In a week, the 2017 NFL Draft will be over. With the exception of any remaining free agency signings, the work of assembling rosters across the league will be done. Right?
Wrong. The teams may have most or all of their pieces in place for the coming season, but they will then have to go to work on the much less examined job of putting things together. They have to fit those new players into their roster, figure out if any are going to be discarded, and begin the job of developing the rookies from college standouts (since only the best make it into the NFL) into professional players. And that is something that not every team is good at. Fortunately for us, the Dallas Cowboys showed last year that they may be one of the better teams at this.
In recent years, there has been an increasing difference between how football is played at the college level and the NFL game. Spread offenses, read/options, hurry-up/no-huddle schemes, and the corresponding defensive strategies all have made it much harder not only to evaluate who will thrive at the next level, but to teach rookies how to play the game. What were once fundamentals that players brought into the pros now must be taught almost from scratch. And the strict limits the current CBA puts on practices and contact between coaches and players just makes it harder.
Each team has a limited number of draft picks and roster spots to work with each year. It is as important to try and figure out how a player does or doesn’t fit with the way each team plays as it is to measure the players and review video. A sterling college career does not mean that a player will automatically be as good for all NFL teams, or for any. Intangibles such as leadership ability, learning capacity, and work ethic are important factors that fans usually don’t have a good read on.
The Cowboys had not just the obvious example of Dak Prescott to show that they were doing a very good job with their draft picks last season. The rookie success of Ezekiel Elliott, Maliek Collins, and Anthony Brown also were exhibits for finding players that fit the scheme and the roster.
Still, Prescott is the clearest case study. And his incredibly fast start in the league was as much a testament to overall team building as it was to ferreting out undervalued star power. Unlike the two quarterbacks taken with the first two picks of the 2016 draft, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, Prescott was not drafted with the intention of having to save his franchise, although he arguably did just that. Most importantly, Prescott came to a team where the other ten positions were in very good shape, and the running game was one of the best, if not the best, in the league. And he often got superb pass protection to allow him an extra tick or two to make his reads. Had he gone to a different situation, things may have turned out very differently. He could very well have been ruined had he been thrust into the starting job with another team that was not nearly so well set up.
Oddly, one of the best examples of a quarterback who was likely damaged beyond repair was a teammate of his last year: Mark Sanchez. As Rich Cimini wrote for ESPN last September, the teams he was with before failed him, particularly the New York Jets.
Many, of course, will point to the infamous Butt Fumble, an infamous gaffe against the Patriots in November 2012, as the turning point, but that's not when it started to unravel. The blooper will be part of his legacy, but the real story is that he was sabotaged by two things: an organization that undermined him with bad decisions and his own inability to control his killer mistakes.
Instead of a staff that set him up for failure, Prescott landed with a Cowboys team that did a truly outstanding job of bringing him along, tailoring the game plan early to help him and expanding the playbook as his own skills increased through the year. And a big part of all that were the things Prescott brought to the table that cannot be measured with a stopwatch or yardstick, or that show up clearly on video. Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated went back and revisited the Prescott selection with Stephen Jones, and came up with this conclusion.
“The biggest thing for us, and we’re trying to see how we’ll cultivate it and do better with this, is how you differentiate when you say, ‘this guy’s got great football character, the ‘it’ factor, he’s a leader,’” Jones said from his office. “How do you quantify that in good vs. great, and great vs. rare. That’s probably what we missed the most with Dak.
“We underestimated how just rare his leadership skill and his football character were. That contributed to his maturity, in terms of being able to walk in the door and have success at our level so early.”
So there’s our offseason lesson of the week, with the draft seven days away: Talk of intangibles may sound corny, but a guy’s makeup matters, and even more with the quarterbacks than anyone else.
This is a hidden corollary of Jason Garrett’s much discussed “right kind of guy” mantra: Find players who not only looked good on the field and at the combine, but who are willing to put in the work and lead by example. The fondness the Cowboys have for former team captains speaks to this.
And also playing into this is the stability of the coaching staff in Dallas. If you read a lot about the NFL, you have probably seen discussions of players, particularly quarterbacks, who are believed to have been handicapped by a lack of continuity in scheme and philosophy. They see a new coordinator every season, with changes in terminology and assignment. That puts them back on the learning curve, and the results are predictable. But with the Cowboys, players now have seen the same approach on both sides of the ball for years now. That is not only key for the rookies, it also helps the veterans. And the overall effect is that the entire team meshes more quickly. This was of incalculable value last season in amassing the 13 wins.
And as noted, it did not just help Prescott. Elliott of course was the rushing champion as a rookie, but the stories of Collins and Brown were more significant in this aspect. Both were coming into a defense where the rest of the players around them understood their jobs, and that made it easier on the rookies to contribute as well as they did. The Cowboys have some significant holes to fill this year, most notably at right tackle, cornerback, and safety, but it will be a much easier task with the experienced players they do return around those positions. Experienced players who know what the coaches want them to do.
It reminds me of something that I read recently (and unfortunately cannot find again) that one of the things the league does badly is give coaching staffs enough time to get things right. When a team performs badly, the staff is often reworked or even completely replaced in the drive to win now. But that often is counterproductive. It is forced by the pressure put on front offices where general managers are just as much on the chopping block as the coaches. With the Cowboys, however, that is not a factor at all because of the unique role Jerry Jones plays as his own GM. This allowed him to retain virtually his entire staff after the debacle of 2015 - and the stunning turnaround of the following season shows that he was right.
Now, the Cowboys will soon have a new crop of rookies, and given the way last year’s group is turning out, we have every reason to hope for another good one, if not as spectacular (that would be all but impossible given the changed circumstances and how unique Elliott and Prescott were as a tandem). And we also have clear evidence that the staff will be able to get a lot out of the new resources the draft (and the UDFA signings) will bring. Dallas is not a team that wastes a lot of picks, at least not lately. That is a real reason to hope for another good season.