With the 2015 NFL Draft over, the rush to judgement has begun. The first "grades" came out within hours of the close of things in Chicago. For the Dallas Cowboys, the various evaluations focused on a few key things: First round pick Byron Jones who was almost universally praised (not counting Maurice Jones-Drew), whether second round Randy Gregory can stay out of trouble and become the star he should, not taking a running back, and a perceived reach for offensive tackle Chaz Green in the third round.
A word of advice: Ignore the grades. They are pretty much pointless, just like the 2016 draft mocks already starting to come out.
Writers and analysts who engage in these grading activities tend to lean heavily on their own evaluation of the players available. They are using their personal view of players, based on their particular scouting methodology (and prejudices). They are trying to figure out how all these players would fit on 32 different teams, none of whom have the same exact schemes and needs. In some cases, a player who is a great pickup for team A is not even going to be on the board for team B, because he fits perfectly into the system of the first and is a total mismatch for the second. Meanwhile, each team is employing a staff of scouts who get inputs from the coaching staff and who also spend a lot of time talking to college coaches and staff about the players involved. These scouts look not only at talent, but at how each player fits the scheme. Not all teams are equally good at this. Some are more influenced by the coaches than others, and there can be communication breakdowns as happened in 2013 for the Cowboys, when the scouts had Sharrif Floyd as the best player available when Dallas went on the clock in round one because they did not fully adjust their grades to reflect the change to the 4-3 scheme. But teams that are really good at drafting do all this well. The hard work is in the later rounds, when the obvious choices are all off the boards and teams are mining for hidden gold. The later in the draft a team's picks fall, the harder it has to work, because of how the talent pool is picked over by the time it gets on the clock. It is easy to draft blue chips, but a lot harder to sort through players to find real contributors to future success that others miss.
In 2014, Dallas had one good hit that fits that description. Their selection of Anthony Hitchens in the fourth round was roundly panned. But the team made a wise choice in him. He wound up playing in all 18 games for Dallas, proving to be the most reliable linebacker in a unit that was otherwise plagued by injuries. At different points in the season he stepped up and started at all three linebacker spots. That is the kind of pick that makes for drafting success. And they are almost never obvious until things play out on the field.
This year, there are two players that the Cowboys took that seem to have a very good chance of being the kind of find that Hitchens was. Call them sleepers, players that are not seen as very good choices that have something about them that could lead them to blossom into solid role players, eventual starters, and maybe even stars.
The first is defensive end Ryan Russell, taken in the fifth round.. The knock on him is that he generally underperformed at Purdue. But what is overlooked is that he was originally recruited to play end in a 4-3 scheme, only to have the team switch to a 3-4 defense his sophomore year. Shifted inside to a 5 technique player, he was not nearly as effective. Our own Landon McCool shared some thoughts on Twitter after doing a little video review of Russell. He went back and started with his freshman year, when he was till in the 4-3.
They moved THIS guy to 5tech? What a waste… If we can get him back closer to this version… whew— OTTO Von Cool (@McCoolBTB) May 3, 2015
Overall: When they had him play contain, and sort of two gap, he struggled. No surprise that if he was doing that a lot in ’14 his stock 〽️— OTTO Von Cool (@McCoolBTB) May 3, 2015
But looks like a different player when allowed to explode upfield— OTTO Von Cool (@McCoolBTB) May 3, 2015
hustles hard, runs to ball, good fit— OTTO Von Cool (@McCoolBTB) May 3, 2015
So the takeaway from Landon's review is that he is a high motor guy who doesn't give up on plays and is best when he is sent upfield at the snap, using his speed and football smarts to adjust to the run on the fly. He could well turn into a really good player in the hands of a coach who knows how to properly use those kinds of traits.
Oh, hello Coach Marinelli.
Given the way Dallas' defensive coordinator and his staff have wrung useful downs out of some of the material he has had to work with since coming to the Cowboys (and not leaving to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers - I never let some things go), it is no stretch at all to think he can do very well indeed with the right kind of raw material. Given the traits Landon spotted and a respectable SPARQ score that shows he has above average athleticism, Russell seems to have landed in exactly the right place to maximize his chances of having a successful NFL career.
Speaking of those SPARQ scores, they are the main argument for my second candidate for a sleeper in the draft, seventh round linebacker Mark Nzeocha. As OCC detailed in his post on SPARQ and the Cowboys, he is very impressive athletically, with his measurables putting him better than 95.3% of NFL players. And as he detailed in his in-depth look at his fellow German, Nzeocha is still incredibly raw. If Matt Eberflus can help accelerate his development, he could well blossom into one of the better linebackers around. In his favor is his record of being a key player on special teams, which should make him able to earn a spot on the team that way while growing as a linebacker. That, plus the need for depth at that position, bode well for his career.
In a real sense, all of the Cowboys taken after the second round have a certain element of being a sleeper, but for Russell and Nzeocha, it is a big factor. They are two players to keep you eye on. If they can live up to our expectations, they will be key exhibits that Will McClay and his staff are getting it done for Dallas.