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Floor To Ceiling: The Shifting Draft Strategy Of The Dallas Cowboys

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We found out that nothing is set in stone.

CUSA Football Championship - Louisiana Tech v Marshall Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Over the past few years, it has become apparent that the Dallas Cowboys place a premium on athleticism when it is drafting talent. It had the most athletic group of rookies in the NFL in 2015 by some measurements, and had another standout group in 2016. This was interpreted variously as the influence of Jason Garrett, or Will McClay, or a general move to a greater reliance on analytics and such. Regardless, it was a clear indicator of how the team wanted to invest its draft capital. It was all part of the never ending attempt by all NFL teams to do better than the competition. They were going to go for freakishly good athletes rather than high producers in college. It’s just how the Cowboys are, and with the rigid Garrett setting the tone, nothing was going to really change.

And then it did. Relative Athletic Scores is a site that focuses exclusively on comparing levels of athleticism for NFL draftees. According to their calculations, the Cowboys went from first in 2016 to almost worst (thirtieth out of the thirty-two teams this year).

Taco Charlton was the first pick for the Cowboys, whose athletic measurements in every area other than speed were impressive. They took an elite athlete with their 2nd round pick in Chidobe Awuzie, but it was their picks from the 3rd round on that dragged their score down. It was a surprising departure from their previous approach as their league leading 2016 class didn’t have a single sub 5.00 RAS athlete compared to 5 of their 9 picks in 2017.

This was very unexpected. It also tends to, once again, challenge many of the assumptions fans and/or the media have about the Dallas Cowboys. Or, as our own Landon McCool put it:

Maybe. Maybe not.

There have been some fairly loud concerns about how well Dallas adheres to its “process”, with the selection of Charlton instead of pass rushers that are seen as having a higher ceiling cited as a key bit of evidence. However, his pick is really not very different from the past few first-round selections in one crucial way: In the team’s estimation, he had a very high floor. If you dig down a little deeper into the first round picks since Jason Garrett’s tenure began, you will see the same thing: They are all players that were just not going to be failures, health issues excluded. From Travis Frederick through Ezekiel Elliott, especially, these were all players that the team was certain were going to come in and play up to NFL standards. As it turned out, they all had high ceilings as well - but that was not nearly so evident when they were selected. In that sense, Charlton may fit the template better than we think.

The true departure is in the rest of the rounds. Awuzie was a continuation of the highly athletic pick, but he represented another kind of change. Unlike past second-round picks like Jaylon Smith, Randy Gregory, DeMarcus Lawrence, or Gavin Escobar, there were no question marks on Awuzie. He has no injury history, no character concerns, and he fits a true need. For the first time in a while, the Cowboys did not make a bit of a gamble in the second round.

The rest of the draftees all seem to have one thing in common: They produced in college. It looks like the value this year was placed on resume’, not measurements. It does seem to be a fairly significant shift for the Cowboys.

Or perhaps they are just more flexible that we realize. Maybe there was a bit of self-scouting that indicated that the emphasis on extreme athleticism was not paying off as well as they thought, and needed to be modified. And Jerry Jones indicated well before the draft that the team was moving away from the idea of taking players who were likely to need a “redshirt” year.

Many of the criticisms of the Cowboys’ draft, particularly the Charlton pick, are based on the team not following what are perceived as their own rules. What we may be seeing, however, is how evaluating and selecting players in the draft is much more an art than a science, as well as how the picks are not made in a vacuum. It does appear that Dallas made a conscious choice to take Charlton based on a belief in how the draft would play out over the first three rounds, one that was largely supported when the team was able to get both Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis on day two of the draft. They used the first pick to set up the following two. It was not without risk, but almost no pick is a certain thing. The 2017 draft was also made very specifically with need driving things much more than best player available. Going in, the Cowboys clearly needed one good pass rusher and a whole handful of defensive backs with good coverage and ball skills. That looks like exactly what they got. The fact that they did not hew exactly to what was seen as the process indicates that the team works with guidelines, not hard and fast rules. And those guidelines are adjusted each year, even with each pick, to deal with the particular prospects available.

The draft process for the Cowboys is clearly a dynamic one, not static. They surprised most of us to some extent. And they pulled off some real gambles. Sitting in place and letting Awuzie and Lewis come to them were a couple. An even bigger one was taking Ryan Switzer over Xavier Woods in the fourth round, and it may have been the best move they made this year when Woods was unexpectedly there in the sixth where they could trade a future pick to get him.

Dallas definitely bucked some of their own trends from the past few drafts, but not without some good logic. A good bit of luck also played into their hands.

Now we have to see how this all works out as OTAs and training camp roll around. But we have learned that the Cowboys are not going to be tied down by inflexible rules. It doesn’t mean that they are infallible, but they have clearly shown that they have the ability to anticipate some things well, and to seize unexpected opportunities. If they do not meet our own expectations, then those expectations may be what need to be examined more than the process in the war room.