With the NFL Combine now underway, the topic of the Dallas Cowboys drafting a quarterback as the eventual heir to Tony Romo has once again become dominant for followers of the team. As our own Michael Sisemore has laid out, the belief is that the team is seeing this as more and more of a priority. With Romo's recent injury issues and the very favorable draft position the Cowboys have (see OCC's excellent analysis of that), this may be the best chance the team will have for years to come.
Wanting something and actually getting it are still two very different things. It is certainly true that the Cowboys are taking a very hard look at several quarterback prospects for this year's NFL Draft. But that does not mean that they are going to find one or more that they actually feel is the right one to take at a given point in the draft. There is more than one way to get a quarterback, and Dallas actually has two different although possibly related needs: They have to worry about that future replacement for Romo and they also must find a more capable QB2 than they had in the Great Debacle of 2015. That may be two different players for this year, or it could be one and the same. Here are the options they face, and the decisions each will drive.
Draft a quarterback with the fourth overall pick. The first thing that has to happen is that the team has to identify one or more of the top QBs coming out as someone they think can be a franchise passer and field general. Dallas has one real advantage here in that Romo is going to be the starter this year, and they don't have to have a rookie who is ready to plug and play on day one. They can go with someone who needs a year behind Romo (with possibly the continuation of "Romo Wednesdays" to get some extra practice snaps in), and with a first-round pick, they could have three or four years if Romo should be extremely fortunate in staying on the field. This would require a veteran backup as the QB2 for this year, but there is the possibility of a rookie taking that job in midseason. And if the worst should happen (find some wood and knock on it until your knuckles bleed), having a rookie you have faith in take the field would probably still be better than what happened last season.
But there are a couple of hurdles for the Cowboys here. First, they have to identify at least one near-certain future franchise QB among this year's crop. With the significant differences between the college and pro games, that is now one of the most difficult calls to get right. You either have to mine some really significant data from video, the Combine, interviews, and in some cases the extra advantage Dallas had in coaching the Senior Bowl, or you might have to take a pass in the first round. Secondly, the Cleveland Browns hold the number two pick, and their need for a quarterback is much more dire (let us all take a moment to be grateful the war room did the wise thing in 2014. Just imagine the fecal blizzard that would be going on if Johnny Manziel was a part of the Cowboys.) Under the blind squirrel/acorn principle, the Browns might snatch the one quarterback the Cowboys want. Players like Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack are much more than consolation prizes, but it would still leave Dallas looking for an answer at QB. The only sure way to get a player the team sees as a sure fire answer would be to try and trade up to the first pick, which would mean paying an exorbitant price. It is not impossible, but seems unlikely.
If the team does not have that "gotta have" QB at four, then they can try to get him later.
Trade back. A risky proposition. First, it means the team has made a fairly fine distinction that there is a quarterback who is not really worth the fourth-overall pick, but is a legitimate value in the 5-10 range. I don't know if that is something you can do to that degree of accuracy. And they would still face the problem of having someone else draft the targeted player ahead of them. It might be worth the gamble, because the team would have more good picks to build the roster, although it still would have the same problem of finding a Romo replacement.
Go with a later round flyer. DannyPhantom laid out the case for a couple of players, Christian Hackenberg and Dak Prescott. The Cowboys are reported to have talked to both. While the fourth round may be too late to get either in the quarterback hungry NFL, they could be in play in the third or even, if the team feels strongly enough, in the second. It would certainly qualify as a gamble, but it would at least be an attempt to find the long-term solution. And either might turn out to be a legitimate QB2, but the bet would be on getting a player who can develop - always something of a long shot.
Punt. It seems almost inconceivable that the Cowboys could fail to draft a quarterback anywhere this year, but that is exactly what everyone thought about the running back position in 2015. We all remember how that played out. Dallas has shown a lot of discipline the past couple of years in sticking with its draft board. As much as we may hate the idea, we might have to be prepared for them to do that again if the quarterbacks in the draft are not there at what they feel is the right spot. If so, we can only hope that they have not made a mistake. This would mean that they would almost have to get a veteran QB that they see having at least a glimmer of hope of taking over from Romo for at least a year or two without total collapse. If not, then the new coaching staff will probably have a high pick in the future to try again.
The real problem is that there are not many viable options out there. It is so bad that Robert Griffin III has been discussed as a possible target for the Cowboys in free agency. There is also talk that Washington may choose to use the transition tag on Kirk Cousins and see if another team wants to pay the price for him, but that is another example of the price tag likely being far too high, not even counting the valid question of just how viable he is to be your future. The team does have Kellen Moore, but despite his vocal defenders, his ceiling seems to be QB2, and it is far from given that he can manage that. If Dallas doesn't pull the trigger in the draft, the chance of them having real hope for a future QB on the roster this year is very slim indeed.
It may seem a pessimistic view, but the idea is to look at the reality of the situation. The harsh reality is that a franchise quarterback is the rarest animal in the NFL, and there are some major risks anytime you try and acquire one. The draft consists of hundred of moving pieces. Things have to fall into place for the Cowboys to find that quarterback of the future this year. We may hope they will, but the path is not an easy one. That is just how football goes.