Just in case you haven’t picked up on it yet, the Dallas Cowboys rely primarily on the NFL Draft to acquire talent, with free agency focused more on keeping who they want to retain at the price they are willing to pay, while plugging holes with similarly affordable if unspectacular players. Despite a recent run of success in Dallas with first-round selections and a very good overall 2016 class, there are still many who worry about how well the team can do. One concern centers around the much lower draft position this year as opposed to last. It is much harder to find good players sitting at the end of each round than at the beginning.
Or so the conventional wisdom goes. And that is a very limited view of how things work. The real key to success is not where you sit in the draft, but maximizing each and every pick.
Last year, the Cowboys certainly capitalized on being near the top of the draft order with Ezekiel Elliott, but that was just one pick. It was high enough to make it almost certain that they would get a real star. But that draft was so much more than one selection. Dallas found three more rookie starters, plus other players who could be real contributors as their careers advance. Jaylon Smith and Charles Tapper both wound up sitting out their first year due to injury, and could well become major pieces to improve the defense this season.
And the recent history of the Cowboys shows that they have been able to find star power in the first round no matter where they pick. Since 2010, their first round picks have all become Pro Bowlers with only two exceptions. Morris Claiborne, just departed in free agency (and likely to help them reap a windfall of compensatory picks in 2018), was hampered by repeated injuries. His performance in the seven games he played last fall showed that he always had the talent, just not the durability. And Byron Jones is only entering his third season and looks to have a bright future as part of the young core the team looks to rebuild the secondary around.
While the team has done well with top ten picks like Elliott and Tyron Smith, they have also done a very good job with later picks. Zack Martin was taken sixteenth overall, and the real find by the scouting staff was Travis Frederick, who was selected 31st after the team traded down. The general reaction to his pick was amusement at what all the draft experts called a reach, but they aren’t laughing now at a player who is considered one of the very best centers in the league.
Having a high first-round pick, or accumulating multiple picks in the round, is supposed to be a nearly foolproof way to build a roster. However, that is only true if the team using those picks is doing a good job of evaluating talent and figuring out how players will fit into the scheme and locker room. All the picks in the world do no good if you use them ineptly.
There is an excellent case study in the Cleveland Browns, who now hold the first overall pick due to their dismal performance last season. In the same time period that the Cowboys have amassed a group of all-stars in the first round, the Browns wasted no less than ten first round picks. Here, by year, are the overall positions they selected in the first round:
|2015||1||19||Cameron Erving||C||Rookie contract|
|2015||1||12||Danny Shelton||NT||Rookie contract|
|2016||1||15||Corey Coleman||WR||Rookie contract|
That, to put it mildly, is disappointing. Three top ten picks, and none later than 22nd. That alone should have brought an infusion of talent that should at least have Cleveland in the upper half of the league. Instead, they were the least capable team in the NFL last season, and despite again having two first-round picks (they also currently hold the twelfth overall selection), they are likely to be struggling again.
So the Cowboys need to make good use of that 28th pick. But they also need to maximize the return with the other six picks they currently hold as well. That has been something they have had more difficulty with - until last year.
The question now is whether that was a flash in the pan, or evidence that the scouting department is developing some consistency. That will be the real determinant of how this year’s draft goes, especially since the team doesn’t have the extra picks it had last year to work with.
Another way to look at draft position is focusing on who is left, not who is gone. Picking 28th means that 27 players are gone, but there are still hundreds to sort through. Likewise, at the 60th spot of the second round, you have 59 players taken, but not all of them are likely to have been on your board in the first place. The key is how well you have constructed the board from top to bottom, to help you find the best options available in each round.
This is shaping up to be a good year for the Cowboys to get some quality talent. The draft does not have an overabundance of blue chips, but it is seen by almost everyone to have a lot of second- and third-round caliber talent - enough so that there is going to be value to be found deep into the fourth round. And as the selection of Anthony Brown in the sixth round showed last season, there are still hidden gems very late in the process. Dallas needs to get it right with the majority of their picks (no team is perfect, of course). With a lot of talent in the defensive back, defensive line, and even tight end positions, all of which are places the Cowboys can use good players, this could be an important draft for them.
Really, they all are important. If you draft wisely, your team becomes stronger. And if you make ill-considered picks, you lose ground. Dallas has put most of its chips on the draft for several years now. 2017 is no exception. In a few weeks, we will start finding out if they played their cards well.