Over the years, the Dallas Cowboys have come up with some, shall we say, interesting draft selections. They will take a player much higher than just about anyone has them rated. They also will take some chances on players with injury history or off-field issues. This has led to some notable successes - and some disappointing failures. Some members of both the media and the fan base accuse them of thinking they are smarter than the rest of the league. Thy take great pride in digging up "hidden" gems in the draft (and UDFA signings), and you probably remember that saying about what pride precedes.
They certainly made some picks this year that would seen to fit into that template. Jaylon Smith, Rico Gathers, and even to an extent Ezekiel Elliott flew in the face of conventional wisdom.
But just because a lot of people say it is so, it doesn't mean that they have it right. First of all, the idea of figuring things out better than the other 31 teams is, after all, the very basis of success in the draft. It is easy to take a blue-chip player with a top five pick, but finding someone who can perform well in the fourth round takes a lot more work. Some teams do well with this, but all have some notable flops. Even the best teams in the leagues have bad draft classes, because this is such an inexact art. And despite the growing use of analytics and SPARQ scores, there is much more art than science about drafting.
It also entails sitting down with a player, his college coaches and teammates, and others who see who the real person is to determine if they are likely to be a dedicated, driven player who realizes that work on the practice field and in the weight room is far more important than just being a really talented college standout. Amazingly, teams can completely miss enough signs and red flags to deck out a parade in Pyongyang and still take players who are failed rocket launches waiting to blow up (see the Browns and Johnny Manziel). Dallas does not exactly have a sterling record here, either, based on what is going on with Randy Gregory.
But they also have gotten it right, as they did with La'el Collins. When the shocking and, as it turns out, extremely misleading news about his murdered ex-girlfriend broke out just prior to the 2015 draft, Dallas put together a small army of scouts and investigators and invaded Baton Rouge. They quickly determined that there was nothing at all connecting Collins to the tragedy, and that let them be there first to woo him as a UDFA, and to commit to the awesome full court press Jerry Jones mounts so well, with gratifying results.
The best example of getting it right in recent years, however, is probably Travis Frederick. When the Cowboys took him with the 31st overall pick, there was outright pointing and laughing going on. Now, as his draft class is eligible for the fifth year option for first rounders, many teams are taking a pass on players taken well above him, and he is an All Pro. Dallas is having the last laugh with him, and the mirth should continue for years to come.
There is also another element that enters in. You don't have to take my word for it. Here's some random guy on Twitter you can absolutely trust.
@FBallGameplan scheme is the most underrated part of evaluation every year. Hence why many NFL teams scout for their scheme, not in general.— Brandon Thorn (@VeteranScout) October 16, 2015
The point is that I don't want to claim this is my own sudden insight. Teams have to look at players as something other than a generic body to plug in. Someone who is a great fit as a space eating nose tackle in some 3-4 defenses would be next to useless in Rod Marinelli's scheme, which favors quick-twitch athletes with speed and non-stop motors. That was also a factor in Frederick's selection, since Dallas traded back in the first because they didn't see a good fit to take at their original spot.
Risk and return also play a big role. Dallas is much more willing to accept risk than many other teams, because the GM is not going to fire himself for making a mistake. (Obviously, if you go back over the last 20 years and count those mistakes.) A lot of teams are much more cautious, because the people picking the name to go to the podium know how quickly the nameplate on their office can be taken down.
All these things are part of the equation, and it is a unique calculation for each NFL team. So how did it come into play this year?
The only controversy about Elliott was his position. We have all heard ad nauseum about the devaluation of the position in the pass-drunk NFL. But for him, his fit in the Dallas offense served as a force multiplier. One of the most cited arguments was how so many good running backs in the draft could thrive behind the Cowboys' line. But it stands to reason that the best back in the draft would likely do better than anyone else. Yes, aging misfit (for the scheme) Darren McFadden got over 1,000 yards. But the run-first, clock-eating philosophy Dallas rode to the 2014 playoffs wants someone who is going to go over 1,600 - maybe quite a bit. No one in the draft was going to do that better than Elliott. And the brain trust, under the leadership of Jerry Jones, doesn't care what others think. They made a decision to go with the best player who also was about as perfect a fit for the team, in all ways, as you are going to find. He is also about the safest pick as far as being successful as well.
One thing that appears to have been big for all the draftees, including Zeke, was character. There are no Gregorys in this bunch. The only blip at all was a DUI for Dak Prescott, and the idea of a college student having one mistake involving alcohol was logically seen as something less than exceptional. Across the board, the nine players seem to exhibit high character, intelligence, and/or leadership.
The second-round pick was bucking the trend even more. What the Cowboys knew about Smith's knee and when they knew it is shaping up to be a major story in itself, but the fact the team was willing to accept a possible "redshirt" year is pure Dallas. His fit with the team seems undeniable, and the thought of him lining up for a couple of seasons next to Sean Lee (or more) is drool-worthy. The risk of him never recovering seems to be very small, at least in the eyes of the staff. And if he is at all close to what he was in college, teams are going to be kicking themselves that they did not take him before the Cowboys could. John Mara may require hospitalization.
Charles Tapper is a case of the team looking beyond the way he was used in college. Despite playing in a somewhat baffling scheme at Oklahoma, he was still productive, and he had a very high SPARQ score (hat tip to OCC, who is working on one of his most excellent SPARQ pieces). He hits the 85th percentile, and given how well he did produce in college, he looks to have been seriously undervalued by the teams that passed on him. In a class that was somewhat weak on edge rushers, he may turn out to be the best value for his pick of any of the draftees.
And if Tapper is a very good find on the SPARQ charts, Darius Jackson is even better. He is also a bit of a throwback to the days when Dallas would scour smaller schools for hidden talent, which is something the team has gotten away from. But as a sixth-round compensatory pick, he is well worth the small expenditure of draft capital. He also represents the team shrugging off that CW. Double-dipping at running back only makes sense if you are fully committed to the run game.
The final example of taking a chance is basketball player Rico Gathers. He could be a potent red zone weapon, and Stephen Jones has mentioned giving him a look as a defensive end as well. Obviously he is the longest shot of all the draftees, but the potential payoff is as big as, well, him. And the stories about him if he does succeed just write themselves (which is kinda cool if you write a lot of stories about the team).
Did the Cowboys get too cute with some of these decisions? We won't know for a while, but even if they don't all pay off, two or three really successful careers out of this group would make it worth it. One thing is certain, this was a wildly unpredictable and entertaining draft. And this week, we get out first look at rookie mini-camp to see what may start to develop.