shows the Cowboys were uncannily accurate in slotting the invited players right around their 14th pick. The Cowboys invited players who were ultimately drafted 7, 11, 12, 14 and 17. You could make an argument that Mark Barron (7) probably went higher than most people expected, just like you could argue that David DeCastro (24) probably went a little later than expected.
|1||10||Stephon Gilmore||CB||South Carolina|
|1||12||Fletcher Cox||DT||Mississippi State|
|1||29||Harrison Smith||S||Notre Dame|
|1||31||Doug Martin||RB||Boise State|
|2||40||Amini Silatolu||OG||Midwestern State|
|3||92||T.Y. Hilton||WR||Florida Int'l|
But where it looks like the Cowboys were getting ready to go BPA in the first round, in the second round they probably were looking to repeat what they did with the OTs in 2011, but with interior guys instead of OTs and, because the position isn't as valued, invited every second round OL (except Kelichi Osemele).
Of course, the trade for Claiborne rendered all of that moot. The Claiborne trade cost the Cowboys their 14th and 45th pick, and even the power of hindsight can only go so far in determining what they would have done.
Last year, the Cowboys were clearly focused on shoring up the interior of their offensive line, and carpet-bombed the position again. They didn't bother with any of the top-ranked tackles, but brought in what proved to be the top five interior guys (marked in yellow in the table below):
|1||7||1st||Jonathan Cooper||OG||North Carolina|
|2||33||3rd||Jonathan Cyprien||S||Florida International|
|2||37||2nd||Gio Bernard||RB||North Carolina|
|2||48||3rd||Le’Veon Bell||RB||Michigan State|
|2||53||2nd||Margus Hunt *||DE||SMU|
|3||74||2nd||Terrance Williams *||WR||Baylor|
|3||78||6th||Marquise Goodwin *||WR||Texas|
|3||79||3rd||Markus Wheaton||WR||Oregon State|
|3||80||3rd||J.J. Wilcox||S||Georgia Southern|
|3||81||3rd||Damontre Moore*||DE||Texas A&M|
|3||87||3rd||Jordan Hill||DT||Penn State|
|3||96||- -||Knile Davis||RB||Arkansas|
An strong argument could be made that the Cowboys were hoping for either Cooper or Warmack to drop their way, and when that didn't happen, they decided to trade down. A couple of other things stand out:
- If plan A was to get Cooper or Warmack, Plan B may have been to get Kenny Vaccaro in the first. But the Cowboys were prepared for Vaccaro not being there anymore: They invited all the top ranked safeties for a visit (only leaving out Matt Elam), and were probably hoping that they grab either Reid or Cyprien with their second-round pick. Both were gone by the time that pick rolled around, so they snagged their highest-rated remaining safety in the third round instead.
- There are five receivers on this list, all graded outside of the first round. The way the prospects are spaced, it looks like the Cowboys were hoping for a wide receiver to drop in the draft, which is exactly what happened when they caught Terrance Williams after he fell more than they anticipated.
- There's an interesting chronology in these tables: The Cowboys appear to have been looking hard at interior linemen in 2012, and when they didn't get one that year, they drafted an interior guy the following year. Could there be a similar arc for defensive linemen? They had three DTs in their sights in 2012 (Poe, Brockers, Cox) and Stephen Jones even said they would have drafted Brockers had they not moved up for Claiborne. A year later, defensive linemen are again sprinkled liberally across the invite list, but none of them fell far enough for the Cowboys. Will we see a carpet bombing of defensive linemen on this year's invite list?
Assuming the Cowboys go heavy on the top defensive line prospects with their invitation list, which positions would you expect them to focus on in the second round, and which would be a "catch them if they fall" position?