It is draft season in the NFL. The NFL Combine is about to start. Fans of all the teams are poring over prospect lists and seeking players that can help their favorite team. And that means it is also mock draft season. Many of those fans try to sort out who will be taken where and which players will still be available for their team. Repeated mocks will be made based on a variety of assumptions. And almost all of them will bear almost no relationship to what will actually happen.
The problem of course is that the fans have no idea what is going on in the headquarters of the teams. Scouting staffs don't share their evaluations and grades with the public. And although occasionally an enterprising and extremely clever blogger may find a way to piece together a board after the fact, it is pretty certain that, except for an occasional insider who is usually never going to reveal his information beforehand, no one will know who the team really has ranked where.
But when you have a team that has established a certain continuity, as the Dallas Cowboys have done under Jason Garrett and Jerry Jones, you do learn certain things about how they go about the draft business. And looking at what the team has done in the past, it is very plausible that this year the team will do something that has become rather passe in the NFL: The Cowboys could easily take a running back with the 27th pick.
There are several things that come together to make this possible. First is the possibility that the team is going to lose DeMarco Murray in free agency, which has been repeatedly discussed at BTB (most recently here) and elsewhere. But even if the team somewhat unexpectedly works out a mutually agreeable deal to keep Murray, there are still several factors that leave drafting a runner a real possibility.
The first is that the team has a very strong preference for going into the draft with the needs already filled through free agency. Even if Murray is still with the team, he would just be an absolute expression of that. However, the best player approach that the team uses also takes the needs of the team into account. The team would not draft a player who is only going to fit in the NFL as a 3-4 nose tackle, no matter how clearly he is the best of that category. He simply would not work for Dallas. But with the recent troubles of Joseph Randle, it is likely that running back will still be a clear need for the team when the draft rolls around.
There is another factor that Dallas likes that comes into play here. The team really likes to find a player who is the best-ranked at his position overall to choose. The two most recent players taken first by the Cowboys, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin, both fit that bill, and clearly they have worked out, even though by the time Martin was picked, the team had already invested two first-round picks in the previous three years on the offensive line.
In examining who might fit this particular criteria, I used two resources, the draft boards at CBS Sports and Drafttek. They are sites that have been credible in the past, and they agree on the top two names at running back, Melvin Gordon and Todd Gurley, in that order. CBS currently has them neck and neck at 21 and 22 among all players, with Gurley's injury history almost certainly what makes him second. Drafttek has Gordon at 20 and Gurley at 28. Now, this does not mean that the Cowboys are going to have the same rankings for them, of course. But there is a wide consensus that these are the top two runners coming out of college this year, and since Dallas is looking at the same data and video as everyone else, it is not a stretch to think that they will both be at the top of the running back list for the Cowboys.
What also shows on both these boards is that by the time Dallas' 27th pick in the draft comes around, there are going to be very few other positions where the top rated players are still available. Of course, we all know how much Jerry Jones and company like to trade out of their slot, but this may be a tough year to do that. The pool of legitimate first-round talent is seen as rather shallow, with only 12 to 15 players that are really first-round level. So it is a year when trading up to get into that kind of talent is going to be prohibitively expensive, and finding a partner to trade back is going to be difficult. It may just be a time when the Cowboys have to use that 27th pick.
Oddly, that makes finding a top-rated player for his position a higher priority. The team is essentially going to be trying to find the best second-round talent it can. Seeking a number one for his particular position would make a player more attractive in this situation. And looking over the boards, running back is one of the few where that top guy may still be available for Dallas.
But both are potentially going to be taken higher than 27, according to where they fall on the boards. However, another trend may work in the Cowboys' favor. Running back has fallen out of favor as a first-round investment as the game has become more and more focused on passing. Additionally, running backs have arguably the shortest shelf life in the game.
Dallas in 2014 bucked the trend to a degree, becoming a run-oriented offense. Behind the All-Pro laden offensive line, Murray won the rushing title by a wide margin and was named the Offensive Player of the Year. With essentially the same coaching staff in place, that should continue in 2015. For them, a running back may well be a wise investment. And if the trend of devaluing running backs in the draft continues for the rest of the league, Gordon and/or Gurley may well be there when Dallas goes on the clock. Given how close the two are rated by other sources, Dallas may see either as a legitimate value for their pick. And with the often-stated argument that Murray is likely to see a significant drop-off in his own production, having another stud running back who can step in is certainly a good thing. Additionally, since the comparative dearth of first-round talent means that the 27th pick is really a high second-rounder, the argument that you are supposed to get an immediate starter with a first-round selection is not as compelling.
A lot has to fall into place for the Cowboys to have the number one or two running back in the draft there when they send the card up, but it is certainly a scenario that could happen, and one that the team will certainly have worked into their calculations for what to do. If it happens, they could take Gordon or Gurley and have a star running back locked up for the next five years on a rookie deal. This might dismay the "take defense first" crowd, but this is very similar to how the first round played out in 2014 when the defenders that the Cowboys had targeted were all off the board when they picked. Martin was their last "best at his position" player left, and the Cowboys went offense instead and got an All Pro out of the deal.
Could this happen again? It is something you might want to start thinking about.