The Dallas Cowboys are trying to put the Great Debacle of 2015 behind them and return to the playoffs. Despite how badly things turned out last season, the team stayed true to its philosophy of using free agency cautiously. It did have the advantage of picking very high in the NFL Draft this year, and in the eyes of many they threw caution to the wind there. Despite the widely held perception that the team needed to address the defense much more than the offense, they used the fourth-overall pick to take the best running back coming out of college this year, then chose a player who is not expected to play at all this season at 34. These two picks have generated some widely divergent views among media analysts and fans alike. It is not surprising to see the two players, Ezekiel Elliott and Jaylon Smith, often cited as the best and worst picks they made. But one take, from the Pro Football Focus site, has them in an order that is somewhat surprising.
Best: Jaylon Smith, LB, Notre Dame (Rd. 2, No. 34)
Obviously we can’t account for his injury diagnosis, but if Smith is truly able to return in year two fully healthy, the Cowboys nabbed the second-highest linebacker on our board all the way in the second round.
Worst: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State (Rd. 1, No. 4)
Passing over Jalen Ramsey — who also plays a desperate position of need — in favor of a running back isn’t something we can endorse. There’s no doubt Elliott will be successful in Dallas, but so would a handful of other backs in this class.
Not exactly the way most of us would describe them.
We all understand that trying to "grade" draft classes or free agent signings at this point in the offseason is a futile exercise. Until the season plays out, we have no way to know if free agents will help the team or be cost-effective. And it takes at least three years to start to get a read of any accuracy on how the draftees will work out. All the discussion about need and projections of which blayers will be stars or busts are based on past history. As we know too well, that does not guarantee future performance.
But perhaps the biggest problem with everything is that it seems to get too compartmentalized. Take the whole discussion of need for the Cowboys. It looks at each position group and tries to analyze it on an island. What is far more important is how the entire roster fits together. No one player is going to make a significant difference in how a team does. You have to try and put the entire picture together. And then it all comes down to one simple factor in making a judgment on how the team does: How many games does it win?
This seems to be the driving factor in the decisions made by the Cowboys, particularly the first two picks of the draft. Elliott was taken because he, more than any other player, was seen as having the ability to come in and actually move the needle on the won-loss record. He clearly is seen as an upgrade at running back over Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris. And it is an odd contradiction that, despite the often-referenced devaluation of the position in the draft, running backs are better able to come into the league and perform at a high level than any other players. As talented a defensive back as Jalen Ramsey is, a cornerback (or safety, depending on how is eventually used) is just not going to be able to influence the won-loss numbers as much as Elliott should.
Smith is the opposite, a clear investment in the future. He is not likely to have any impact this year, but he represents a top-five talent that is expected to be available when Rolando McClain's contract is up, and at a very team-friendly cost on a second-round contract. There is the risk of him not panning out, of course, but in hindsight, he seems to have as much chance of success as either of the two previous second round picks for Dallas, DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory. Both were limited in their rookie years by injury, and of course neither is expected to be available to start the season this year thanks to their suspensions. It is quite likely that Smith may provide more impact on the field by the end of his sophomore season than either Lawrence or Gregory will have accomplished in their first two years. No draft pick comes with any guarantee of working out. The gamble on Smith and his regenerating nerve looks quite reasonable when you put it in that context.
This overall approach also comes into play in how the Cowboys did address the defense this year. It may or may not succeed, but they are banking on having some good talent returning and adding some solid if not spectacular pieces. The secondary returns Orlando Scandrick, Brandon Carr, and Morris Claiborne at cornerback. Based on Scandrick's 2014 season and how Carr and Claiborne did under pretty severe duress last year, that position is not in bad shape, just needing depth. Byron Jones is now the starting free safety, and his rookie season showed great promise. Strong safety is now the weak link, but Barry Church is good in some aspects, plus the addition of Kavon Frazier in the draft offers some hope of an upgrade over J.J. Wilcox and his poor understanding of geometry.
The starting MIKE and WILL linebacker spots, the most crucial ones when the team has to play in the nickel more than the "base" alignment, seem to be in solid shape with McClain and Sean Lee. That leaves the defensive line. With the suspensions, the Cowboys have to be looking for the best possible group to emerge. There are no proven sack masters on the roster, but a healthy Tyrone Crawford, free agents Cedric Thornton and Benson Mayowa, and the highly athletic David Irving give the team some material to work with. Terrell McClain is also expected back, and if he can stay healthy, he may be a more important piece at the 1-tech than most realize. Add in draftees Maliek Collins and Charles Tapper, and the Cowboys may be able to find enough pass rush to suffice this year - especially if the offense is as potent as it is expected to be with a healthy Tony Romo and Dez Bryant back on the field.
It all has to prove itself in the games, of course, but the continuing complaints that Dallas did not sufficiently address the defense ring a bit hollow when you put everything into context. Those also disregard the fact that the staff planned to do more than they were able to as the draft played out. The intention on day two of the draft was to take Emmanuel Ogbah at 34, with Kevin Dodd as a fallback. Both of those players went in the two picks immediately before the Cowboys went on the clock. Smith was the third option once the team decided not to trade back. There are 31 other teams in the draft, and once you get past the first few picks, all you can do is work with what remains, or spend extra draft capital to move up. That does not always work out, as we saw with the trade to acquire Claiborne, who fought injuries his first three seasons before finally starting to show some of his ability last year. Sometimes, though, having to take a different player than you really wanted works out. In 2014, the Cowboys were all set to take linebacker Ryan Shazier at 16, but the PIttsburgh Steelers got him at 15, forcing Dallas to settle for Zack Martin - and that worked out pretty well for both teams.
Every draft pick and every free agent acquisition is a choice the team has to make, and each one affects the ones that follow. There are compromises all along the way. If the team could see into the future, it could certainly do better than it did. But it could also probably have done far worse. There are a lot of things that are far more important than what particular player was drafted at a given spot, or what free agent was signed on a given day. Health is almost certainly the biggest factor for an NFL team, and also completely impossible to forecast.
Now we have to wait and see how it all comes together. Many decisions have to be made about the roster, and we are months away from them. It will not be until the season winds down that we will know the verdict on the 2016 Cowboys. Ignore the predictions as best you can. It is going to be a long ride, and we can just hope it is a good one.
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