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Cowboys Draft: For First Round Defensive Lineman, It May Be Aaron Donald Or Nothing

Do you think Dallas has to draft a defensive lineman in the first round? Stephen Jones may have some news for you.

Stephen Jones points the way.
Stephen Jones points the way.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

There are clearly two schools of thought about how the Dallas Cowboys are going to approach the draft. The most popular one, especially when you look at things like mock drafts done by people who are looking at all the teams instead of studying any one team in depth, is that Dallas has to take a defensive lineman in the first round. The need is just too overwhelming.

The other argument, sometimes known here at BTB as The Ickes Theorem, is that Dallas can wind up with a stronger draft by going another direction, such as safety, in the first. Obviously, all of the writers and fans can have a variety of opinions. Those are free and ultimately meaningless. The only opinion about all this that matters is what the Cowboys' staff thinks, and one of the most important voices on the staff is that of Stephen Jones. He is believed to play a larger role in personnel decisions than anyone who is not his father, and is the heir apparent when Jerry Jones is no longer able or willing to be a full time general manager.

He gave a brief interview recently, and may have indicated that he thinks much more like Joey Ickes than the folks who think any draft that does not have a defensive lineman in the first (and several others shortly thereafter) is a failure. Bryan Broaddus, who was (I believe) the person who asked the first question about drafting need, expanded on what he heard Stephen say.

When asked about drafting for need over taking the best available player on your board, he replied, "You start targeting something and drafting for need, we all know that'll get you in trouble."

I have lived that with this man. I remember sitting in that draft room, when we didn't take the best player on the board. For example, we went into the 2000 draft knowing we were going to be without Kevin Smith at cornerback, who only played eight games in 1999 coming off his injury. Smith was never going to be the same player, and we all knew this.

What made matters worse for us was we didn't have a first round selection, and to use a Bill Parcells phrase: on our draft board, we had those cornerbacks stacked like club sandwiches.

The result, predictably, was that the Cowboys picked some players that turned into big time busts (Dwayne Goodrich and Kareem Larrimore; the team also got Mario Edwards, who was not a bust, but hardly HOF material). Offhand, I don't think you can expect the team to do that again.

This is not to say that Dallas will go with the classic Best Player Available approach. A couple of tweets I saw while working on this conveniently summed up what I believe is a more realistic description of how it works. (Hat tip to Joey Ickes for pointing these out, as well as his other obvious contributions above.)

This is a big part of what I think is going on putting the draft board together for Dallas. It is going to be structured to point the team towards the best player for Dallas in the first round, or to trigger at least an attempt at a trade down if the right value is not there. Other comments lead me to think that there is very little chance that the Cowboys would seek to move up in the first round, just because the only player I think they would really want to go for, Jadeveon Clowney, would just be too expensive. Also, do not expect a situation like in the first round last year, with obvious disagreement about what to do with the first pick. Stephen clearly stated in the interview linked above that the team had taken steps to make sure that would not happen and that everyone was going to be on the same page.

He also has discussed that the team is leery of players with injury issues.

Considering that the Cowboys haven't been able depend on some of their best talent through the NFL 16-game grind, are they now more hesitant to draft a player whose medical history is sketchy?

"I think we have to look at it," executive vice president Stephen Jones said. "We'll continue to make decisions based on that. I'm not going to get in each individual one with the media. But we've got to look at it."

Add in some conclusions Broaddus had in his article, namely that the Cowboys would be more inclined to take a 3-technique DT than a 1-technique, and the possibilities in the first round start to narrow. Although there may still be interest in an end like Kony Ealy, I think the Dallas grading system is going to lead to a choice between Aaron Donald or some other position entirely. From the Cowboys' viewpoint, there are just not that many DL fits for the team in the upper to middle part of the first round. Lots of good players - for a different system than the one Rod Marinelli is going to be running. Donald seems to be a unique case this year, in that he is very nearly a perfect fit for Dallas' system. And his stock is rising.

It may rise too much. Word is the Chicago Bears, who use a very similar defense and draft ahead of Dallas, may be interested in taking Donald in the first round. That could leave no viable defensive line options for Dallas at 16.

I'm not even certain that the Cowboys will find the right player for the D line when they go on the clock in the second round. At least, they may have higher graded options at other positions.

And I expect the team will be looking to draft the best player for them available. Not the best player left, but the one who will help them the most. That attribute is not tied to any given position or group.

Just warning you. The draft may not go the way you expect. And that is not by definition a bad thing.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB

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