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Highly unscientific draft prediction: Someone we don’t expect will fall to the Cowboys

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It’s shaping up to be a very hard draft to figure out, because the best players generally aren’t at the most desired positions.

Wild Card Playoffs - Detroit Lions v Dallas Cowboys
The draft is coming!
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The start of the 2018 NFL Draft is now just eight days away. That means that we will stop being bombarded by endless mock drafts. And it is about time. Like many if not most of you, I can’t stop myself from clicking on the blasted things to see what the prediction for the Dallas Cowboys is, especially at pick 19. But it is getting a tad frustrating, as I said yesterday on Twitter.

The past few days AD (After Dez), just about everyone seems to have Dallas taking a wide receiver in the first round. While there has always been some reasoning that it is a position they would be interested in, the latest takes are obviously something of a knee-jerk reaction to the release of Dez Bryant. Another popular choice this mock season has been linebacker. While both WR and LB represent needs for the Cowboys, there are a lot of reasons why they might not really be smart options in the first round. Of course, it all depends on the board that is being assembled now in the draft room at the Star. While I have made it clear that I favor fixing the left guard first and also putting a high priority on a defensive tackle, that has nothing to do with the thinking of the Dallas staff.

But moreover, this could be a really unpredictable first round. There are a variety of factors that could mean that some unexpected players might be available for the Cowboys when they go on the clock.

First, there are some positions that are traditionally seen as more important for NFL teams than others. In particular, for some time the top ones have been seen as quarterback, left tackle, wide receiver, EDGE rusher, and cornerback. But this year, the best players available on draft day are somewhat sparse at those positions, with the exception of QB (although that is a bit deceptive, as we’ll get into later). If you look at big boards out there, such as the one at CBS Sports, there are a lot of players at positions like guard, safety, and inside linebacker listed in the top 20 names, with a relative paucity of offensive tackles, wide receivers, and corners. This creates something of a dilemma for teams. Do you stick with the best player theory and take one of the positions that are not seen as so valuable, or do you structure your board to try and fill those “money” positions? Every team has its own approach, but with the way the talent is stacked up in this year’s draft class, there are likely to be some reaches as teams try to fill those more crucial spots.

Nowhere is this more true than at quarterback. When you look at most mocks, the question isn’t whether quarterbacks are going to be taken early - it is how many. Most mocks have at least four going in the top ten picks, and possibly five in the first round. The problem is that none of the QBs coming out this year may really be worth those premium picks. At the SBNation NFL umbrella site, writer Bill Connelly did a very deep dive into what can be used to predict a quarterback’s success on entering the league - and he thinks this is just an unimpressive group for 2018.

I’ve been very confused by the chatter about this being an amazing QB draft class. The buzz began before the 2017 season and continued despite Wyoming’s Josh Allen regressing drastically from a statistical perspective, UCLA’s Josh Rosen continuing to struggle with injuries, and USC’s Sam Darnold dealing with some turnoveritis.

I have long suspected that this QB buzz has come in part because most of the truly best players in the draft play positions that don’t tend to warrant the top pick — running back (Saquon Barkley), offensive guard (Quenton Nelson), safety (Minkah Fitzpatrick, Derwin James), inside linebacker (Roquan Smith).

He also sees the same imbalance between talent and positional value in the class. We know that several teams will feel compelled to take a quarterback early, because that position is still king in the NFL. But they are going to do so at the expense of passing on players who may have a greater success in the league. And that pushes talent down the board.

The Cowboys have shown they are not wedded to the idea of high value positions in the draft, as evidenced by the selections of Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, and Ezekiel Elliott in the not-too-distant past. Dallas has its own, very specific strategy for building the team, and they are clearly willing to follow it. And as the picks represented by Frederick and Martin show, it also is clearly driven by who is gone when they come up to make a pick or decide to try and trade back.

As a matter of fact, Connelly is doing an entire series on how the talent at the top of the draft is going to mean teams will either have to go outside the box in who to take or settle for less valuable players.

If he is correct in his thinking (and the first two articles in his series on QBs and RBs are very persuasive), then those players he listed in that second paragraph in the blockquote above are ripe to slide down if many teams do stick to the traditional thinking on what positions to draft.

And with the Cowboys’ own penchant for marching to the beat of a somewhat different kazoo, one or more of those names might be there at 19. And that should make you salivate. Because outside of Barkley, every one is a superb talent at a position of need for Dallas. They might even be names that the staff may want to use some of the draft capital they have with 10 overall picks to try and move up for. Conversely, they may see enough good talent still available when their turn comes to risk trading back a few spots and still likely have a top talent there for the plucking.

Meanwhile, the current fascination with mocking a WR to the Cowboys ignores the depth of the class at that position, as well as the growing evidence that many teams are moving away from the belief that they need that huge threat at WR1 to succeed. The release of Bryant and the avowed dedication to creating a Dak Prescott friendly offense are signs that Dallas is coming to that same conclusion. The argument can also be made that the WR crop, like QBs, does not have that many true first-round talents in it this year, but a lot of day two possibilities to wait for.

Every year, there are some surprising picks in the top half of the first round. 2018 is shaping up to have more of those than normal. It will likely wreak havoc on most mocks, but most importantly, it could leave the Cowboys with a wealth of good options on day one of the actual draft.

Now all they have to do is get it right.