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Grading The Cowboys 2017 Draft: Finding Better Standards

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The real question: As a group and individually, how much does this year’s crop help the team?

NFL: International Series-Fan Fest Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

We all know that assigning grades and ranking teams in the NFL Draft is a futile exercise this early. The general rule is that it takes at least three seasons to really get an accurate read on how good a draft class is and how much it helps each team. So judging a draft just a couple of days after it concludes is very much a matter of projection. Still, we all reach certain conclusions almost the moment each pick is made. The Dallas Cowboys appear to have had a successful 2017 draft. And while we will not really know just how good it was for quite a while, there are some logical observations to be made - especially when you put them in context of the specific needs of the team, something so many of the national writers do a frankly poor job of understanding.

Here is a look at each individual pick the Cowboys made, and a summation of how the group as a whole can contribute this year and into the future.

First, let’s set a few criteria. The judgments made here are based on what the team needed to accomplish. Grading players against a generic standard the way most draft grades are done is not at all effective, because any given player is going to be more valuable to some teams than others. This is where fit is so important. One of the best examples of this is last year’s first-round pick for the Cowboys, Ezekiel Elliott. For almost any other team in the league, he was not a good top-five use of draft capital. The running game has been devalued, and few teams were constructed to make the most of his impressive talents. But in Dallas, he was the key element to establish the run-first offense the Cowboys have built their system around. And the combination of a dominant offensive line and a potent passing attack meant that he was going to be almost impossible to stop. That proved to be exactly what happened as he became the league’s leading rusher and a key element in the 13 win season. We’ll call this need, to represent how the player helped answer a problem for the team.

The other thing that is important is the value received for each selection. In other words, did the team get more or less value than you would expect at such a spot? Did they make a reach because of need, or did they get a player who deserved to go higher based on talent?

With those in mind, let’s go through the nine draftees:

Taco Charlton (28th pick overall)

Need: A

The failure to spend enough draft capital to improve the pass rush has long been a sore spot, but this year, the Cowboys used their best ammunition to get some help. Once Takkarist McKinley was taken, Charlton became the highest-rated pass rusher on the Cowboys’ board.

Value: C

He was taken around the right spot for most projections, hence an average C grade. The question for some fans and analysts is just how well Dallas had their board set up. Was Charlton really the best pass rusher left? Was there another player on their board at a different position that would have been a better value? Charlton will need some coaching up, which the Cowboys have not always been able to do to our satisfaction with defensive linemen. It is likely that he will need more than one season to reach his potential.

Overall: B

We all hope he silences his critics, but a “wait and see” attitude is understandable.

Chidobe Awuzie (60th)

Need: A

Like Charlton, Awuzie was taken to fill a real hole left by the departure of so many free agent defensive backs. And he brings a history of position flexibility, which will allow the team to move him around as needed and disguise coverages.

Value: B+

He was seen as a borderline first-round talent by some, and almost all considered him a solid mid-second-round talent.

Overall: A-

There is an excellent chance Awuzie will be a starter the first game in the nickel package, which is the real base defense for the Cowboys. That is very good for someone taken near the end of the second round.

Jourdan Lewis (92nd)

Need: A

The Cowboys had more than one hole to fill in the secondary, so even though Lewis was a double-dip, he still was very much a good choice.

Value: A (Conditional)

Here’s the rub: He is going to trial over a misdemeanor domestic violence accusation. If he is cleared, then he is a very good value where he was taken. He likely slid to the bottom of the third round because of that charge, where he became that possible steal that is so appealing to the Cowboys. He was also a player who was close to a first-round talent before his arrest. But until he is cleared, and stays out of further trouble, there is going to be a question mark beside any grade for him.

Overall: A?

Like I said, we will have to see.

Ryan Switzer (133rd)

Need: B

While it was not terribly surprising to see the Cowboys go offense after opening the draft with three defensive players, it was a bit unexpected for them to go for a wide receiver. But the deciding factor with Switzer may have been his return skills, something the Cowboys struggled with last season. And he is insurance for Cole Beasley, as well as opening up some additional personnel options in wide receiver heavy formations.

Value: A-

Switzer was likely a second-round worthy player. Getting him in the fourth is very good value.

Overall: B+

Again, his real value may be realized after his rookie year. He may be the successor to Beasley, who is now 28 and under contract through 2018.

Xavier Woods (191st)

Need: A

Woods is a true safety. And he was outstanding in college, although playing at a smaller school. His ballhawking skills are the most appealing thing for a team that had difficulty getting interceptions.

Value: A+

The Cowboys traded their 2018 fifth-round selection for him, but given the haul of compensatory picks they expect, he is still an excellent value. Dallas is believed to have had a second-round grade on him, and most of us would have been pleased if he had been taken in the third or fourth round. To snag him late in the sixth is just robbery.

Overall: A

This may actually be a bit low. The comparisons with Anthony Brown are completely understandable. At the moment, he looks like the best pick of the day.

Marquez White (216th)

Need: B-

Another cornerback seems a bit excessive, even given how much the Cowboys lost in free agency. But this may be a good reflection of what was behind his selection.

One thing was certain: The Cowboys were not going to come out of the draft without making sure they had some secondary talent to work with. The competition for a roster spot is going to be fierce this year.

Value: C

White was the first player after Charlton that was taken right about where he was valued by many draft analysts. A decent but unexciting selection.

Overall: C

It was the sixth round, after all.

Joey Ivie (228th)

Need: B-

He doesn’t offer much as a pass rusher, but still could be of value for putting the whole picture together for the defensive line.

Value: D

Something of a reach, he seems to have been drafted based on traits. Rod Marinelli was certainly pumped at his selection.

Overall: C-

A bit lenient, perhaps, based on it being a seventh-round flyer more than anything.

Noah Brown (239th)

Need: D

While taking Switzer was somewhat surprising, going for a second wide receiver was almost shocking. He raises the question of just how much faith the Cowboys have in Brice Butler and Lucky Whitehead. But he is a big, strong receiver who has demonstrated almost incredible ability to catch the ball under duress.

Value: C+

Again, he was taken about where he was expected to go, or maybe a little behind.

Overall: C-

He has to beat out two veterans to make the 53 man roster - but will likely be a fan favorite when camp gets underway.

Jordan Carrell (248th)

Need: D

If the Cowboys were going to double dip along the defensive line with a seventh-round pick, an end would have made more sense, you would think. But he does have a reputation as a high-motor guy, which may be what Marinelli and company saw in him. And he was extremely happy to be picked by the Cowboys.

Value: D

Definitely a flyer.

Overall: D

Most likely a practice squad candidate.

Overall: A

One problem with rating the different NFL teams’ draft classes against each other is that it is not a zero sum game. There is not always any kind of a balance of winners and losers. The days right after the draft, after all, are the time of peak optimism across the league.

The fact is that it is possible for every single team in the league to help itself in the draft, especially when the talent pool is deep. And at certain positions, that was very true this year. Other years, things are more difficult. 2009 is seen as a draft class that helped almost no teams, and 2013 was one where the second half of the first round produced markedly more talent that the first half.

So this grade is based on how well the Cowboys did in relation to what they needed to do. And they did very well indeed.

Dallas was fortunate that the strengths of the 2017 class matched up almost perfectly with what they needed. And for the most part, they stayed with those strengths. Their first-round pick was not seen as being the best, but given where they were near the end of the draft order, they were unlikely to do much better.

And after several years of not doing nearly as well in the middle rounds as they did in the first (until last year), they really flipped the script. The selections of Awuzie, Lewis, Switzer, and Woods will likely prove to be the heart of the class, will all having a very real chance of being starters on their first contract. Given that “solid starter” is also seen as Charlton’s floor, that would be five good picks, which is something almost any team would take.

More importantly, this would make for two excellent to outstanding classes back-to-back. 2016’s group has already yielded four starters and two superstars, and that is with Jaylon Smith and Charles Tapper waiting in the wings, and Rico Gathers being touted as a likely contributor this year. Duplicating that was all but impossible given the conditions, but if this year’s draftees come even a bit close, then the Dallas staff has done a simply tremendous job.