Tasseography (also known as tasseomancy or tassology) is an attempt to predict the future by interpreting patterns in tea leaves, coffee grounds or wine sediments left in a cup or glass. The patterns that form inside the cup or glass are interpreted by a person with supposed clairvoyant or psychic abilities, and wide-ranging conclusions are drawn from the sediments
For football fans and football media, the pre-draft phase of the NFL season is no different from a cup of tea with tea leaves left at the bottom: Everybody is trying to divine some meaning from the morsels of information left at the bottom of each team's tea cup.
We scour the names of prospects teams have talked with during the Senior Bowl or the Combine, we search for hidden messages in statements from team executives, and we lose ourselves in countless iterations of meaningless mock drafts. But there is one piece of information that does actually provide clues about what the Cowboys could do in the next draft.
Every year, I look forward with the greatest anticipation to the annual pilgrimage of draft prospects to Dallas for their pre-draft visits with the Cowboys. And like me, many other hardcore draftniks will be scanning the news wires and social media outlets over the next month or so for any mention of a prospect making his way to Dallas.
But why all the excitement?
Every year in early April, the Cowboys are allowed to bring in up to 30 usually high-profile, draft-eligible players for official pre-draft visits. Additionally, they also bring in as many draft-eligible local prospects as they like for visits and workouts during "Dallas Day", also sometime in April.
Over the last 10 years, nine of the Cowboys' 10 top picks in the draft all visited Valley Ranch as part of the Cowboys' official pre-draft visits. Anthony Spencer ('07), Felix Jones ('08), Jason Williams ('09), Dez Bryant ('10) and Tyron Smith ('11) were all brought in for pre-draft visits, while Morris Claiborne ('12) became the exception that proved the rule: Claiborne became the first Cowboys top pick since DeMarcus Ware in 2005 who wasn't invited to Valley Ranch prior to the draft. But the Cowboys got right back on track when they invited Travis Frederick ('13), Zack Martin ('14), Byron Jones ('15), and Ezekiel Elliott ('16) for an official visit.
But it's not just about the top pick.
In 2016, Elliott and Dak Prescott were the only two players the Cowboys brought in that eventually wound up being drafted by the Cowboys, but two more pre-draft invites were signed as UDFAs: DT Rodney Coe and LB Deon King.
- In 2015, the Cowboys the Cowboys brought in their first six draft picks (Byron Jones, Randy Gregory, Chaz Green, Damien Wilson, Ryan Russell, Mark Nzeocha) for official pre-draft visits, had a private workout with 7th-round pick Laurence Gibson, and also brought in UDFA signing George Farmer to Valley Ranch.
- In 2014, the Cowboys brought in their top two draft picks, Zack Martin and DeMarcus Lawrence, for pre-draft visits, and also brought in 7th-round pick Ken Bishop as well as UDFA signings Davon Coleman, Chris Whaley, Ben Malena and Dashaun Phillips to Valley Ranch.
- In 2013, the pre-draft visits were a veritable bonanza for the Cowboys personnel department: Cowboys draft picks Travis Frederick, Terrance Williams, J.J. Wilcox, B.W. Webb, and Joseph Randle were all brought in for pre-draft visits, as were six UDFA signings (Jakar Hamilton, Brandon Magee, Kendial Lawrence, Taylor Reed, Lanear Sampson and Devin Smith).
- In 2012, they brought in Kyle Wilber, Matt Johnson, Ronald Leary, and UDFA Lionel Smith, the year before it was the top three draft picks Tyron Smith, Bruce Carter, and DeMarco Murray along with UDFA Andre Holmes.
So we know that the predictive value is pretty good when we look at the list after the fact, but we can also glean something from the invitation lists ahead of time?
Last year, the Cowboys invited almost every draft eligible QB (7), and then tried in vain to trade up for two of them before they "settled" on Dak Prescott.
In 2015, the Cowboys went heavy on corners (5) and defensive ends (8) among players ranked in the top 100 and ended up drafting Byron Jones and Randy Gregory
In 2014, the Cowboys tried carpet-bombing their way to a defensive line when they invited 10 defensive linemen ranked in the top 100. The Cowboys' interest in Anthony Barr, Aaron Donald, and Ryan Shazier is well-documented, and when all three were gone, the Cowboys lucked into Zack Martin, and then drafted DeMarcus Lawrence in the second round.
In 2013, all five top-ranked interior offensive linemen were invited and the Cowboys picked Travis Frederick out of the five. I could go on and on; when the Cowboys focus on a specific position group with their pre-draft invites, they tend to draft a player from that position group more often than not.
It will once again be interesting to see which positions they bring in this year, and where those positions will be ranked. We'll almost certainly see a large number of defensive ends getting an invitation. But it's anybody's guess which positions they'll focus on beyond that.
Could we see a spike in mid-round defensive backs? Will the top-ranked tight ends all get an invitation to the Star at Frisco? Perhaps the second tier of wide receivers will get an invitation to Dallas?
We'll get a better idea over the next days and weeks as the names begin to trickle in. Until then, look carefully at the bottom of your tea or coffee cup: Which positions outside of pass rusher would you expect the Cowboys to focus on this year?