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The 2014 draft serves as proof that the Cowboys know what they’re doing

A look back at the Cowboys 2014 draft helps remind us that good things aren’t obvious right away.

Dallas Cowboys v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Do you remember that time a few years ago where the Cowboys almost made a huge mistake with their first-round draft pick? Now, many of you may be thinking I’m talking about the possibility of taking Johnny Manziel in the 2014 NFL Draft instead of Zack Martin. In fact, you may even have bought into the silliness of people in the war room having to chase Jerry Jones as he attempted to hand in the draft card. But alas, that’s not the dodged bullet I’m referring to. Contrary to popular believe, the Cowboys weren’t anywhere close to drafting Manziel.

The almost-gaffe I’m talking about happened the year prior. When the Cowboys were on the clock in the first round, they ran into a problem. Defensive tackle Sharif Floyd was still available and the Cowboys scouts were high on him as a former assistant personnel director, who was in charge of the draft board, had him rated fifth on their board. When your #5 guy is still there at 18 overall, that seems like a no-brainer, right?

Not so fast. The coaches didn’t think Floyd was a good fit for the Cowboys scheme and ultimately convinced the higher powers to pass on Floyd. Dallas would end up trading back and selecting soon-to-be four-time Pro Bowler, Travis Frederick. It ended up being a great decision. Despite being selected toward the end of the first round, it is Frederick that has turned out to be one of the top five players in the 2013 draft.

The Cowboys learned something from the discord between the coaching staff and scouting department in 2013. They responded by giving Will McClay the responsibility of overseeing the draft board going forward. Most fans would agree that McClay has done a fantastic job, but some of these results aren’t always evident right away. A perfect example is his very first year in charge of the board the following season in 2014.

We all know how great of a pick Zack Martin was. For the second straight season the Cowboys managed to get one of the most talented players in the entire draft despite being slated to pick in the middle of the round. Martin’s career has been outstanding to this point. He’s been a Pro Bowler every season he’s been in the league and is likely to become the highest-paid guard in the NFL real soon. It shouldn’t be understated that the Cowboys picked 16th in the draft and got a player that is now arguably the best guard in the entire NFL.

For a couple years now, the belief that the Cowboys success in the 2014 draft has been mostly limited to Martin. The current season should open a lot of eyes and serve otherwise to how this draft is so much more than that.

When the Cowboys traded away their third-round pick to move up to select DeMarcus Lawrence, many fans (present company included) weren’t that thrilled about the decision. It wasn’t so much a knock on Lawrence as it was the fact that the Cowboys still had needs on defense and that extra pick could’ve been put to good use. But the brain trusts in Dallas were high on Lawrence and felt he was a steal at 34th overall. It’s taken a while to see it, but it looks like they were right. Check out the comparison with the other five edge rushers that were taken before him.

When we look at these numbers, there are few things that jump out at us. First off, let’s take a moment to relish in the fact that the Philadelphia Eagles squandered their first-round pick. Second, Lawrence has more sacks than every one of these players not named Khalil Mack, including the first overall pick in the 2014 draft, Jadeveon Clowney. Not only that, but Lawrence has also done this despite playing fewer games than all these players with the exception of Clowney. Tank has missed some time, which has slowed his development. He broke his foot during his rookie season and spent the first half of the year on IR. He played well his second year and recorded eight sacks. It was starting to look promising, but then he had back surgery in the offseason of 2016 and was never healthy. Though his back still bothered him throughout the season, he tried to play through it, but was non-effective. He had back surgery yet again this last offseason. While Stephen Jones said he wasn’t alarmed by it, many of us fans were. Doubt started to creep in as it was possible that the Cowboys second-round pick wasn’t going to work out.

But guess what? It’s working out nicely.

Lawrence is healthy and he’s tearing up the league. The question is no longer, “will he pan out” but rather, “can the Cowboys afford to keep him?” - in which case this writer thinks, “yes, we can.”

When you can get two starters in any given draft, you’ve done a good job. The Cowboys got two stars in the 2014 draft. But wait, there’s more.

The selection of Anthony Hitchens was also met with criticism when he was taken in the fourth round. Not only was he relatively unknown, but it was believed that the Cowboys drafted a player whose ceiling was a viable backup linebacker. He was undersized and just didn’t wow anyone with athleticism. His draft projection was seventh round or priority free agent, yet the Cowboys reached for him in the fourth round? But for what the Cowboys were looking for, he was just right. He was known for his outstanding work ethic, great football IQ, and leadership ability.

Now, what you think of Hitchens may be a mixed bag. Sometimes he looks really good and then other times he’s not as impressive. While consistency has been a knock on him, a lot of this has to do with all the shuffling around the team does with him. He seems to excel when he has exactly one other good linebacker fighting the good fight with him. He’s demonstrated that whether his partner in crime has been Sean Lee or Rolando McClain. What he doesn’t do well though is when he’s asked to do too much or is placed in the strong-side role. When he’s partnering with a Jaylon Smith who is not quite ready - that’s not a good combo. When he’s reduced to a smaller role as the SAM linebacker when both Lee and McClain were on the field (2015), he’s essentially invisible.

Hitchens is really starting to see the field better this year. He was playing better than anyone in training camp this season before he injured his knee. And recently, he’s been playing well as he’s recorded 15 and 14 tackles in his last two games respectively prior to the Oakland game. If you were to do a re-draft of the 2014 NFL Draft based on Career Approximate Value, Hitchens would be worthy of the 36th overall pick selected, making him an early second-rounder. Make no mistake about it, Hitchens is a good football player that any defense would be glad to have.

Sometimes the players drafted are fast out of the gate with success. Zack Martin and Ezekiel Elliott were rookie All Pro’s and that was something that hadn’t happened for the Cowboys since 1969 when Calvin Hill did it. But sometimes, the success takes time. So the next time someone labels Taco Charlton a bust, tell them to slow their roll. Lawrence didn’t have any sacks his rookie season, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to amount to something great. While we all applaud T.J. Watt for a great rookie season, we can’t be critical of the team when they don’t think a player is a good scheme fit. The Sharif Floyd ordeal serves as a good reminder of that. And even though many have criticized the front office for letting all the veteran free agents walk this off-season, the recent play of the rookies are starting to reaffirm that the Cowboys knew what they were doing.

Some fans aren’t patient. Some think Jason Garrett and company have had plenty of chances already. But while it hasn’t produced the post-season success that we all would have liked, it doesn’t mean it’s not coming. And the 2014 draft is just another example of how good things can materialize if you just remain calm and stay the course.

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