Every year Rabblerousr and I look forward with the greatest anticipation to the annual pilgrimage of draft prospects to Valley Ranch for their pre-draft visits with the Cowboys. And like us, many other hardcore draftniks will be scanning the news wires and social media outlets for any mention of a prospect making his way to Dallas over the next month or so. Why?
Every year in early April, the Cowboys are allowed to bring in up to 30 usually high-profile, national draft-eligible players for official pre-draft visits. Additionally, they also bring in as many draft-eligible local prospects as they like for visits and workouts during "Dallas Day", also sometime in April.
Over the last nine years, eight of the Cowboys' nine top picks in the draft all visited Valley Ranch as part of the Cowboys' official pre-draft visits. Bobby Carpenter ('06), Anthony Spencer ('07), Felix Jones ('08), Jason Williams ('09), Dez Bryant ('10) and Tyron Smith ('11) were all brought in for pre-draft visits, while Morris Claiborne ('12) became the exception that confirms the rule: Claiborne became the first Cowboys top pick since DeMarcus Ware in 2005 who wasn't invited to Valley Ranch prior to the draft. But the Cowboys got right back on track when they invited Travis Frederick for a pre-draft visit in 2013, and then brought in Zack Martin for an official visit last year.
- In 2014, the Cowboys the Cowboys brought in their top two draft picks, Zack Martin and DeMarcus Lawrence, for pre-draft visits, and also brought in 7th-round pick Ken Bishop as well as UDFA signings Davon Coleman, Chris Whaley, Ben Malena and Dashaun Phillips to Valley Ranch.
- In 2013, the pre-draft visitors proved to be a veritable bonanza for the Cowboys personnel department: Cowboys draft picks Travis Frederick, Terrance Williams, J.J. Wilcox, B.W. Webb, and Joseph Randle were all brought in for pre-draft visits, as were six UDFA signings (Jakar Hamilton, Brandon Magee, Kendial Lawrence, Taylor Reed, Lanear Sampson and Devin Smith).
- In 2012, they brought in Kyle Wilber, Matt Johnson, Ronald Leary, and UDFA Lionel Smith, the year before it was the top three draft pick Tyron Smith, Bruce Carter, and DeMarco Murray along with UDFA Andre Holmes.
So we know that the predictive value is pretty good when we look at the list after the fact. But is there something we can glean from the invitation lists ahead of time? To find out, let's review the visitor lists of the past four years.
In 2011, the Cowboys invited every single offensive lineman drafted in the first round, with the notable omission of Danny Watkins and Gabe Carimi. The Cowboys dodged a bullet there, as both players were released by their teams before completing their rookie contracts.
Here's what the 2011 invitation list looked like (limited to invitees drafted in the top 100). I've added some coloring to highlight some positions. Note that players marked with a (*) were invited to Dallas Day workouts and were not part of the national pre-draft invite list.
|1||2||Von Miller*||LB||Texas A&M|
|1||22||Anthony Castonzo||OT||Boston College|
|1||32||Derek Sherrod||OT||Mississippi State|
|2||40||Bruce Carter||LB||North Carolina|
|3||67||Nate Irving||LB||North Carolina State|
|3||72||Martez Wilson||LB||East. Illinois|
After looking at the five highest-ranked offensive linemen for their first-round pick, the Cowboys invite list suggests they were looking for linebackers in the second round. They invited four linebackers who had mid second-round grades, three of those linebackers slipped to the top of the third, while the Cowboys drafted the fourth, Bruce Carter, early in the second round.
I think it's fair to say that the Cowboys were looking for an offensive lineman in the first round of the draft, and probably were looking for a linebacker in the second round - if the invitation list is anything to go by.
In 2012, it looks like the Cowboys went an entirely different route. Instead of carpet-bombing a specific position in the first round like they did in 2011 with the offensive line, that draft seems to have been all about BPA. In fact, a look at the 2012 invite list shows the Cowboys were uncannily accurate in slotting the invited players right around their 14th pick. The Cowboys invited players who were ultimately drafted 7, 11, 12, 14 and 17. You could make an argument that Mark Barron (7) probably went higher than most people expected, just like you could argue that David DeCastro (24) probably went a little later than expected.
|1||10||Stephon Gilmore||CB||South Carolina|
|1||12||Fletcher Cox||DT||Mississippi State|
|1||29||Harrison Smith||S||Notre Dame|
|1||31||Doug Martin||RB||Boise State|
|2||40||Amini Silatolu||OG||Midwestern State|
|3||92||T.Y. Hilton||WR||Florida Int'l|
But where it looks like the Cowboys were getting ready to go BPA in the first round, in the second round they probably were looking to repeat what they did with the OTs in 2011, but with interior guys instead of OTs and, because the position isn't as valued, invited every offensive lineman drafted in the second round (except Kelichi Osemele).
Of course, the trade for Morris Claiborne rendered all of that moot. The Claiborne trade cost the Cowboys their 14th and 45th pick, and we'll have to take the Cowboys word that they would probably have drafted Michael Brockers and Bobby Wagned had they stayed put.
In the 2013 draft, the Cowboys were clearly focused on shoring up the interior of their offensive line, and carpet-bombed the position again. They didn't bother with any of the top-ranked tackles, but brought in what proved to be the top five interior guys (marked in yellow in the table below):
|1||7||Jonathan Cooper||OG||North Carolina|
|2||33||Jonathan Cyprien||S||Florida International|
|2||37||Gio Bernard||RB||North Carolina|
|2||48||Le’Veon Bell||RB||Michigan State|
|2||53||Margus Hunt *||DE||SMU|
|3||74||Terrance Williams *||WR||Baylor|
|3||78||Marquise Goodwin *||WR||Texas|
|3||79||Markus Wheaton||WR||Oregon State|
|3||80||J.J. Wilcox||S||Georgia Southern|
|3||81||Damontre Moore*||DE||Texas A&M|
|3||87||Jordan Hill||DT||Penn State|
A strong argument could be made that the Cowboys were hoping for either Cooper or Warmack to drop their way, and when that didn't happen, they decided to trade down. And if plan A was to get Cooper or Warmack, Plan B may have been to get Kenny Vaccaro in the first. But the Cowboys were prepared for Vaccaro not being there anymore, as they invited all the top ranked safeties for a visit (only leaving out Matt Elam), and were probably hoping that they grab either Reid or Cyprien with their second-round pick. Both were gone by the time that pick rolled around, so they snagged their highest-rated remaining safety in the third round instead, J.J. Wilcox.
In the 2014 the Cowboys were back to their carpet-bombing ways: 10 of the 21 players in the table below were defensive linemen. The Cowboys' interest in Barr, Donald, and Shazier is well-documented, and when all three were gone, the Cowboys lucked into Zack Martin.
|1||15||Ryan Shazier||LB||Ohio State|
|1||16||Zack Martin||OT||Notre Dame|
|1||30||Jimmie Ward||S||Northern Illinois|
|2||34||DeMarcus Lawrence||DE||Boise State|
|2||59||Jack Mewhort||OT||Ohio State|
|3||67||Billy Turner||OT||North Dakota|
|3||72||Scott Crichton||DE||Oregon State|
|3||81||Gabe Jackson||OG||Mississippi St.|
|3||82||Will Sutton||DT||Arizona State|
|3||84||Kareem Martin||DE||North Carolina|
|3||88||Will Clarke||DE||West Virginia|
But going by the table above, drafting an offensive lineman in the first probably wasn't the plan going in. The Cowboys had invited a nice cross section of offensive linemen who ended up between the late second and third round. It stands to reason that they would have liked to grab two defensive linemen with their top two picks and an offensive lineman in the third. But after missing out on a defensive lineman in the first round and with the threat of possibly coming up empty in the second, the Cowboys moved up for DeMarcus Lawrence. If not for that trade, the Cowboys would likely have taken Kony Ealy and Trai Turner with their second and third picks.
Earlier this year, Stephen Jones said that a pass rusher is "absolutely" a priority in the offseason, and that the Cowboys plan to chip away at the defensive line the way they did at the offensive line. That means that we can expect a lot of defensive linemen to sho up for pre-draft visits this year, which will surprise absolutely nobody.
Where it'll get interesting is to see which other positions they bring in, and where those positions will be ranked. Could we see a spike in mid-round running backs? Perhaps the second tier of offensive tackles will get an invitation to Valley Ranch? Or will the Cowboys invite every cornerback who managed to complete the Wonderlic test at the Combine?
Assuming the Cowboys go heavy on the top defensive line prospects with their invitation list, which positions would you expect them to focus on in the later rounds?