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Cowboys 2016 Draft: How And Why It Happened This Way

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A lot of draft analysis seems to focus on each pick in isolation, but there is an organic way the draft develops over the course of the rounds.

It's not about one guy at the top. It's about all nine.
It's not about one guy at the top. It's about all nine.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

We have a love/hate relationship with draft grades. We love it when they give the Dallas Cowboys good marks, and hate it when they don't. It can be frustrating and is really rather pointless. We are flooded with them right after the draft despite things like this brilliantly pithy bit of truth.

The reality is that there is a false dichotomy regarding best player and need. The two are intertwined and the relationship changes as the draft goes on, with need becoming more of a consideration the deeper into the draft you go while BPA recedes of necessity as the talent pool is depleted. You aren't going to find super-talented near-certain prospects with sixth-round compensatory picks, while you have to become more aware of any holes you still have on your roster after the earlier selections.

Now that we have had a little time to digest the Dallas draft, it seems appropriate to go through the nine draftees they came away with and look at how each one fit into what we think we know about how the front office acquires players.

Round 1, pick 4. Ezekiel Elliott, running back, Ohio State University.

The first round is where teams should be really looking at taking the best talent they can, even if there are other positions that represent a greater need (at least as those are perceived). That was clearly a huge factor in taking Elliott, who Jerry Jones claimed was the top player on the Cowboys' draft board. It is a clear exhibit of the approach they take in free agency, where the stated goal is to fill needs prior to the draft to free them to focus more on BPA. Defense was clearly seen as a far greater need than taking the top running back in the draft to run behind an offensive line that demonstrated a true talent at turning sows' ears into silk purses. They made Darren McFadden into one of the league's best performers despite him being a bad fit for the scheme and not doing well with yards after contact.

Elliott's selection also brought up another false dichotomy among many writers, that of winning now versus building for the future. There is also something from Twitter that really encapsulates this.

This seems to have been a big part of the decision to take Zeke instead of Jalen Ramsey. Elliott's impact was seen as bigger. He can get 20 or more touches a game. He provides a huge synergy as well. If you have an offensive line that is the Lamborghini of the NFL, you don't go out and buy bargain market rims to put on it. You get the top of the line wheels to set off that machine. Yes, there were many other running backs in the draft that could thrive behind that line (and the Cowboys took one of them when they double-dipped at the position in the sixth round). But Elliott should maximize what can be done in the running game. And he fits in with some clear needs as well. The Cowboys were very ineffective in short yardage situations in 2015, partly due to other teams stacking the box in the games Tony Romo missed since they had no fear of the passing game. Elliott not only has the ability to defeat the eight man box, but will have a passing game with Romo and Dez Bryant leading the way to keep defenses honest. And as a young back with fairly low mileage in college, he has a good chance of making his second contract in spite of the short careers runners have in the league. Still, this led to a lot of complaints about the team ignoring the defense with this pick, such as the curmudgeonly declarations of Rick Gosselin.

As with all the draft choices, this pick has to prove itself on the field. But the calculations of the front office have a good chance of paying off - in a major way.

Round 2, pick 34. Jaylon Smith, linebacker, Notre Dame.

Here was where things got really dynamic in the draft, with the Cowboys going through several plans before making the final decision. Plan A was to trade away this and the third-round pick to go for Paxton Lynch (thank you football gods for John Elway, the Broncos, and the Seahawks, who kept this from happening). Plan B was Emmanuel Ogbah, and Plan C was Kevin Dodd, but they went in picks 32 and 33. Plan D appears to have been a trade back, but that didn't pan out, either.

This is an example of how quickly the draft strategy is forced to evolve and adapt. At pick four, the options were very simple, especially with the first two picks earmarked for quarterbacks that were probably not in the mix for Dallas that high. But by pick 34, a lot of the top targets from their board are gone. In hindsight, they had to have done some game planning for Smith being their top-rated player at the pick. We now believe they had some information on his medical situation that led them to believe this was a reasonable gamble to take. And they were one of the two teams where the people making the decision to do so were without fear of the consequences if it didn't pan out. (The other team was the Patriots, who are reported to have been looking to take Smith if he got to them in the second, which also forced the Cowboys' hand to some point.)

It still is a risky move to make, and is the main source of the many bad draft grades awarded to Dallas. There is a chance it does not work out, and we will all be wondering "what if" about who else the Cowboys could have used the pick on instead of chasing a badly injured player facing a likely "redshirt" year. For now we hope for the best and try to have faith in the brain trust.

This may help a little.

WE INTERRUPT OUR FACT AND DATA DRIVEN POST FOR A BRIEF FLIGHT OF FANCY.

Imagine for just a moment if Smith is seen working with cords on the sidelines during OTAs and mini-camp. Heads will explode. John Mara will file an immediate complaint with Roger Goodell. Not with any basis, but just because he will be so furious that Jerry Jones may have gotten one over on him and the rest of the league.

WE NOW RETURN YOU TO OUR REGULAR ATTEMPT AT OBJECTIVE COWBOYS COVERAGE.

Round 3, pick 67. Maliek Colllns, DT, Nebraska.

Here is where "need" started to creep in as more of a factor in the pick. With the first pick going to offense and the second pick not expected to contribute this season, the need to get some defensive help became overpowering. The defensive end position had been picked over by this point, so the Cowboys went with what appears to be their approach for the defensive line this year, adding interior pressure to compensate for a lack of edge rush. Collins also can help free up players like Tyrone Crawford and David Irving to move outside, at least while Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence serve their suspensions (although the athletic Irving may well find a new home as a defensive end).

Collins also demonstrates the confluence of scheme fit and philosophy for the Cowboys. There were several other defensive tackles available that were more highly ranked by various analysts, but many were 1-technique players. Dallas does not believe in using premium picks on nose tackle types. Collins shows good burst and quick twitch characteristics, which is the Marinelli mold.

Another aspect of this pick is who the Cowboys did not take. Having missed out on Lynch, they were now looking to take Connor Cook. Many anticipated, with a certain amount of trepidation, that Dallas would use this pick to take him before someone else did. There had also been a small and dreaded chance that they could have pulled the trigger on him at 34.  However, at 67 they elected to see if he would slide a bit more and go after him with their next selection. It almost worked, but then the Raiders happened, trading one spot ahead of the Cowboys to take Cook off the board.

Round 4, Pick 101. Charles Tapper, DE, Oklahoma.

With Cook out of the picture, the Cowboys got a little clever with Tapper. They certainly did that with Smith, and may have overreached there (although we fervently hope not). But Tapper represents a much wiser move. He is a talented player who also fits the mold for the Marinelli defense. And he appears to have been rather badly misused in the confusing Oklahoma defensive scheme. This could well be a case of being able to look beyond just the college resume at the quality of the individual, and there seems to be a very good chance this pick will pay off. Many of the draft graders see this as the best pick of all for Dallas - for whatever that is worth.

Round 4, pick 135 (compensatory). Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State.

This pick was probably the best place in the draft for the Cowboys to finally change their trend of not drafting quarterbacks. Not too high, and those comp picks are kinda gravy anyway. While the odds are long indeed that Prescott is a future franchise passer, he has tremendous promise to upgrade the backup QB position. We all learned to our dismay how important that can be for the team, and despite the repeated statements of faith in Kellen Moore, this pick indicates that the coaching staff sees things more realistically than that. While the 2015 season was something of a step back for him in ways, despite some deceptively good stats, he was also playing on a much less talented roster than the year before. One of his greatest strengths is his intelligence, something a quarterback has to have in Scott Linehan's system.

Round 6, pick 189. Anthony Brown, CB, Purdue.

Now the Cowboys were to the point of the draft where they needed to address any team needs that had not been taken care of already, and that was pretty much the secondary. Brown was another player who was on a pretty bad team in college. Also, at this stage of the draft, the team is no longer looking at players that have a high probability of starting anytime soon, if ever. Sixth-rounders who make the practice squad are actually a decent use of the draft capital. Brown still has a chance to break onto the roster at the fifth or possibly sixth corner, depending on how many are carried, and can also make a case for himself with special teams performance.

Round 6, pick 212 (compensatory). Kavon Frazier, S, Central Michigan.

Now down to their non-tradeable (for the last time) comp picks to close things out, the Cowboys start to take a few more chances on their picks. This is the first player taken from a small school, which Dallas has avoided in recent years. He is a strong safety type, and will be putting pressure on both Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox, which means he not only has to pay the run well and show some upgrade in pass coverage, he has to also demonstrate special teams value. He fills the last major need category for the team as well as being another athletic standout. The Cowboys can break out of their preferred pattern in one area, but will still check as many boxes as they can.

Round 6, pick 216 (compensatory). Darius Jackson, RB, Eastern Michigan.

The Cowboys must have had a scout wandering around the small school campuses in Michigan. Jackson is a really interesting pick given the Elliott selection. He hints at the team still seeing a real opportunity to upgrade the running back corps, and he is a great fit for the ZBS scheme. He has the opportunity to challenge both McFadden and the recovering Lance Dunbar for a spot on the roster, and if the Cowboys carry four backs (there is currently no fullback on the roster, which may open up a slot), he has a very good shot at making the 53. The fact that running back was the only position to see a double-dip also reinforces the determination to reestablish the dominant running game that led to success in 2014.

Round 6, pick 217 (compensatory). Rico Gathers, TE Baylor.

The staff will deny that they would ever use a draft pick, even a freebie this far down the list, just for fun, but you can't help but have a tiny suspicion that it played just a teensy role here. A basketball forward who hasn't played organized football since junior high, Gathers still has some fascinating potential. At 6-8 and weighing somewhere between 275 and 290, depending on what source you check, he is simply huge. He may not have honed football skills, but he is certainly familiar with catching a ball thrown to him in traffic. And if you want to go for a jump ball in the end zone, who is better than a former basketball player to go up and grab it? As for blocking, that may never be his main assignment, but it would seem that it would take a bit of effort just to get around this guy. He is pretty much the definition of a late-round flyer, but the logic behind his choice is certainly understandable. And you are not going to find many real standouts anywhere after over 200 players have already been taken.

That is how the draft flowed and developed for Dallas. It started with going for the absolute best players overall, then shifted more each round to reflecting remaining needs. It wound up with a couple of speculative picks with some fascinating upside, albeit a bit far-fetched for Gathers. The players taken before Dallas' pick of course dictated to an extent what they felt they should do to get the best value at the spot.

How did they do? Outside of the Smith and Gathers selections, these look to be excellent fits for what Dallas wants to do on the field. The verdict on Smith will depend strictly on his recovery, while Gathers is a true wild card that will either be an amazing story or a forgotten footnote. Had Ogbah or Dodd made it to 34, this would probably have wound up as one of the most highly regarded groups in the league (although some of the subsequent picks would have changed). Most importantly, all of the first eight picks are players that fit the scheme and overall philosophy of the Cowboys, which should increase the chances of both short and long term success.

That is the plan, anyway.

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