The Dallas Cowboys are winning in 2016 with a surprisingly powerful offense, given that they have a late-fourth-round rookie starting at quarterback. But the foundation for it all is the offensive line, which has three first-round picks (all Pro Bowlers). They have added a high first-round pick at running back, to great effect. But that focus on offense has meant that the defense is more of a cobbled-together group. So far, Rod Marinelli has them overachieving. The combination of the two has led to a 5-1 start that currently has them as the number one seed in the NFC, if the playoffs were to start now.
Of course, we are still a long way from that. But the team has a definitive character now. And it has been built mostly through the draft. Stephen Jones has been very clear in stating that the approach in Dallas is to use the draft as the primary tool for player acquisition. Free agency is used to fill needs with lower-cost players. The team has made it almost a fixed rule to avoid high-cost free agents in the belief that they almost never live up to the high price tag. This season, things have worked out very well.
Drafting of course is dependent on extensive scouting, but the truth is that there is a tremendous amount of pure luck involved. It comes not so much in the players a team wants, but the fact that, except for the very first pick, all selections depend on who is taken before a given team gets on the clock. To be successful, a team has to be flexible and ready to seize opportunity, as well as having a good scouting process.
The 2016 Cowboys are built on a seven-year run of hitting it with their first round selection. Up until this season, there was an “except for” concerning the string, that being Morris Claiborne. He was largely seen as a bust, especially since the Cowboys traded up to get him. But his excellent play this year has shown that the team was right about him. It was a string of injuries that limited his contributions, not his true talent.
Those seven players have been heavily weighted towards offense. In order, Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, and Ezekiel Elliott have become the foundation of the offensive attack. Only Claiborne and Byron Jones, both defensive backs, have been taken for the defense. This imbalance contributes to why there is so much confidence about the offense and a lingering sense of concern about the defense.
But this was not necessarily the plan. This was where luck and opportunity combined. Frederick became a first-round pick because the Cowboys did not see a good option at their original draft position, and traded back. Martin was not the target in 2014. The team wanted to take linebacker Ryan Shazier, but the Pittsburgh Steelers grabbed him one spot earlier, forcing the Cowboys to take the last real first-round grade they had - who turned out to be arguably the best offensive guard in the league. The fact is that the offensive line, seen as the real key to all that the team is accomplishing offensively, came together almost by accident.
That is the art of the draft. Best laid plans often come unraveled, and teams don’t just have to have a plan B. They sometimes have to go through the whole alphabet. And for quite some time, the Cowboys were just not drafting well after the first day. If you go through the seven years since the horrible draft of 2009 (which was not only a largely wasted draft class for Dallas, but for much of the rest of the league), there are not a lot of Cowboys selections from the second round on that are still with the team and contributing.
Fortunately, that turned around in a big way this year. Dallas has four rookies that are playing major roles already, Elliott, Maliek Collins, Anthony Brown, and the biggest find of all, Dak Prescott. His completely unexpected emergence as a top-level NFL quarterback is conclusive proof that sometimes, you just get lucky. Jaylon Smith is still recovering from his devastating injury, but has the potential to be a truly dominant linebacker if he does return to full health. It looks like they may get five starter-level players as early as next season out of that class - which would make it one of the best ever. And the four other members of the 2016 class could all make some contribution in the future, which would just be bonuses.
There are also a few players from later rounds of the past few seasons that are making contributions, some for the first time this season. Terrance Williams and DeMarcus Lawrence are having the most impact now, but Anthony Hitchens, Chaz Green, Geoff Swaim, and, most surprisingly, J.J. Wilcox, have all helped this year.
And the Cowboys have long had a reputation for finding players in the “eighth round”, the UDFAs. Everyone knows about Tony Romo, but other UDFAs who have become big pieces include Barry Church, Cole Beasley, Ronald Leary, La’el Collins, and Lucky Whitehead.
As mentioned earlier, free agents are the secondary source for Dallas, but they still can be important. The major ones on the roster now are Terrell McClain, Cedric Thornton, Benson Mayowa, Alfred Morris, Justin Durant, and suddenly emerging David Irving. Note that all but one of those are defensive players, which continues the emphasis on offense the team has exhibited which leaves the D having to make due with much less investment. (All three of the specialists for Dallas are also free agents, but that is probably more the rule in the NFL.)
That is a lot of names to list, but notice how the roster has been built to serve the philosophy Jason Garrett has developed. Build a dominant, run-oriented offense to control the clock and the scoreboard, with a still explosive passing attack to complement it, and then scratch together a defense that can be good enough to hold the opponent to less points than that O can put up, and take the ball away. There is a tacit acknowledgement that it is almost impossible to be elite on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Most teams find themselves favoring one side or the other. The Cowboys have clearly gone with the offense, and things are beginning to come together this year.
But it has taken years. Most of it has come under Jason Garrett’s tenure (he became the head coach in the second year of the seven-year string mentioned above), and was certainly a strong voice for drafting Smith, at a time when Jerry Jones had a widely reported aversion for spending first-round picks on offensive linemen. That certainly changed in a hurry.
Also note that there are very few older, veteran players on this roster. Romo, Jason Witten, Doug Free, and Sean Lee are really the only long-term veterans of serious impact, and of course Romo has not been a factor at all so far this year. Garrett is also a driving factor behind the youth movement, with an emphasis on constant churning of the bottom of the roster to seek better answers.
That is a brief and very simplified account of how this roster has been put together. It reflects a consistent approach, which ties in with the stability of the staff. And the players acquired have been selected to fit the design of the team, especially on offense.
Said design is the third leg of this has all been put together. And it is the third article coming up in this look at how this year’s Dallas team has been built.