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A New Way Of Looking At The Cowboys’ Draft Strategy Beyond BPA & Need

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We all seek simple answers going into the draft, but that is not how the world works.

NFL Draft
Can the Cowboys recreate the success of last year?
Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

As the NFL Combine draws to an end, we are left with a lot of numbers and impressions that may or may not clarify what the Dallas Cowboys should do in draft. That means a lot of often rancorous arguments always reasoned and polite discussions here about the various merits and deficiencies of possible selections by the Cowboys. And along the way, two terms are going to be bandied about quite a bit, “need” and “BPA (Best Player Available)”.

Those two concepts have become somewhat divisive. Just to review briefly, need represents the idea that teams should primarily draft players based on what positions they need the most, while BPA says you draft the best player left on your board, regardless of need. And that leads to some real division among the fans. It seems obvious that you cannot ignore need (and almost all mock drafts focus more on that), but there is a very real case to be made that you should not take a mediocre player just because you have a hole when clearly superior options at other positions are available.

But I think there is a very significant flaw in this argument. It falls prey to our desire for binary answers to questions. We want things to be good or bad, black or white, left or right. Reality is, of course, far messier and more complicated than that, with infinite shades of gray in between.

And that is true of draft decisions. This is, at least in my opinion, one more case where we have let words limit our thinking. Need and BPA have been the alternatives cited for picking one player over another, but I would like to advance a suggestion that we need to move on to a different way of considering things, one that likely expresses more accurately how the Cowboys approach the draft.

They seek to take the player that helps the most.

This means that they seek the most talented players, but build in how those players fit the needs of the team, as well as things like scheme, philosophy, and the makeup of the locker room. It acknowledges that each decision is affected by picks made by the team in previous rounds. It also factors in the well-established policy Dallas has of using free agency to fill holes before the draft, to allow the team to focus more on draft day on finding superior football players without having need take a disproportionate role.

This is illustrated fairly clearly by last year’s first-round pick, Ezekiel Elliott. We are all aware of how this was widely panned by the media, because the running back position had become so devalued in recent years. But for the Cowboys, Elliott was the player available at the fourth-overall pick that represented the most value for them. He was more important to the team than the next player taken, Joey Bosa, despite the need the Cowboys had for a stud pass rusher. Elliott was the piece they needed to make their offensive blueprint work. They already had everything else in place (not knowing, of course, what would happen to Tony Romo in the preseason). With a top flight offense, they just needed a defense that could hold the other team out of the end zone enough to come out on top on the scoreboard. And for the regular season, it worked almost to perfection.

This also can be seen in so many other picks, especially when you use a more than one-year perspective. This is why they took Jaylon Smith, even though he was not able to contribute right away (something they become willing to accept after the first round). It was behind the previous years’ picks like Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, and Byron Jones. It is why the team is always looking for players like Anthony Brown, someone rated much higher on their draft board than the position they are able to take him.

And it is why we sometimes are so surprised by a given selection. The team will not reach for a player just because he fits one need. The staff has to weigh the fact that there is never just one need, but many. The idea is to find the most benefit overall, not try to seek a silver bullet. Those just don’t exist in a game that relies so much on eleven players working in complex coordination to succeed. Some teams make that kind of mistake, but the Cowboys have seldom fallen into that trap of late. They much prefer taking the best available player at a position he can be a significant upgrade than a lesser light somewhere else. That, in a rather simplistic nutshell, is how Dallas drafts.

It is why the team may go with a defensive back rather than an edge rusher in the first round. With that pick, they will seek a player that will come in and immediately compete for a starting job. That points towards the defense, but it might also encompass a wide receiver, or conceivably even a right tackle. All that is going to depend on who is available and, just as importantly, who is on the roster already, including any free agents the team might bring in. And of course, who the team has lost in free agency as well.

With each draft pick, the Cowboys seek to find the player left on their boards that will add the most value to the team. That often leads to very surprising choices - at least to us. But the team is most concerned with the overall upgrade to the roster, which sometimes may seem to disregard what we think is the greatest need at the time. And of course, some of us might not have the same appreciation for a given player as the professional scouts and coaches who have access to all the data, research, and video available, and whose jobs depend on making the right call.

It is not a simple calculation to make, which is why the staff at the Star is going to be putting in very long, exhausting hours to try and get this right. The Cowboys live and die by their board (mostly), especially since Will McClay was given responsibility for resolving the differences between the scouting department and the coaching staff. Dallas gives the coaches a greater input into the process than most NFL teams reportedly do, and that is why the team seems to be doing a much better job of late in getting players that fit so well. The coaches add the perspective of how a given player will fit into the scheme.

It worked very well last year, with the help of some incredible luck at the end of the fourth round. The Cowboys came out of the 2016 draft with the two most dynamic rookies in the league in Elliott and Dak Prescott, plus two additional starter quality players in Brown and Maliek Collins. And we all have great hope for Smith, while Charles Tapper now has his own hype video out.

Meanwhile, we still may see more this season out of Kavon Frazier, and there is also the wild card from that year, Rico Gathers.

It will be hard to even come close to what has already been accomplished by last year’s group, which has the potential to go down as one of the great draft groups of all time. After all, the Cowboys don’t have the fourth spot in the draft order. But the key is to get as much as the team can with the 28th slot. And that will depend on how they manage the task of taking the player at each spot that will help the most.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB