Except for those two teams that still have a game to play, the NFL has now turned its eyes towards the coming draft. The Senior Bowl is underway, and that is just one piece in the puzzle for teams as they start to evaluate talent and figure out how to spend those precious draft picks. Each team has a different strategy. For the Dallas Cowboys, the basic outline of their approach is to use the draft as the primary route for roster improvement (as opposed to free agency), and be more concerned with best player available, factoring in how they would fit in Dallas as well as need. There is no such thing as a pure best player approach, but the Cowboys have weighed that more heavily than most in recent years.
However, there is a lot more that goes into the decision, and 2017 is going to be a much more demanding process for the Cowboys than 2016, especially with the first-round pick. When they held the fourth overall slot, it was quite simple, really. All they needed were their top four names, in order, and then they just took the best remaining. Based on the digging done here at BTB that revealed what appears to be the 2016 draft board, it looks like Ezekiel Elliott was the first choice anyway.
But pick number 28 presents a much bigger challenge. First off, you assume that most of the picks before that are gong to take the real cream of the crop out of the picture. Second, the Cowboys pare the first round down to about 15 to 20 names (they appeared to have 16 last year). The odds are pretty good that there will not be a player with a first-round grade remaining when they go on the clock at 28. If there is, they take him and run, but they have to have a plan in place since that is just not that likely.
However, before we look at the alternatives without a first-round grade available, we have to consider the implications if there is one (or more) slider. Last year, their first-round picks outside of Elliott included three defensive ends, a defensive tackle, three linebackers (including Leonard Floyd, an OLB that might have been considered as an EDGE and who had seven sacks as a rookie), three cornerbacks, two quarterbacks, and two offensive tackles. That strongly reflected the needs of the team last year. It is entirely possible that the Cowboys could go for a player that would create some consternation, such as an OT. But if they remain true to their board, we have to be ready for that. One of the main goals the team has with Will McClay in charge of getting the board right is to make sure that the coaching and scouting staffs are fully in agreement with what they are doing. Just be warned if a name gets called out that does not fit the perceived defense-first slant Dallas is expected to have.
That is still a bit of a long shot. The most likely thing is that the Cowboys will not see a true first-round talent (in their estimation) at 28. That leaves them with three basic options:
- Trade up. This is something that might be seen as attractive if one of their first-round targets slips past, say, the 20th pick. That starts getting into a range where the team can move up without gutting themselves. They could not reasonably expect to trade up enough to get a true blue chip, like a Myles Garrett, without severely mortgaging their future. While it sometimes works out, as it did for the Atlanta Falcons and Julio Jones, it is far more likely to not pay off as well. The trades to take Jared Goff and Carson Wentz are examples of the risk involved. While both might still pay off for their teams, they certainly did not pan out immediately, and it will likely be a few years before we can say whether or not the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles were smart with their draft capital. But moving up a handful of spots is a different matter. Although the Cowboys seem less eager to do so, they have had some success with this, Dez Bryant being the best example. However, they also moved up to get Morris Claiborne. He had the talent, but injuries severely limited his contributions. It always represents a risk, but it will depend on who is available.
- Trade down. This was the approach that netted them both Travis Frederick and Terrance Williams in 2013, one that paid off handsomely. However, the question here is how far back to move. If they trade out of the first round completely, they lose that fifth-year option. That is important to the Cowboys, as their plans for Zack Martin show. It is also something other teams value as well, as the Seattle Seahawks showed in taking the trade with the Denver Broncos that was used to get Paxton Lynch for Denver, rather than the trade Dallas offered. The Cowboys package had more value according to draft value tables, but would have caused the Seahawks to lose that fifth-year option. The most likely way the Cowboys could wind up moving back would be if someone at the tail end of the draft felt there was value in jumping ahead three or four spaces. But one team that might be interested would be the New England Patriots, and it just always seems that making trades with them never works out well. And despite the value of that fifth-year option, the Cowboys might still want to trade completely out of the first round if they feel the talent pool is very rich at the spots they are being offered in trade. In a year where Dallas has only seven picks to work with, that may be additional utility that they would still consider.
- Take a second-round talent with the first-round pick. That may be the most likely outcome, and here it will depend on how well the Cowboys have scouted talent. Frederick is the most successful example of taking a player that turned out to be worth the investment. This is one more sign of the proficiency of the scouting department in recent years, and if one of their strongest options in the second round is available, this may be the safest way to go.
The Cowboys will face some similar decisions as the draft progresses since they pick late in the subsequent rounds, but as the draft goes along, the chances of finding a player of appropriate worth increases. There is a lot of evidence many teams are just not as good at drafting as Dallas, plus last year indicates that they tend to have more players on the board in later rounds. Last year, they had 24 names with second-round grades, and 26 in both the third and fourth rounds. The odds are very good they will be able to stick with their board past the first round when their turn comes. It is worth noting that in 2016, every one of their draft picks that could be identified on the board was picked after where Dallas had them slotted, with the exception of Charles Tapper, and he was just about four slots later. He also serves as a clear indication that sometimes need does drive things, since Anthony Brown was just ahead of him on the board, but the Cowboys took a chance on going for a pass rusher that paid off as Brown still fell to them in the sixth round.
But the first round is where the Cowboys have been most proficient for several years now. If they are to continue their string of finding quality players there, it will take a lot more skill than with Elliott’s pick. It will make for some interesting watching this year.