On Grantland recently, Robert Mays penned an article that examined Atlanta Falcons' general manager Thomas Dimitroff's draft strategy, which is essentially to trade multiple smaller assets to land star players. As Mays puts it:
Dimitroff would treat draft picks — not as a collection of lottery tickets, but as a handful of chips that could be cashed in for potential cornerstones he might covet. Six years later, as Atlanta looks to rebound from the disaster that was 2013, that approach is still what defines the Falcons’ roster.
Exhibit A supporting Mays' contention is the 2011 draft day trade for Julio Jones, in which the Falcons dealt five draft picks - their first- (27th overall), second- (59th) and fourth-round (124th) picks in 2011 and their first- and fourth-round picks in 2012 - for the sixth pick in the draft. But there are other examples: in 2008, he dealt a couple of premium picks (two second-rounders) to obtain another player at an offensive "Position of Great Import" (QB, WR, LT, DE/ OLB and CB), trading up to the 21st pick to nab OT Sam Baker. In addition, he traded another second-rounder to Kansas City for Tony Gonzalez. In 2013, Dimitroff gave up a third-round pick to move up for Desmond Trufant.
Certainly, that strategy can pay dividends; until last season, the Falcons under Dimitroff, head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan had never won fewer than nine games and twice had compiled impressive 13-3 marks. But, as Mays notes, spending one's resources on megawatt players (or, in the case of Baker, solid players at critical positions) is tantamount to a break-but-don't-bend strategy:
When a team trades a handful of picks to move up, the main quality it sacrifices is depth. When a team does it routinely, a rash of injuries turns from problematic to season-killing. Jones started last season the same way he’d ended the previous one — as one of the four best wide receivers in the league. In his first five games, he had 41 catches for 580 yards and a couple of touchdowns. The problem is that those were his only five games, as foot surgery ended his season a week into October...
No matter the injuries elsewhere, the biggest blow — for several reasons — was Jones. The depth a team concedes when trading up for a star is even more important when that star gets hurt. Not only were the Falcons without Jones, they were without the two or three starters they might have had if they never traded for him at all. Jones’s absence made the holes elsewhere even more glaring. The lack of pass rush (last in adjusted sack rate according to Football Outsiders), which was void of a single above-average homegrown player, haunted the defense. A subpar offensive line and a hobbled running back meant heaping even more on Ryan, who regressed without his top-tier receiving talent.
As the inimitable O.C.C. noted when we discussed this piece online, the similarity between the Falcons and Cowboys situations last year "isn't just eerie, it's downright uncanny." Indeed; like the Falcons (Jones' running mate, Roddy White, was also hobbled for much of the season), the Cowboys suffered an unbelievable spate of injuries to a key position group and, as a result, were rendered fundamentally uncompetitive on one side of the ball.
As our own neithan20000 sagely noted in our email exchange, "The problem with the 'stars and scrubs' approach isn't that it can't work. It's that when something does go bad it tends to go very bad and it generally hamstrings any roster flexibility you may need. It's a more high risk approach, but that doesn't make it 'wrong' or 'stupid.'" I agree wholeheartedly; it's like the little girl with the curl: when it's good, it's verrrry good, but when it's bad, it's horrid.
As I wrote in my analysis of the Cowboys draft behavior in late March, the Cowboys have been too willing to trade away premium picks to acquire highly graded players. In 2008, they traded up for Mike Jenkins (costing them fifth- and seventh-rounders; in 2010, it was Dez Bryant (swapped third and fourths) and Sean Lee (a fourth); in 2012, Morris Claiborne was the target (cost: a second rounder); in 2014, it was DeMarcus Lawrence (had to give up a third). The end result of these trades (and, more specifically, the lost picks) is decreased depth; these guys could well be classified as "depth compromisers."
A convenient cherry picking exercise shows that both NaVorro Bowman and Jimmy Graham were taken in the five picks after the third-rounder Dallas dealt to obtain Bryant. The players who were taken with or immediately following the second-rounder the Cowboys sacrificed to grab Claiborne include , , . In the midst of the last two years' spates of linebacker injuries, it sure would have been nice to turn to Bowman, Kendricks or Wagner - or to turn to Bruce Carter when one of them went down - wouldn't it?
Two thoughts emerge from this brief history:
1. A legitimate question to ask (hat tip to Joey for this) is whether recent significant changes within both teams' personnel departments are a reflection of this method of resource allocation - i.e, were men like Scott Pioli and Will McClay brought aboard or promoted in an attempt to improve their respective team's ability to find quality depth? The 2014 iteration of the Cowboys looks to have much better depth than the 2013 version; that depth - and how it affects defensive line play - should be one of the season's key storylines.
2. As noted above, both squads were decimated by injuries to a key position group last year that rendered them fundamentally uncompetitive. But there was a key difference: the Falcons fell apart, ending up with a top-six pick, while the Cowboys persevered and eked out an 8-8 record. That's a testament to the coaching staff's ability to keep the surviving players focused and to get the new arrivals prepared in a short amount of time.