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10 things you need to know about Cowboys’ personnel guru Will McClay

Listening to Will McClay will tell you a lot about how the Cowboys will approach the 2018 NFL draft, so we did just that.

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NFL: Dallas Cowboys Facility Tour Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

In 2016, Will McClay declined an interview for the vacant GM position in Detroit. Last year, per Todd Archer of ESPN Dallas, “a few teams reached out to McClay about potentially interviewing for their general-manager or personnel-chief vacancies,” but McClay ultimately declined all interviews. This year, the Texans showed interest in interviewing McClay for their vacant GM Position, but McClay declined once more.

The interest in McClay by other teams speaks to his track record in the drafts he's been responsible for, but also in quality of free agents he's been able to land over the years.

But for the Cowboys, he has an even more important role than “just” that of a personnel guru. Mike Fisher of CBS DFW calls him a “unifier”.

If Dallas loses McClay, what would they be really losing?

In addition to being the “scouting guru,’’ as he’s often labeled, he is a unifier between ownership, coaching staff, scouting department and even the locker room. Does the coaching staff (i.e. Rod Marinelli) often enter the draft room and win an argument that conflicts with the board McClay built? Yes. Does coach Jason Garrett’s staff sometimes have a different vision for the mold of a player than McClay? Yes.

Do the Joneses sometimes want things that McClay doesn’t want?

Yes. Of course. But these aren’t “problems” because of the way Will McClay brings all the wings of the building together. He is more than a scout, more than a coach, more than an ex-player. He’s “The Unifier.” That should really be Will McClay’s title with the Dallas Cowboys.

And Jason Garrett gave a very similar description to Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News two years ago.

“Will does a really good job facilitating all of that communication and making sure we’re all on the same page about how we see the player and what his role will be and that’s invaluable. Making sure everyone is aligned is critical and communicating, overcommunicating, challenging each other, that’s all part of the personnel process, and he does a really good job in his role.”

To understand how much this means to the Cowboys, you've got to understand where the Cowboys are coming from. The following quote is taken from a very interesting look at the Cowboys’ draft room put together by Calvin Watkins and Matt Mosley while they were both still covering the Cowboys for ESPN.

Larry Lacewell, the Cowboys’ former director of scouting, said the team used to take pictures of the draft board to make sure nobody would touch it because sneaky coaches would surreptitiously move players around. “It was always coaches vs. scouts,“ Lacewell said. “If a coach liked a certain player, then he might move him from a fifth-round grade to a third-round grade on the board overnight. We get in the next morning and we weren’t sure if the board was right. So we started taking pictures of it every night just to make sure it wasn’t touched when we got in the next day.”

When I first read this, my head almost exploded. How can you let organizational infighting degenerate to such a level that nobody trusts their coworkers anymore? In most companies, behavior like that would be grounds for immediate termination.

The quote references Lacewell, who retired from the Cowboys in 2004, so you would think Lacewell's departure and Bill Parcells' arrival in 2003 would have fixed those issues between coaches and scouts in Dallas. Well, you'd be wrong in thinking that.

McClay was promoted to his current role after the 2013 draft, and popular Cowboys lore holds that the promotion was a direct result of the decision to pass on DT Sharrif Floyd.

During the 2013 draft things came to a header when the pro guys made it clear they had no intention of drafting Sharrif Floyd, regardless of how high the scouting department had graded him.

After the draft, the Cowboys were happy with their draft haul, but unhappy with the process that got them there. They had chosen not to draft Floyd because some of the coaches felt he wasn’t the right fit for the Cowboys, even though the Cowboys’ scouts had ranked him fifth on the Cowboys draft board. That disconnect between the scouts and coaches led to the promotion of Will McClay to the most important position in the organization that can be manned by somebody not named Jones.

McClay is now in charge of the draft board, and from what we've gleaned over the years since, the board is no longer constructed “on pure talent,” but designed to deliver the best possible players that fit the Cowboys system - something McClay has demonstrated he can do by bringing in street free agents that contributed but also by finding talent on all three days of the draft for the Cowboys in the drafts he's managed.

With all of that out of the way, here are 10 things you need to know about how Will McClay will likely approach the 2018 NFL draft - in his own words.

McClay is not much of a public persona. So I cobbled together handful of quotes and soundbites from McClay from the last few years to try to give you a feel for how the Cowboys’ Vice President of Pro Personnel might approach the 2017 NFL draft.

  1. McClay likes players from big schools

McClay prefers players from big schools. This may not feel like a big revelation, but prior to McClay, the Cowboys had a clear penchant for small-school players. Here’s McClay talking about his preference for big schools in 2014:

”Man, we went into [the draft] looking for the best football players, first,” McClay said. “Guys that had the skill set that fit our deal, were from a big school. It was part of the discussion. You look at the big school, small school and you weigh those things and look at the history that’s been throughout the league, if 82 percent comes from major schools, well there is some reason for that.”

Perhaps even more important than big-school pedigree is getting players who’ll be comfortable playing and performing in the circus that is the Dallas Cowboys, McClay said in 2014.

“I think it was important for us to say, if we’re trying to build this thing and get to a point where we can win now, who has been able to handle the pressure of a big-time program?” assistant director of player personnel Will McClay said during a radio interview. “Who will most likely be able to come into a situation like the Dallas Cowboys and the microscope that we’re under with all the games we play on national TV, and not, pardon the expression, pee their pants? We want grown men that are able to handle the situation.”

2. McClay is looking for speed

This may feel like a bit of a no-brainer (any teams looking for slow players?), but the Cowboys place extra emphasis on speed, McClay said in an interview with 105.3 The Fan, also in 2014

Q: What type of players do you want on your roster and what’s the direction you’re trying this GM to get to?

McClay: We look at what we need on the team for now and in the future. But as you build the team, in this day and age the game is played in space. So one of the first things we look at is speed. You’ve got to be a good football player, the character has to fit in to what we do and in our environment, but we’re looking for speed.

We want to build the team speed and the depth with good football players.

3. Scheme fit is a high priority for McClay and the Cowboys

The Cowboys have learned from their earlier mistakes.

”I think there’s one thing that Coach Jason Garrett has talked about as we put together the team for next year: make sure we have guys in the right positions within the scheme to maximize their potential.”

This next quote is from Michael Lombardi, writing for The Ringer, and perfectly spells out why scheme fit, which doesn’t sound like a big deal, is in fact a very, very big deal.

”Scout inside out not outside in.” This phrase comes from the legendary Bill Walsh, and right now, it’s one of the biggest reasons the Patriots compete for Super Bowls every year. The Patriots are terrific at understanding which players fit best in their system — it’s why they keep unearthing a never-ending supply of Chris Hogans, Alan Branches, and Kyle Van Noys. They scout inside out. So many other franchises fail because they keep changing their schemes (and when they do, many of their players might not fit in the new one), or because they don’t understand their own scheme well enough to find and develop the right players for it. They scout outside in.

4. McClay and the Cowboys are working with target measurables

Bill Parcells once explained in a TV interview why teams have a set of measurables they work against: For every position, there is a certain combination of physical measurables that has proven successful in the NFL, and deviating from this success model doesn’t have high chances of success.

And the Cowboys are no different, as McClay explained in a 2014 interview on 105.3 The Fan:

”You talk about trying to get the jobs done at certain positions where we have criteria or standards that have been tried and true that we have to meet. So you can love a player on tape and not have a true measurable on him, and then you go and you think he’s 6-2 and he ends up being 5-11 or 6-0. That kind of changes your view on that player a little bit.

5. Intangibles may be more important than ever

Like many other teams, the Cowboys are wondering why they let Dak Prescott slip all the way to the bottom of the fourth round. McClay argued in early 2017 that it’s hard to evaluate intangibles in the scouting process.

”I don’t think anyone missed anything [on Dak Prescott]. There was the style of offense Mississippi State ran, which is detrimental for quarterbacks entering the league. It’s hard to project those guys. We saw the arm strength; there was some mechanical stuff that needed improvement. You can’t value the ability of that inside stuff, the intangibles, until you see the guy on the field and put them into your system. And even more so with a quarterback as opposed to a running back or an offensive lineman.”

6. It’s all about the process.

Getting the right players, like everything else with the Cowboys, is a process, McClay noted in 2016.

”We get pissed off at each other, but if you’re in this together and you’re brothers and you’re family,” said McClay, “then you argue about it, and then you come to a conclusion through those arguments. It’s just about grinding it out. You have to have the backbone to stand up, and you have to stand up for what your opinion is, and if people don’t agree that’s fine.

”I’m not always right. Scouts aren’t always right. Coaches aren’t always right, but as long as we can look at the full picture -- and we all look at the picture the same way -- let’s come to a conclusion. My job, our job in scouting, is to give the Joneses the most unbiased information we can give them and they make that decision.”

7. McClay is not going to force the draft

If you think the Cowboys should be use their top picks on defense, McClay has news for you. Speaking on SiriusXM NFL Radio in 2017, McClay explained how going into the NFL Draft with a fixed idea of what position to draft where is not a good idea.

“There’s a clear plan to try and improve the team overall,” said McClay. “People are going to say defense. I think coach [Rod] Marinelli did a wonderful job and for us to get to 13-3 and have the season that we did, it shows that we have talent there.

”We want to continue to improve that, but we don’t want to force anything.

“I think one of the things that you learn is if you plan you’re going to get a player on this side of the ball then you force it. What we’re going to do is let the chips fall where they may. We’re going to grade and evaluate the players and we’re going to pick the right players for us. We have our objectives and goals in mind.

“We want to build depth, but we want to build a strong team, too.”

8. BPA all the way

During training camp 2017, McClay joined the Hangin' with the Boys show on and explained why the Cowboys will always try to draft the best player available.

When you go into a draft, you kind of get a feel for where the strength of the talent coming in is. And it just so happened that [in 2017] our needs matched the strength of the draft in the secondary. There were a lot of secondary players, there were a lot of defensive players that we felt, for the right price, up front and linebackers, that could fit and help us fill the void.

But really, you just have to pick the best players that are there is the philosophy that we apply, because if you go chasing players, and if you give away something to get something, well you’re giving something up. Especially if players are in the same range. So what we try and do is value players properly, then you’re going to pick the player at the right value and hopefully get him to supersede that value.

So we didn’t go into it with the philosophy “we’re going to address the secondary”. If there weren’t secondary people there, there’s still other parts of the team to fix. Then you’ve got to find another way to fix what you’re missing.

9. The importance of football character and scouting from the feet up.

Garrett calls them the right kind of guys, McClay calls it football character, but what both are looking for are players that love the game, as McClay explained in the same 2017 Hangin' with the Boys interview when asked what's the thing he's looking for first when scouting.

The first thing is - you know we talk a lot about football character - love of the game. Because if you love something, you’ll do anything for it. You try to get that from watching them play, that’s not from somebody telling me. I can watch and see if they love the game.

The way I learned it, my father got me involved in football when I was six years old, and it’s just instilled in me: You go from the feet up.

Do you have foot quickness, do you have flexibility in your ankles, do you have knee bend. Because it’s a game of leverage and angles. So whatever position you play, it’s got to be leverage and angles. Can you bend, can you explode, can you change [direction], can you transition?

10. Marrying the coaches to the players

The final question brings us back to the very beginning of the post, to McClay's role as a unifier. Here Nate Newton asks him what “marrying the coaches to the players” means.

When you’re building the team, it’s like if your wife asks you to get groceries to make a pot roast and you come back with chicken. That’s not going to work.

Scouting and coaching are two different disciplines that have got to marry.

The coaches can’t worry about the salaries and all of that, they tell us what they want. And as a staff, we have to understand the personalities of the coaches, the scheme, and those deals, and how this player fits there.

The easier and the quicker the player fits with the coach, the more opportunity you have to improve your team if you find the right pieces.

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