It's 2017, but sometimes when the evenings get chilly and IQs drop below room-temperature, you'll still hear voices railing against Jerry Jones "because he sucks as a GM," even if those voices are sounding more and more like ghosts stuck in a meme-generator from the last millennium. Will McClay is the defacto GM in Dallas in everything but the title; everybody around the league knows it and recognizes it.
On Thursday, the Dallas Morning News ran an article titled "10 things you might not know about Cowboys' mysterious draft guru, talent evaluator Will McClay."
The article is an interesting read, and the 10th point offers some insight on McClay from McClay's former Arena Football League assistant and confidante Terry Gray, who now apparently is a scouting consultant for the Cowboys.
"There is not a magic formula," Gray told ESPN. "It's just good, old-fashioned bust-your-ass hard work and lots and lots of tape. Lots of calls. Lots of research. Just looking at thousands of players until you find one you think fits for you. He's just got a very unique way knowing a football player when he sees one. That's commonly described by a lot of people, but he just knows it at a different level. It's more than just everybody saying, 'He can't play.' It's Will finding guys that can play that no one considered.
"Will McClay is a machine. He's a film-watching, evaluating, researching machine. He just never stops and he will never stop."
That's already a pretty intriguing description of McClay, but somewhat to my surprise, the DMN article didn't contain any quotes from McClay himself, and that may have been why the DMN described him as "mysterious"; McClay simply is not much of a public persona. So building on the DMN article, I decided to dig up a handful of quotes from McClay to try and figure out how the Cowboys' Senior Director College/Pro Personnel might approach the 2017 NFL draft.
McClay was promoted to his current role after the 2013 draft, and popular Cowboys lore holds that the promotion was a direct result of the decision to pass on DT Sharrif Floyd.
After the 2013 draft, the Cowboys were happy with their draft haul, but unhappy with the process that got them there. They had chosen not to draft Floyd because some of the coaches felt he wasn't the right fit for the Cowboys, even though the Cowboys’ scouts had ranked him fifth on the Cowboys draft board. That disconnect between the scouts and coaches led to the promotion of Will McClay to the most important position in the organization that can be manned by somebody not named Jones.
But that disconnect between the college scouting department and the pro department wasn't just a one-off occurrence. You can go back to the year before, when Claiborne was graded as the "best corner since Deion" but wasn't a good fit for the Cowboys defense at the time. Sure, injuries played a role, but was Claiborne really the best possible fit specifically for the defensive scheme the Cowboys were running that year?
In 2013, things came to a header when the pro guys made it clear they had no intention of drafting Sharrif Floyd, regardless of how high the scouting department had graded him.
The pro guys won, and McClay is now in charge of the draft board. I assume this is an effort to reign in the scouts a little and make sure that the board is not constructed "on pure talent," but designed to deliver the best possible players that fit the Cowboys system - something McClay has demonstrated he can do by bringing in street free agents that contributed but also by finding talent on all three days of the draft for the Cowboys in the last three drafts.
With all of that out of the way, here are seven things you need to know about how Will McClay will likely approach the 2017 NFL draft - in his own words.
- McClay wants player who won't 'pee their pants'
McClay prefers players from big schools. This may not feel like a big revelation, but prior to McClay, the Cowboys had a clear penchant for small-school players. Here's McClay talking about his preference for big schools in 2014:
"Man, we went into [the draft] looking for the best football players, first," McClay said. "Guys that had the skill set that fit our deal, were from a big school. It was part of the discussion. You look at the big school, small school and you weigh those things and look at the history that's been throughout the league, if 82 percent comes from major schools, well there is some reason for that."
Perhaps even more important than big-school pedigree is getting players who'll be comfortable playing and performing in the circus that is the Dallas Cowboys.
“I think it was important for us to say, if we’re trying to build this thing and get to a point where we can win now, who has been able to handle the pressure of a big-time program?” assistant director of player personnel Will McClay said during a radio interview. “Who will most likely be able to come into a situation like the Dallas Cowboys and the microscope that we’re under with all the games we play on national TV, and not, pardon the expression, pee their pants? We want grown men that are able to handle the situation.”
2. McClay is looking for speed
This may feel like a bit of a no-brainer (any teams looking for slow players?), but the Cowboys place extra emphasis on speed, McClay said in an interview with 105.3 The Fan.
Q: What type of players do you want on your roster and what’s the direction you’re trying this GM to get to?
McClay: We look at what we need on the team for now and in the future. But as you build the team, in this day and age the game is played in space. So one of the first things we look at is speed. You’ve got to be a good football player, the character has to fit in to what we do and in our environment, but we’re looking for speed.
We want to build the team speed and the depth with good football players.
3. Scheme fit is a high priority for McClay and the Cowboys
The Cowboys have learned from their earlier mistakes.
"I think there’s one thing that Coach Jason Garrett has talked about as we put together the team for next year: make sure we have guys in the right positions within the scheme to maximize their potential."
This next quote is from Michael Lombardi, writing for The Ringer, and perfectly spells out why scheme fit, which doesn't sound like a big deal, is in fact a very, very big deal.
"Scout inside out not outside in." This phrase comes from the legendary Bill Walsh, and right now, it’s one of the biggest reasons the Patriots compete for Super Bowls every year. The Patriots are terrific at understanding which players fit best in their system — it’s why they keep unearthing a never-ending supply of Chris Hogans, Alan Branches, and Kyle Van Noys. They scout inside out. So many other franchises fail because they keep changing their schemes (and when they do, many of their players might not fit in the new one), or because they don’t understand their own scheme well enough to find and develop the right players for it. They scout outside in.
4. McClay and the Cowboys are working with target measurables
Bill Parcells once explained in a TV interview why teams have a set of measurables they work against: For every position, there is a certain combination of physical measurables that has proven successful in the NFL, and deviating from this success model doesn't have high chances of success. And the Cowboys are no different, as McClay explained in an interview on 105.3 The Fan:
"You talk about trying to get the jobs done at certain positions where we have criteria or standards that have been tried and true that we have to meet. So you can love a player on tape and not have a true measurable on him, and then you go and you think he’s 6-2 and he ends up being 5-11 or 6-0. That kind of changes your view on that player a little bit.
5. Intangibles may be more important than ever
Like many other teams, the Cowboys are wondering why they let Dak Prescott slip all the way to the bottom of the fourth round. McClay argues that it's hard to evaluate intangibles in the scouting process
"I don’t think anyone missed anything [on Dak Prescott]. There was the style of offense Mississippi State ran, which is detrimental for quarterbacks entering the league. It’s hard to project those guys. We saw the arm strength; there was some mechanical stuff that needed improvement. You can’t value the ability of that inside stuff, the intangibles, until you see the guy on the field and put them into your system. And even more so with a quarterback as opposed to a running back or an offensive lineman."
6. It's all about the process.
Getting the right players, like everything else with the Cowboys, is a process.
"We get pissed off at each other, but if you’re in this together and you’re brothers and you’re family," said McClay, "then you argue about it, and then you come to a conclusion through those arguments. It’s just about grinding it out. You have to have the backbone to stand up, and you have to stand up for what your opinion is, and if people don’t agree that’s fine.
"I’m not always right. Scouts aren’t always right. Coaches aren’t always right, but as long as we can look at the full picture -- and we all look at the picture the same way -- let’s come to a conclusion. My job, our job in scouting, is to give the Joneses the most unbiased information we can give them and they make that decision."
7. McClay is not going to force the draft
If you think the Cowboys should be use their top picks on defense, McClay has news for you. Speaking on SiriusXM NFL Radio recently, McClay explained how going into the NFL Draft with a fixed idea of what position to draft where is not a good idea.
“There’s a clear plan to try and improve the team overall," said McClay. "People are going to say defense. I think coach [Rod] Marinelli did a wonderful job and for us to get to 13-3 and have the season that we did, it shows that we have talent there.
"We want to continue to improve that, but we don’t want to force anything.
“I think one of the things that you learn is if you plan you’re going to get a player on this side of the ball then you force it. What we’re going to do is let the chips fall where they may. We’re going to grade and evaluate the players and we’re going to pick the right players for us. We have our objectives and goals in mind.
“We want to build depth, but we want to build a strong team, too."