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Cowboys Draft Strategy: Don't Let Elite Be The Enemy Of Success

The decision facing Dallas with the fourth-overall pick does not look any easier now than it did a couple of months ago. How can the team make the most of this rare opportunity?

Is Ezekiel Elliott elite? Or does it matter?
Is Ezekiel Elliott elite? Or does it matter?
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

As horrible as the Great Debacle of 2015 was for the Dallas Cowboys to suffer through, it did leave them with a couple of good things. They will face what should be one of the easier schedules in the league this year. More importantly, they have the fourth pick in the draft to use. That is not a position they have been in for a very long time, and it is crucial that they maximize the opportunity.

Draft capital, just like any other thing of value that can be "spent" or traded, can be used wisely or foolishly. Jim Scott looked at how much the Los Angeles Rams and the Philadelphia Eagles spent to move into the first two spots on Thursday. If they get quarterbacks who go on to have careers like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, then it was worth it. However, the acumen of the Rams and Eagles in building their rosters around the quarterback has not recently looked anything like the jobs done by the New England Patriots or Green Bay Packers, and now they are missing a lot of the most important resource to do that, not only in this draft, but in future ones. And no disrespect to Jared Goff or Carson Wentz, the usual suspects to go to the Rams and Eagles, but the odds of one of them going on to that kind of career are not good. Both of them doing so is almost certain to never happen.

For the Cowboys, the best news might be that the perceived value of Goff and Wentz is based entirely on the position they play, not their actual level of talent when compared to the rest of the 2016 draft class. Their selections will just push top level players down towards Dallas.

A lot of people are looking for the Cowboys to come out of the first round with a truly elite talent. Who that should be is the subject of a very hot debate that is going to rage right up until the name is announced. At that point, the debate will become how happy or enraged we should be about it.

However, I have an issue or two with the whole "elite" thing. First, from a general viewpoint, saying someone is elite coming out of college is such a crapshoot. Many of the supposed "sure things" go on to bust or just have mediocre to decent careers. And there are players just about every year from the latter stages of the draft who go on to become truly elite. No matter how good the scouting is or how much time is spent reviewing video and measurables, there is far more art than science in drafting, and way more luck involved than most are comfortable with admitting. Trying to make a choice between players based on "eliteness" is not really a workable approach.

And specific to this year, there are not a lot of prospects that really scream "elite". It can be argued rather persuasively that they really are none. It is hard to say if that is really more typical of most years than all the draft experts acknowledge, but it is certainly a more widely discussed aspect of this class than most. There is a small (and to some extent shrinking) group of players that are seen as candidates for the Cowboys to take, but how should they approach selecting the name to send to the podium?

That is where the title of this article comes in (besides exhibiting a certain weakness for wordplay on the part of the author). Dallas should not be, and hopefully is not, seeking the most elite player. They need to focus on the best fit for them based on the existing roster and what they plan to do as a team this year to get as far as they can.

So how could this be applied to the players most commonly seen as in play for the Cowboys at four? (Sorry if one you favor is left off, but the principle applies to them.)

Paxton Lynch. Conventional wisdom says he is not a top five pick, but the Rams and Eagles have kicked the CW right where it hurts the most in going after Goff and Wentz (assuming the CW even has those names right). If you need a future franchise quarterback, Lynch is now the last, best hope this year, and that may be taking a bit of a chance. Given the scarcity of that most valuable of all NFL resources, if he is still there at four (and he may not be if some other QB hungry team gets swept up in trade fever), the Cowboys have to think long and hard about whether they believe he is going to be one in the next two to four years. If they think so, this is likely to be a once in a generation opportunity to get a successor to Tony Romo without having to give up a big chunk of your draft, the way Los Angeles and Philadelphia have done. It is certainly a high risk/high reward situation, but Dallas does have the luxury of a strong position in the remainder of the draft to upgrade the roster.

Jalen Ramsey. The big question is what do you draft him for? As a defensive back with position flexibility, he may be the most talented player this year, but he also is making noise about wanting to be a cornerback, a much more lucrative position than safety. If safety is where he would be most valuable to the team, then he is a square peg fighting against being plugged in that round hole. And if the team is looking at him primarily as a corner, then there is evidence emerging that there are actually better options out there. The interviews with him may be much more important than with any other player this year.

Joey Bosa. He has become a major point of controversy, and his selection might generate the most fan umbrage. He also may be the most finished product in the draft, with a very high floor but perhaps not much ceiling for growth. Rookie defensive ends are not notably productive as a rule, so that growth potential may be a big factor to consider. Countering that, he may have as little bust potential of any of the current crop, if he has indeed cleaned up his past issues with party drugs. And no one can deny that the Cowboys need more pass rush.

Myles Jack. First, how much faith do you have in his knee, and what are the chances it will hold up? The medical evaluation is the biggest thing in his case. Once you get past that, you have to consider how much faith the team has in Rolando McClain performing up to his ability while staying out of trouble with the league's substance abuse policy. A clean and healthy RoMac, paired with a healthy Sean Lee, is not going to give Jack much chance to make a big impact this year. Additionally, linebacker is not one of the positions seen as typically being where it is worth investing a top five pick.

Ezekiel Elliott. If linebacker is not often valued that high, running back draws absolute scorn from the CW for a top draft slot. The position has been devalued, the playing life of NFL running backs is the shortest of all positions, and you can find good talent later in the draft more often than just about any other position. The question becomes whether Elliott is that good and could bring enough to the table to make him a good choice for the Cowboys. To address that, consider for a minute or two this video from the 2014 college season describing what makes Elliott so good as a running back.

Did the words "zone blocking" jump out at you in that? This is why so many think Dallas should throw the arguments against going with a runner at four out the window and take a near-perfect fit for their scheme. Add in that he will just be 21 when the season starts, and even the age factor is less of a concern for him than many other running backs.

Trade back. Given the nature of this year's draft class, seen as deepest in the second through early fourth rounds, getting some more picks in that range is an attractive option that the Cowboys should definitely weigh. And if they find the right partner, they could still get one of the players listed above while reaping extra picks. With Lynch and Laremy Tunsil in the mix at four, as well as the other players listed above, it might not be that hard to pull off.

The final decision needs to be based on who the team believes offers the most help, not just this season, but hopefully through a second contract. Then they need to hope and pray they get it right.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB

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