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Reading what the Cowboys’ pre-draft visits tell us - and don’t tell us

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The names (we think) are all in, so let’s take a closer look.

Sports Illustrated

With the days rapidly dwindling until the 2018 NFL Draft starts, the Dallas Cowboys are now down to finalizing their draft board. The 30 official visits are done, and we think we know who all of them were. Additionally, we know about a lot of other players that came for Dallas Day or with whom the team conducted a private workout. So now we know just what the list is of potential first-round picks, and who they are likely to target later on. Right?

Well, maybe. And maybe not.

Yes, we know that the Cowboys have a history of using their first-round pick on players they had in for a visit - but not always. And we have seen them take other players later in the draft from that list. But they also have taken a lot of others who we never knew they had an eye on.

The lists of players who the team has been more involved in gives us indications, but these are limited resources. Not only are the visits capped at 30, but the staff obviously cannot go out and work out every single player that they might be interested in. What may be more informative is the positions they look at, how they stack up as far as projected round, and the numbers involved.

And before we dive into all that, there is the other side of these visits and workouts. Sometimes, the result of them is that the player goes off the board, or is moved down. Those are essentially job interviews, and most of us have probably walked out of one of those and known that we needed to keep looking, because that one was a bust. Or, if you have been on the hiring side of the table, you have seen plenty of candidates who may have looked good on the application, but a few minutes face-to-face let you know that offering them the position was likely to result in chaos and disaster.

Visits or private workouts are no different. Many have good outcomes, but not all. And there is a theory that some teams, possibly including the Cowboys, use at least some of these opportunities to deal with “borderline” players, those who have some outstanding traits or video, but who have some questions that need to be answered, such as off-field or character concerns, or perhaps some disconnect between the tape and their measurables. It is reasonable to expect a handful of visits to not go well. Some outstanding college players just don’t make the transition well (like Johnny Manziel, for instance), and others quite frankly just don’t know how to conduct themselves - which in itself can be a red flag for teams.

That’s why focusing in on the names involved can be perilous or misleading. Another problem is the limitations on how many of these “closer looks” a team can do. With their first pick currently at 19, the Cowboys are in a position where they have to make some choices in how to use those. If you follow the link to the BTB tracker above, you will notice something is missing. There are exactly zero names projected to go in the top ten. It is fairly clear that the staff didn’t see any reason to expend a limited resource on players that would be very unlikely to make it to 19, or even far enough to warrant the cost of a move up to get them.

That doesn’t mean that if a top ten talent, like Roquan Smith, Derwin James, or (pipe dream that it is) Quenton Nelson was still around after the first 15 picks, Dallas would hesitate at all to consider getting them. Some players are going to be viewed by the staff as basically a lock, and there is no need to take a closer look at them. The Cowboys have not done much of that in recent years, with Morris Claiborne being the most notable exception. But that may be more a testament to the skill of the team in forecasting the path of the draft than anything else.

Still, this year looks to be somewhat more unpredictable than most. So it is not out of the question that the first-round pick will be someone not on the lists that we have been talking about.

What may be most indicative of what the Cowboys are looking at is the distribution of talent among their visitors and workouts. The original article touches on this, but let us dig in a bit deeper.

The first round seems to have been narrowed down to four positions, as Dave Halprin noted in his writeup.

A closer examination shows that they have three defensive tackles projected to go in the first round, with three wide receivers also with a first round projection. Close behind that are two offensive linemen and two linebackers with first-round projections. It should be an indication of what they’re thinking heading into day one of the draft.

The heavy interest in DTs would seem the clearest sign that their established aversion to taking one in the first round may now be a thing of the past. It also makes sense to really look closely at players that would represent such a change in approach. You want to be very sure that you are right if you make that much of a philosophical shift.

Wide receivers do indicate the added importance of that to the team after the release of Dez Bryant. And this looks like a real candidate for double-dipping in the draft as well. But it is also worth noting that there are so many other WRs the team is showing interest in, covering all rounds and UDFA possibilities as well. The sheer volume makes it hard to say just how good the chance is of going with a wide receiver in the first. The team may be thinking more of day two to get one, with a second in the later rounds. This is going to depend heavily on how they stack their board and who is taken before them.

Offensive line is a very interesting position, because most of the ones they have looked at closely (including some tackles who could either move to guard or allow them to shift La’el Collins back inside) are seen as no worse than fourth-round talents. It can be argued that getting the OL fixed is perhaps the top priority for using their premium picks. (This is why mock drafts that don’t address this early seem rather poorly thought-out.)

Linebacker is also a big concern, but the numbers are the smallest of what seem to be the four positions that have the most interest. That may be more a reflection of how the team views the talent pool this year as far as fitting their scheme, as well as the general devaluation of the position in recent years.

Of the other positions, it seems pretty clear that safety and running back are slots they will seek to address later on, most likely on day three. Everything else looks to be afterthoughts that the team would not be too concerned with not getting at all in the draft. Tight end especially seems to not be much on the radar at all, as (logically) is quarterback. Also almost unseen anywhere on the lists is cornerback, which bolsters the perception that they are very pleased with what they already have to work with this year.

Past performance is no guarantee of future practices, of course, but it seems highly unlikely that the Cowboys are going to make a real shift away from using the pre-draft visits and workouts to identify their most sought-after players. And this year’s names offer an easily read roadmap.