Back in early May, during the team's annual pre-draft presser, Jerry Jones was asked about the Cowboys interest in drafting a quarterback. As is usually the case whenever he's been let in on the plan, he was quite candid, telling the assembled reporters, "I’m not that gunned up over what a rookie quarterback can do for us this year," adding, "That takes time. This isn’t rebuilding time."
Of course, the press wasn't referring to just any quarterback. What they wanted was an early scoop on the story capable of breaking Twitter, generating millions of clicks and making our collective heads explode: Johnny Manziel to the Cowboys. The story was so delicious, and made so much sense as an unexamined meme that otherwise sober national media types were trumpeting it as a done deal. In his final mock draft, ESPN's Todd McShay envisioned Jones running to the podium in New York all the way from Dallas if Manziel were available; SI's NFL eminence grise, Peter King, levied judgement on the rumors, saying "I absolutely buy Dallas’ interest in Manziel"; draft guru Mike Mayock had them passing on top defensive prospects to take the Texas A&M signal caller:
"If Johnny Manziel happened to get to 16, it’s party time in Dallas," Mayock said during a Wednesday night mock draft revealing show. "If Manziel is on the board, I really believe it’s going to be one of those things when the owner takes over and says, ‘That’s our guy.’
"I don’t think Jerry could help himself. It’s that simple."
The rumor gained traction because, to those who weren't aware of the changing nature of business done at Valley Ranch, it appeared to be a perfect marriage of the attention Jerry Jones seeks and the spotlight Johnny Football enjoys.
But it wasn't at all what the Cowbopys had planned in pre-draft meetings. In point of fact, Jones was telling the truth: the Cowboys had no interest in drafting Manziel with the 16th pick, for a variety of reasons. Chief among them, of course, was their investment in Tony Romo. Not only did this mean that they didn't care to move on from Romo - and that his contract dictated that they couldn't afford to - but that they were committed to building a better team around him:
"I think that Tony has everything to do with this decision...We have a big commitment to Tony. We feel that anything we look at at quarterback would be down the road and in the future in the development of that quarterback. If you look at the difficult dynamic, giving up this player [Martin] that really enhances what we can do on offense and what Tony can do for the future, just on a pretty quick consideration [taking Manziel] didn’t make sense. That was the driving force behind it."
When Jerry noted before the draft that it wasn't "rebuilding time," its because its "build around" time.
With that in mind, they focused on four players, three defensive front seven guys and one offensive lineman, on whom they wanted to spend the first pick. The short list, in case you have forgotten, was UCLA pass rusher Anthony Barr, Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald and Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier as defensive possibilities and Notre Dame OG Zack Martin as the lone offensive addition. All three had received the same grade and stood in a cluster on the Cowboys' draft board.
It was clear going in that the Cowboys wanted one of the three dynamic defenders. That's not to say they weren't interested in a guard; its just that their preferred plan was a front seven player in round one and a guy like LSU's Trai Turner (who the Cowboys tried to trade up to get in round three, and has acquitted himself well as a rookie in Carolina this season) on the second day. But the draft is a protean entity; it spoils the best-laid plans: the Cowboys watched helplessly as Barr went ninth to Minnesota and Donald was drafted by St. Louis with the thirteenth pick.
After the draft, Cowboys assistant director of player personnel Will McClay told reporters that Dallas had no interest in trading up to grab one of their top three targets. The staff did several mock drafts, he noted, and went through many scenarios to eliminate panicked decision-making. In retrospect, he affirmed, "I think it led to us making the right decision based off what was there." I think we can all agree, Mr. McClay.
To review that decision: after the Bears took Virginia Tech corner Kyle Fuller, only Pittsburgh stood between the Cowboys and the final coveted defender, Shazier. The Ohio State product looked to be on his way to Dallas; his agent, Jimmy Sexton, was on the phone with the Cowboys' war room and his father, Vernon, had typed a one-word text - "Dallas" and was preparing to hit send just as the Steelers snatched up the speedy linebacker one pick ahead of the Cowboys.
So, the Cowboys selected Martin. Although Dallas didn't have a gaping hole at guard - or at least OG wasn't as glaring a need as front seven - the team, as they have done since Jason Garrett took over as head coach, trusted in the process. As McClay noted, "You’re never one player away." Consequently, "You always want to solidify the team and we approached it with that strategy." In short, they followed one of the golden rules of talent acquisition: don't draft for today's roster; rather, get the best players and let the roster work itself out.
The Cowboys took Martin after working the phones in an effort at trading back and accumulating more picks, much as they had done the previous year (a strategy that they had wrongly anticipated would function as a bidding war with Manziel still on the board). And they had offers. But they opted to select Martin rather than take the deals that were on the table for two key reasons: Jason Garrett and Walter Juliff.
Garrett loved the kid; after the draft, Stephen Jones said Garrett "had a huge influence on selecting Martin" seeing him, simply, as "as a damn good football player." But it was long-time scout Juliff, Jones the Younger recalls, who was most convincing; he banged the proverbial table in support of the Notre Dame product:
"Walter said, 'I'm going to make a statement that's going to make everybody drop because we've had a couple of Hall of Fame guards, especially Larry Allen.' Walter said, 'Zack Martin is the most high-level ready offensive lineman I've ever seen since I've been scouting here."
"That doesn't mean he has Larry's upside. But as far as ready to start from Day 1, Zack was truly plug and play."
As we now know, Juliff was absolutely correct. Martin has been one of the best guards in the league as a rookie; he made the Pro Bowl and probably would have been a top-five pick if they did the draft over again. ProFootballFocus graded him as the second-best pass blocker at his position, and he has played a huge part in turning Dallas' running game into one of the best units in the league. Thinking about lining him up next to Travis Frederick - his good friend and roommate on the road - for the next decade should bring a wide grin to Cowboys Nation's collective face. I know I'm grinning just typing this.