As invested fans, our job is to reverse-engineer what we are privy to, in an effort to figure out what our beloved team's front office thinks of the Cowboys' roster. Here's my attempt at reading the scattered tea leaves lying at the bottom of the 2015 draft cup:
Follow the Money: As I have written in the past, to understand the decisions a team makes over the course of draft weekend, it's critical to follow the money. In the 2013 draft, many were puzzled by the acquisition of Gavin Escobar and Terrance Williams, but the moves made great sense when we stopped to "follow the money"; both were looked at as replacements for Jason Witten and Miles Austin, players not likely to play to the value of their contracts for much longer. Indeed, we have already seen this come to pass in the case of Williams and Austin. Last year's selection of DeMarcus Lawrence was, of course, a "year-too-late" version of the same principle.
After several years of cleaning up the cap in that manner, the Cowboys have done such sterling work that there are very few such "big money for declining player" type deals left on the rolls. The vets who might fall under that category are Tony Romo, Sean Lee and Brandon Carr. Since I believe franchise quarterbacks are such a rare commodity that they should be the exception to cap rules, I'll strike Romo from that list. What that leaves us with, in terms of position, is linebacker and cornerback. Think back to round one, and the players the Cowboys were reportedly mulling over: Byron Jones, Eric Kendricks, and Bernardrick McKinney. Yep, LB and CB. In round one, they secured Carr's replacement in Jones while strongly considering two players who would allow them to jettison the oft-injured Lee after the 2015 season.
Lee's replacement will have to wait. But, speaking of waiting a year to find a replacement, the Cowboys did secure a down-the-line replacement for another greying and well-paid veteran, OT Doug Free. In the 2014 version of my annual "follow the money" post, I wrote:
Unless they are absolutely certain that Jermey Parnell or Darrion Weems is the long-term answer at right tackle (and how could they?), expect the team to draft one in a little over two months - and higher than we'd expect. If they are looking to find a starter by 2015, they'll have to spend a first or second day pick. Thus it should not surprise us to see several offensive tackle candidates come to Dallas for mid-April visits.
Since they were unable to accomplish this in last year's draft, the Cowboys signed Free to a two-year deal this offseason, and went back to work finding a cheaper replacement. After ponying up so much draft capital to build the offensive line in recent years, the Cowboys couldn't justify or afford to spend a first- or second-round pick, but they did spend a top-100 selection in Chaz Green - and, in Laurence Gibson, had the foresight to secure a possible replacement for Green once he is promoted to the starting lineup.
Upkeep On the Neighborhood's Greenest Lawn: In this year's Ourlads draft guide, they say of the Cowboys offensive line that it "may be the best unit in football." Indeed, the Cowboys have done yeoman's work in building the OL, and its clear they want it to remain strong. This is in sharp contrast to the way they handled, say, the defensive line after amassing an impressive group of players in the 2005-07 offseasons, after which they merely rode with them, looking to stock other shelves.
By drafting Green and Gibson, the Cowboys not only found cheap replacements for the likes of Doug Free and Jermey Parnell, they announced that, rather than letting a team strength ride, they are going to continue to stock it, to avoid drop off due to age and/ or injury. Indeed, one of the under-narrated stories of the 2014 season was the ability of backup O-linemen Parnell and Mackenzie Bernadeau to step into the lineup without a Torrin Tucker-level drop-off. The Dallas coaches worked to ensure that the offensive line continues to have sufficient depth to remain the best unit in football.
Priority one: It seems clear that, after the loss to Green Bay, the Cowboys brass looked at their roster and decided that pass rush, and specifically defensive end, was the spot on the roster most in need of upgrades, regardless of what happened at running back. They were transparent about this need throughout the offesason. Back in January, Stephen Jones told reporters that they were going to focus on defensive line. At the combine, Jason Garrett added:
"Affecting the quarterback is important to playing good defense in this league," coach Jason Garrett said. "You just put too much of a stress and burden on guys on the back end if you are not around that guy. So I thought our guys did a good job playing the right way, playing hard. And in certain games we did a good job making his life uncomfortable. But any time you can add talent as a pass rusher, that is going to positively impact your team."
In short, the talent they had wasn't good enough, no matter how hard they played. So, they let George Selvie and Anthony Spencer walk in free agency and went to work adding talent. Even after inking Greg Hardy, Dallas' list of 30 Valley Ranch invitees included every conceivable 4-3 defensive end, and they added two of them.
Misperceptions by the Armchair Brigade, Defensive Tackle Edition: On the other hand, the Cowboys were probably more satisfied by the players they had at DT than most of us were - for the second year in a row. In 2014, they passed on the likes of Timmy Jernigan, Will Sutton, and Caraun Reid. This weekend, they opted not to draft several DTs who would have provided good value when the Cowboys were on the clock: Xavier Cooper (ouch!), Grady Jarrett (sob!), Michael Bennett and Rakeem Nunez-Roches.
In retrospect, it seemed that they have been interested in upgrading the position (they did add Ken Bishop, Davon Coleman and Chris Whaley as rookies last year and reportedly were interested in Carl Davis, who was drafted one spot ahead of them in round three, right before they took Green), but didn't think it paramount to find a starting-caliber defensive tackle, since they already had them in Tyrone Crawford and Terrell McClain (I believe the coaches see T-Mac as the preferred starter, a proposition I explored here). Since they think they already have their starters, plus depth guys like Nick Hayden, Josh Brent, and the aforementioned Bishop - and like to kick their defensive ends inside on passing downs, its easy to begin to see that a mid-to late-round rookie would struggle to get snaps.
Misperceptions by the Armchair Brigade, Running Back Edition: This is the big one. The offseason meme that wouldn't die actually had two phases: initially, we rampantly speculated about whether or not the Cowboys would re-sign DeMarco Murray, and at what price. Then, once he signed elsewhere, the burning questions became: which back? what round? Very seldom did Cowboys fans or media consider that the team was actually content with the players they had on the roster, especially free agent pickup Darren McFadden.
The media's focus on the Cowboys adding a back was so fervent, and so singular that, even when Jerry Jones - who is notoriously transparent during these affairs - told reporters during the annual pre-draft presser that RB was not an "urgent" need, his admission was greeted by scoffs, and a slew of articles by otherwise sane and reputable journalists declaring his remark to be an elaborate smokescreen. In fact, Jerruh meant what he said, as he almost always does.
So, while I think the Cowboys would have liked to add another back, it was largely because one of their primary draft tenets is to target a draft's deep positions, where they can find value, especially in the mid rounds. I believe that the Cowboys invited so many running backs to the Ranch for visits not because they simply had to draft a back, but because they thought they might be able to get terrific a runner in rounds two through four who they had graded a round or two higher.
That is, after all, what good teams do: find value and squeeze...