Do you love doing mock drafts? Are you convinced you know who the Dallas Cowboys should take? Have you spent hours going over video of college players to dissect their game and slot them into rounds, or project how they would fit or not for Dallas? Are you starting to feel like you have a good grasp on how things will, or at least should, play out for the Cowboys when the draft arrives?
I hate to tell you this. You are wrong. Not just a little, but a lot. Oh, there is always a chance one of those mocks may get somewhat close, but that falls more under the blind squirrel/acorn principle than anything else. Your chances increase somewhat the more of them you do, but even then, your most probable reaction after the real picks are all in will be "Where did that come from?" My fellow writer Michael Sisemore gave his pre-draft thoughts earlier, so here are mine.
It's not your fault. You are facing a deck that is not only totally stacked against you by 32 NFL franchises that do a better job of controlling the leak of information than any major U.S. government agency, but where you don't know for sure which cards are even in each of the individual decks that each team has. So the best approach to the draft is to be ready to be amazed and at times dismayed, but to enjoy the ride anyway.
Unless you are fairly new to being an NFL fan, you should have a good grasp of this, but for some reason a form of selective amnesia sets in, and every year as the draft rolls around, we all have a tendency to delude ourselves into thinking we can predict to some degree what is going to happen. Here is why that is not true.
The macro, whole-league dynamic. It all starts with the complexity. 32 teams, no two of which have the same approach to the draft. There are three basic vectors that influence each selection, relative talent (the biggest part of the "best player available" idea), scheme, and need. Not only does each team put a different weight on each of the three, but they have different interpretation of each.
Talent is to a certain extent in the eyes of the beholder. Some teams are all in on the video from college, others go heavy on measurables, and many have some in-between mix. Moreover, they may not view each position the same. One team may lean much more on video for the linemen but put more weight on combine and workout numbers for skill players. This is all done internally, and sometimes the staff is not clear or consistent on how this is done. It was often felt that when Wade Phillips was head coach in Dallas, he would fall in love with a player based on video, perhaps even his highlights. He would then influence the draft process to get his guy, and this is thought to have led to some pretty bad choices.
Scheme is another issue, and it is really hard to be sure exactly what a team is looking for when it tries to find players to fit what it is trying to do. This is especially hard to sort out when there have been significant changes to the staff. A change to one or more of the head coach, offensive coordinator, or defensive coordinator position will frequently change how the team views players, and again, there can also be confusion between the coaches and scouting staff about what the team really needs. This is probably the root cause of the well-known disconnect about Sharrif Floyd in Dallas, when he was the highest rated player on the team's board, but the defensive coaching staff, then headed by Monte Kiffin, did not like him as a piece while shifting to the 4-3, and prevailed. The team traded back, and it wound up being a good move.
Need is something that has to be accounted for, but some teams are going to look first at their holes, while others want to go for more talented players first. This is more of a factor the first couple of days, when the teams are dealing with the more valuable picks and presumably players they have studied the most closely. There is only so much time to prepare for the draft, and it is only logical to spend more time on players you want to contribute soon than on late-round picks that have much less chance of becoming key parts of the team.
All of this is kept as hidden from the outside as possible, rivals, reporters, and fans alike. The team draft board is built in secret, and although we sometimes find out what it was like after the fact, we seldom have a clear picture of it beforehand. Obviously different teams have widely varying grades on given players.
This year, Dallas is picking late in the round. If they stay at 27, that obviously means 26 players will be gone. And until those names have been announced, we can't really know what the options are.
One thing that almost no mock draft gets close on is trades. There are usually multiple deals struck in the first round, and these are nearly impossible to foresee, since they are also influenced by what happens earlier. Everyone is wondering which of the top two quarterbacks the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will decide to take, but with the paucity of quarterback talent in this year's class, that first pick may be very, very valuable to a team that is in better shape than the Buccaneers - which basically means all of the rest of them. Who knows what Lovie Smith and his personnel staff might do if they get offered a boatload of draft picks to trade back? The same can be said for any of the rest of the top four or five spots in the draft. Hey, Chip Kelly and the Eagles can offer you a buffet of (mostly bad) quarterback options to go along with picks!
It is almost a given that players we expect to be there when Dallas goes on the clock will be gone, and some we thought would be long gone will still be available. Which brings us to the other part of things.
The micro, Dallas specific dynamic. Of all the teams, Dallas is one of the most likely to be involved in some kind of trade early in the draft. While Jerry Jones has made some significant changes to how he does business in the draft, this is not one of them. It appears to be something he and his son Stephen Jones have similar views on, and if they are in accordance on things, it is pretty much a given. This year's draft class is seen as having only about 20 or so "legitimate" first-round talents, while the next 40 or 50 names are seen as being fairly closely bunched as far as relative merits. That makes for a good argument to either trade up to get a solid first-rounder, or trading back to increase the number of picks to use, particularly for those positions that are deep this year. This makes trying to figure out who they might want at 27 of very limited value.
And the great unknown is how the Cowboys rank the players on their draft board. Based on past history, Dallas will have something like 100 to 120 players spread throughout the seven rounds. We can guess how that will look, but it is just that, guesswork. We have read eagerly who the team has had in for visits, but just because someone came to Valley Ranch, it does not mean they made a good impression. There have almost certainly been cases where players have left a bad taste behind when they left, and we have no idea who they might be. Eliminating the ones you don't want is just as valuable as getting up close and personal with the ones you do.
As the draft progresses, the odds increase that the Cowboys have some names none of us saw coming. Last season, Anthony Hitchens was a prime example. Most of us had very little idea who he was, and there were many who thought he was a mistake, not worthy of a fourth-round pick. But he wound up being probably the second most valuable selection of the draft for Dallas after stud guard Zack Martin - who himself surprised some (but not all - I take more than a little pride in the fact our staff mocked him to Dallas in the 2014 SBN NFL community mock).
So the likelihood is that there will be more surprise than anything else as the 2015 draft plays out. Just be prepared. Try to enjoy the ride. And you can always have fun ridiculing other teams when they pull a real head-scratcher.