Since the moment that DeMarco Murray left for the dessicated, weedy pastures of the NovaCare Complex (where the Eagles train), Cowboys fans have seen running back as one of the team's crying draft needs. And it would appear that the Dallas braintrust agrees with this assessment; as we know, they have invited almost every running back expected to be drafted in the first three rounds.So, all they have to do is take one of them and the team is set, right?
Not so fast. More recently, as the draft's larger landscape has come into sharper focus, shrewd observers have noticed that the first tier of backs - Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon - are likely to be off the board by the time the Cowboys pick in round one and, more disconcertingly, the second tier - generally believed to be Tevin Coleman, Jay Ajayi, Duke Johnson - tend to fall in the 35-50 range, which is a good ten picks before the Cowboys are back on the clock with their second rounder, at #60.
In other words, the top two tiers of running backs look to be clustered inconveniently before and/ or between the places the Cowboys are scheduled to pick, which means that they may twice (or thrice) go on the clock looking to draft Murray's replacement only to find that the only available backs are graded considerably lower than other players still on the board. In a Dallas Morning News chat session a few days ago, the great Bob Sturm addressed this very issue:
I have 5 RBs on the board in the 1st 2 rounds. Gordon and Gurley in Round 1, Ajayi, Coleman, and Duke Johnson in Round 2. But, that view may not get them to pick #60 in Round 2. In fact, I am expecting that Ajayi and Coleman might be gone before #50.
The dilemma Sturm speaks to is that there will twice be runs on the first and second tier backs, twice leaving the Cowboys empty-handed. As the draft crawls ever nearer, we must ask ourselves: how reasonable is this concern?
And that's what I want to test here. We can tell a lot about where players will end up by looking at which teams have interviewed, arranged a private workout, or invited them to their facilities. What I've done is to compile a list of other teams that are interested in the likely RB candidates in order to give us a more concrete example of the various gauntlets these players will have to run to get to where the Cowboys are currently scheduled to pick. I'll start with the two first-tier guys, Gurley and Gordon:
As this chart suggests, realistic interest in Gurley begins as early as the seventh pick, with Chicago, begins to warm in the middle of the round, where Cleveland (#12) and Houston (#16) sit and then really heats up in the low 20s, where Detroit (#23), Arizona (#24), and Carolina (#25) are all poised, ready to pounce. Perhaps because of the questions surrounding Gurley's medical situation, the list of Gordon's suitors is longer and more imposing. The interest proper begins at pick 12, where Cleveland sits, followed by Miami (#14), Cleveland again at #19, then, in rapid succession, Arizona (#24), Carolina (#25), and Baltimore (#26).
What is clear from these two cases is that the four teams immediately in front of the Cowboys are just as interested as in these two players (and, like Dallas, in both of them). So, unless something strange like a run on quarterbacks pushes first-rounders at other positions down the board, it seems clear that, if the Cowboys wish to secure either first-tier back's services, they will need to trade up, to the 21st or 22nd picks. To get to 21 - and this is assuming that either player was still there - the Cowboys would have to give up their third-rounder. I would be loathe to do such a thing, even for Gurley.
Okay, so how about taking a defensive player in the first round and waiting until round two to look for Murray's replacement? Using the same methodology, let's take a look at which teams have expressed interest in the second-tier runners:
Much of this list was probably formed before concern over Ajayi's knee was widely circulated, which is likely to move him down to the third or fourth round on some team's boards, or even off the board in other cases. Before, it was almost a certainly that he'd be picked in the 40s, where four interested clubs lay in wait. Now, he may be a third-tier option, joining the likes of T.J. Yeldon, Ameer Abdullah and maybe even Buck Allen.
On our chart, Coleman begins to pique teams' interest at about the same time as Ajayi (Chicago, #39), and shares interest by Atlanta (#42) and San DIego (#48). But where it get really nasty for fans who are hoping to see Coleman wear the star is the mid-50s, where Detroit (#54), Arizona (#55), Carolina (#57) and Baltimore (#58) - the same bunch who like Gurley and Gordon- are all interested in him. Unless both of the first tier guys go to those teams, thus eliminating their interest, it looks very unlikely that Coleman would fall to Dallas, so they'd have to expend draft capital to go up and get him.
However, that is not the case with Duke Johnson, who has seen only the Dolphins (#47) and Ravens (#58) cast their lines into his pond. Since he wasn't a Valley Ranch invitee, the level of Dallas' interest in Johnson is unknown. If they are interested, he seems to be the least likely of these top five runners to get snatched up before Dallas gets on the clock. If, for some reason, they don't see him as a second-round caliber performer (and if they slot Ajayi in the fourth round due to injury concerns, as Bryan Broaddus believes they will), then the concern Sturm expresses above is, in fact, very real.
And that's why Sturm proposes that Trader Jerry be unleashed on draft weekend. In the same response I cited above, he writes:
This is why I would prefer to trade back from #27 and pick up a 2nd and a 3rd, use the 2nd to get my RB and then have #60 and two 3rds to work on my defense. But, if I can't trade back, the other option is to use #27 on defense, then use #60 and #91 to move up and try to get into the late 40s to grab one of those 5 players.
The two scenarios that Sturm proposes are based on the assumption that the first tier guys will be gone by pick 27, and that the second-tier runners will go in the 40s - both assumptions confirmed by our research above. The key in round two, then, would be to get the Cowboys out of the periphery represented by the 27th and 60th picks and into the center, where at least Tevin Coleman, and perhaps other quality backs, are expected to be taken.
Indeed, we can imagine that a similar operation might be necessary later in the draft to get Dallas situated somewhere between the 91st and 127th picks, where the next tier of backs is likely to be taken. I'm not going to subject you to a third chart, but I will say that interest in Yeldon and Abdullah begins in the early 70s and runs through the mid-80s - precisely in that no-man's-land between the Cowboys' second and third round picks. When we look closely at the situation, especially absent any draft-day trades, it looks to be a sticky wicket, indeed.
Last year, before the draft, I noted that the Cowboys would be "chasing" defensive ends - meaning they knew they had to leave the draft with one, but that there weren't obvious value-opportunity fits at picks 16 and 47, where they were selecting. Indeed, that proved to be the case, and they had to spend precious draft capital to secure the class' last remaining pass rusher of promise. When opportunity doesn't meet value, chasing positions usually requires the expenditure of draft capital, and missed opportunities elsewhere (with the third rounder the Cowboys gave up for Lawrence, they would have taken LSU OG Trai Turner, who started all 16 games for the Panthers without allowing a single sack).
At this juncture, there seems to be little overlap between value and opportunity. The result, unless the Cowboys catch a break, is going to mean that they will have to ask some hard questions: for a deep position, is trading up a smart allocation of resources? What about when the alternative - staying put and picking a player at another position - might mean missing out on the next tier of players at that position of need? If opportunity never presents itself, can Dallas be okay with the fact that they improved multiple positions and got value with all their picks, but never had the chance to add a runner? What if they do add a runner, but he's a third day prospect like Buck Allen, Cameron Artis-Payne or Thomas Rawls?
When you play the scenario game, it often just gives you more to mull over...