One of the things that fascinate me about the NFL is how decisions made on draft day in ten minutes or less can establish narratives for years to come. Case in point: the Cowboys' offensive line.
After picking three offensive linemen in four years with their first-round pick, the Cowboys look golden and Jerry Jones gets to call himself NFL Executive of the Year. But while there was probably a general intent to shore up the offensive line through the draft, there was never a specific strategy to add All Pros Travis Frederick and Zack Martin to the O-line mix.
In 2013, the Cowboys had their eyes on two guards, and when those were gone, they traded down and got Frederick.
The Cowboys coveted offensive guards Jonathan Cooper of North Carolina and Chance Warmack of Alabama, but both went in the top 10.
"It's never going to be popular when you move down," Stephen Jones said. "To me, you don't play for the hoopla. You've got to manage your draft, and we felt like the best decision for us when certain players were off the board was to go down and do the right thing and pick up a pick, which we needed, and take a player that fits for what we need in the first round."
In fact, an argument could be made that they were hoping to get another offensive lineman, Justin Pugh, with their 31st pick. Pugh was rated one spot above Frederick on the Cowboys' draft board, but Pugh was picked 19th by the Giants, so the Cowboys took Frederick, the last remaining offensive lineman they had rated highly.
You could argue further that they weren't even sure whether Frederick would play center or guard, perhaps because they had focused so much on trying to find an answer for either guard spot in the draft. Here's Garrett on the day after picking Frederick:
Because he has position flex, and has played a full season at either spot, we feel good about plugging him in at either spot and having him compete with the guys we have on our roster. So we haven’t made that determination right now. We like competition, as you guys know, and he’ll certainly be very much in the mix, having picked him in the first round.
Ultimately, the number of days Frederick played guard in training camp could be counted on one hand - and that hand was missing a couple of fingers. In hindsight, all of this worked out wonderfully well for the Cowboys. Here's a screenshot from an article on ProFootballTalk from shortly after that draft:
In 2014, the Cowboys ended up drafting another All Pro in guard Zack Martin, but that wasn't the plan going in. Last year, the Cowboys had four players with the same grade on their board, UCLA DE Anthony Barr, Pittsburgh DT Aaron Donald, Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier, and Notre Dame OG Zack Martin.
"All of those guys were right there with the same grade," Jones said, referring to Martin, Barr, Donald and Shazier.
It's debatable how those four players were ranked on the Cowboys board (even if they did have the same grade), though I'm fairly certain they would have picked any of the three defenders over Martin. In the end, the discussion is moot, because Barr went to the Vikings at No. 9, the Rams picked Donald at No. 13 and Pittsburgh grabbed Shazier from under the Cowboys' noses at No. 15:
The Cowboys had the 16th overall selection and were all set to draft Shazier, a 6-foot-1, 237-pound linebacker with eye-opening speed. They were even on the phone with Shazier’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, when the Steelers ruined their plans.
"It was just amazing to see the 412 area code on my cell phone," Shazier said. "Words can’t even describe it."
The Cowboys were speechless, too. The player they intended to draft with their No. 1 pick was snatched away one pick earlier by the Steelers.
"I’m in the middle of writing a text that Dallas is going to take him and the phone rings and it’s the Steelers," said Vernon Shazier, Ryan’s father who grew up a Steelers fan living in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area. "Good thing I didn’t send out that text."
According to Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News, the Cowboys front office was forced to scramble while trying to figure out what to do with their pick, looking to trade back before eventually selecting Zack Martin.
Okay, so the Cowboys didn't get who they wanted, but got two All Pros in return. I think I may learn to live with that.
But if they didn't get who they wanted, does that mean that they'll try to pick up this year where they left off last year?
1st-round pick: We've already established that they were looking to add either an interior pass rusher (Donald) or a linebacker (Barr, Shazier) with their first pick.
Stephen Jones, speaking on 105.3 The Fan recently, acknowledged that a pass rusher is "absolutely" a priority in the off-season. More than that: The Cowboys plan on chipping away at that defensive line the way they chipped away at that offensive line. I think it's safe to assume that the Cowboys will be looking hard at pass rushers this year, but what about linebacker?
Rolando McClain, once signed to a contract extension, will be part of the answer to that question, but will the Cowboys be able to pass up one of the premier linebackers should they fall to them in the first round, and could a guy like Shaq Thompson be this year's Ryan Shazier?
2nd-round pick: The Cowboys moved up to grab DeMarcus Lawrence and filled a big need in the process. During a call with season ticket holders after the draft, Stephen Jones indicated that they'd probably have taken DE Kony Ealy if they had stayed put.
"I would say that Ealy was probably our next pick," Jones said. "Sometimes what you read isn’t always true in terms of the Jernigans of the world and people like that. We really didn’t have him in that mix."
One interesting thing about how the draft developed is that the Cowboys did not address a position that many observers thought was a position of need until very late in the draft: safety. Two thoughts led the Cowboys to that decision.
One: Jerry Jones said that they didn't need to draft a safety high because at the time they still considered Matt Johnson "the equivalent to one of those draft picks up there."
Two: After the top safeties in the draft had been taken, the Cowboys didn't think picking another safety would be an upgrade for the team.
"After that we kind of felt like we were getting a lot of what we had," Stephen Jones added. "We like J.J. and we like [Barry] Church. We like [Jeff] Heath. We’ll just see how these guys play out. We got a little bit on the come on Jakar [Hamilton] obviously, and see what Matt Johnson does.
"I feel pretty comfortable there. More comfortable than probably people from the outside looking in."
Hamilton played a grand total of three snaps (one on defense, two on special teams) after sitting out the first four games due to a suspension, and Matt Johnson was released. I doubt either player features prominently in the Cowboys' plans, which should make the Cowboys feel a lot less comfortable at safety than they did in May last year.
If there is a safety within reach of their second pick that would upgrade the position, the Cowboys might be hard pressed not to pull the trigger.
3rd-round pick: The Cowboys traded away their third-round pick to move up for DeMarcus Lawrence, but Stephen Jones indicated the Cowboys would have taken a guard despite picking Zack Martin earlier.
"We gave up, probably, what would have been a starting-type player … we probably would have ended up, believe it or not, picking another guard there. There was a guard where we were going to pick there, Trai Turner from LSU, that we liked a lot," Jones said.
The willingness to invest their third pick in another guard may or may not have been connected with Ronald Leary's latent knee condition, but the fact that the Cowboys were willing to do it suggests the position remains a need.
In terms of unfinished business from last year's draft, that gives us four positions that the Cowboys could still address with priority this year: An interior pass rusher, a linebacker, a quality safety, and a guard. Of course, the Cowboys can also address some of these positions via free agency, perhaps even by signing some of their own guys, so these may not be the exact priorities during the draft.
But we've seen what has happened with the Cowboys' priorities in the last two drafts, so while many observers and fans are demanding that the Cowboys use their top two (and preferably three) picks on defensive ends and cornerbacks, don't be surprised if things turn out differently. And if that yields another All Pro, so much the better.