Every year, I look forward with the greatest anticipation to the annual pilgrimage of draft prospects to Valley Ranch for their pre-draft visits with the Cowboys. And like me, many other hardcore draftniks will be scanning the news wires and social media outlets for any mention of a prospect making his way to Dallas over the next month or so.
Our hearts skipped a collective beat when Stephen Jones announced two days ago that the Cowboys have already decided on almost a dozen players they want to bring in for pre-draft visits.
Stephen Jones: We probably already know 10-12 guys we'll bring in for predraft visits. Wont rule out using #4 pick on guy they dont bring in— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) February 23, 2016
So why all the excitement?
Every year in early April, the Cowboys are allowed to bring in up to 30 usually high-profile, national draft-eligible players for official pre-draft visits. Additionally, they also bring in as many draft-eligible local prospects as they like for visits and workouts during "Dallas Day", also sometime in April.
Over the last 10 years, nine of the Cowboys' 10 top picks in the draft all visited Valley Ranch as part of the Cowboys' official pre-draft visits. Bobby Carpenter ('06), Anthony Spencer ('07), Felix Jones ('08), Jason Williams ('09), Dez Bryant ('10) and Tyron Smith ('11) were all brought in for pre-draft visits, while Morris Claiborne ('12) became the exception that proved the rule: Claiborne became the first Cowboys top pick since DeMarcus Ware in 2005 who wasn't invited to Valley Ranch prior to the draft. But the Cowboys got right back on track when they invited Travis Frederick ('13), Zack Martin ('14), and then brought in Byron Jones for an official visit last year.
But it's not just about the top pick.
- In 2015, the Cowboys the Cowboys brought in their first six draft picks (Byron Jones, Randy Gregory, Chaz Green, Damien Wilson, Ryan Russell, Mark Nzeocha) for official pre-draft visits, had a private workout with 7th-round pick Laurence Gibson, and also brought in UDFA signing George Farmer to Valley Ranch.
- In 2014, the Cowboys the Cowboys brought in their top two draft picks, Zack Martin and DeMarcus Lawrence, for pre-draft visits, and also brought in 7th-round pick Ken Bishop as well as UDFA signings Davon Coleman, Chris Whaley, Ben Malena and Dashaun Phillips to Valley Ranch.
- In 2013, the pre-draft visitors proved to be a veritable bonanza for the Cowboys personnel department: Cowboys draft picks Travis Frederick, Terrance Williams, J.J. Wilcox, B.W. Webb, and Joseph Randle were all brought in for pre-draft visits, as were six UDFA signings (Jakar Hamilton, Brandon Magee, Kendial Lawrence, Taylor Reed, Lanear Sampson and Devin Smith).
- In 2012, they brought in Kyle Wilber, Matt Johnson, Ronald Leary, and UDFA Lionel Smith, the year before it was the top three draft pick Tyron Smith, Bruce Carter, and DeMarco Murray along with UDFA Andre Holmes.
So we know that the predictive value is pretty good when we look at the list after the fact. But is there something we can glean from the invitation lists ahead of time? To find out, let's review the visitor lists of the past four years.
In 2011, the Cowboys invited every single offensive lineman drafted in the first round, with the notable omission of Danny Watkins and Gabe Carimi. The Cowboys dodged a bullet there, as both players were released by their teams before completing their rookie contracts. After looking at Tyron Smith, Mike Pouncey, Nate Solder, Anthony Costanzo, and Derek Sherrod during their visits to Valley Ranch, the Cowboys decided to pick Smith, and it's hard to argue against that decision.
The second position group the Cowboys looked at in detail that year was linebacker, where they had Bruce Carter, Nate Irving, Kelvin Sheppard, and Martez Wilson in for a visit, and they ultimately picked Carter
I think it's fair to say that the Cowboys were looking for an offensive lineman in the first round of the draft, and probably were looking for a linebacker in the second round - if the invitation list is anything to go by.
The 2012 invite list was less clear in terms of positional priorities. The Cowboys did invite five offensive linemen (Amini Silatolu, Cordy Glenn, Jeff Allen, Peter Konz, Josh LeRibeus) who would end up getting selected in the 2nd/3rd round, and that may have been the plan, but the trade-up for Morris Claiborne rendered that moot. The trade cost the Cowboys their 14th and 45th pick, and we'll have to take the Cowboys word that they would probably have drafted Michael Brockers and Bobby Wagner had they stayed put.
In the 2013 draft, the Cowboys were clearly focused on shoring up the interior of their offensive line, and carpet-bombed the position again. They didn't bother with any of the top-ranked tackles, but brought in what proved to be the top five interior guys (marked in yellow in the table below).
Here's what the 2013 invitation list looked like (limited to invitees drafted in the top 100). I've added some coloring to highlight some positions. Note that players marked with a (*) were invited to Dallas Day workouts and were not part of the national pre-draft invite list.
|1||7||Jonathan Cooper||OG||North Carolina|
|2||33||Jonathan Cyprien||S||Florida International|
|2||37||Gio Bernard||RB||North Carolina|
|2||48||Le’Veon Bell||RB||Michigan State|
|2||53||Margus Hunt *||DE||SMU|
|3||74||Terrance Williams *||WR||Baylor|
|3||78||Marquise Goodwin *||WR||Texas|
|3||79||Markus Wheaton||WR||Oregon State|
|3||80||J.J. Wilcox||S||Georgia Southern|
|3||81||Damontre Moore*||DE||Texas A&M|
|3||87||Jordan Hill||DT||Penn State|
A strong argument could be made that the Cowboys were hoping for either Cooper or Warmack to drop their way, and when that didn't happen, they decided to trade down. And if plan A was to get Cooper or Warmack, Plan B may have been to get Kenny Vaccaro in the first. But the Cowboys were prepared for Vaccaro not being there anymore, as they invited all the top ranked safeties for a visit (only leaving out Matt Elam), and were probably hoping that they could grab either Reid or Cyprien with their second-round pick. Both were gone by the time that pick rolled around, so they snagged their highest-rated remaining safety in the third round instead, J.J. Wilcox.
In the 2014 draft, the Cowboys were back to their carpet-bombing ways: 10 of the 21 players in the table below were defensive linemen. The Cowboys' interest in Barr, Donald, and Shazier is well-documented, and when all three were gone, the Cowboys lucked into Zack Martin.
|1||15||Ryan Shazier||LB||Ohio State|
|1||16||Zack Martin||OT||Notre Dame|
|1||30||Jimmie Ward||S||Northern Illinois|
|2||34||DeMarcus Lawrence||DE||Boise State|
|2||59||Jack Mewhort||OT||Ohio State|
|3||67||Billy Turner||OT||North Dakota|
|3||72||Scott Crichton||DE||Oregon State|
|3||81||Gabe Jackson||OG||Mississippi St.|
|3||82||Will Sutton||DT||Arizona State|
|3||84||Kareem Martin||DE||North Carolina|
|3||88||Will Clarke||DE||West Virginia|
But going by the table above, drafting an offensive lineman in the first probably wasn't the plan going in. The Cowboys had invited a nice cross section of offensive linemen who ended up between the late second and third round. It stands to reason that they would have liked to grab two defensive linemen with their top two picks and an offensive lineman in the third. But after missing out on a defensive lineman in the first round and with the threat of possibly coming up empty in the second, the Cowboys moved up for DeMarcus Lawrence. If not for that trade, the Cowboys would likely have taken Kony Ealy and Trai Turner with their second and third picks.
Last year, the Cowboys focused on three position groups, sending invitations to eight defensive linemen, five cornerbacks, and four running backs, as you can see in the table below (** denotes players listed as pre-draft visitors, but travel issues kept them from visiting).
|1||16||Kevin Johnson||CB||Wake Forest|
|2||35||Mario Edwards||DE||Florida State|
|2||37||Devin Smith||WR||Ohio State|
|2||43||Benardrick McKinney**||LB||Mississippi State|
|3||78||P.J. Williams||CB||Florida State|
Looking at the table, and with a generous helping of hindsight, it looks like the Cowboys were planning to draft a cornerback high, inviting four CBs who ended up being picked from the middle of the first to the middle of the second round. Defensive linemen were probably a priority for the 60th pick in the second round, as five of the linemen invited ended up being picked between pick 60 and 88.
There are also four running backs sprinkled throughout this list, and all of them may have been in play for the Cowboys, though none of them fell as far as the Cowboys would have hoped they would.
This year, by virtue of the Cowboys' No. 4 overall pick, we can probably expect some of the top names in the draft to show up for pre-draft visits this year, which will surprise absolutely nobody.
Where it will get interesting is to see which other positions they bring in, and where those positions will be ranked. Could we see a spike in mid-round running backs? Perhaps the second tier of defensive linemen will get an invitation to Valley Ranch? Or will the Cowboys invite every cornerback who managed to complete the Wonderlic test at the Combine?
Which positions would you expect the Cowboys to focus on this year?