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The strategy and tactics of the Cowboys’ 2019 draft

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We know who they picked. Now let’s dive into why.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Arizona Cardinals
Let’s try to get inside their heads.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It’s done. The draft is in the books and the Dallas Cowboys have eight new players from that, plus a list of UDFA signings that is probably not quite done yet. The picks have already been dissected, graded, discussed, and critiqued, and that is going to continue to the point of exhaustion. But I try to look at things from a different angle. One of the things that got me started here at BTB was delving for insight into how the brain-trust works in Dallas, particularly the big four: Owner/GM Jerry Jones, EVP and real driving force in personnel Stephen Jones, scouting maester Will McClay, and head coach Jason Garrett.

2019 gives us a lot to examine. This was not your typical Cowboys draft. And it showed us some things that were expected, and some that were a bit out of left field.

Stretching scant resources

Everyone who paid any attention at all the past several months was well aware that the team did not have a first-round pick, having already used it (with extreme effectiveness) to acquire WR Amari Cooper. And the six picks they had were all positioned very late in the rounds.

It should be obvious that this had to have a great effect on how the team approached the draft. Simply put, with their first pick not coming until the 58th overall selection, they were not likely to come up with a player that was going to impress the world. This take is a nice analogy.

The entirely too early grades on the Dallas effort reflect this, with their division rivals, especially the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington, all being seen as having done much more in the draft. But those other teams had a lot more capital to spend, and would have had to really blown it to not get more talent than the Cowboys. (And the New York Giants may just have done that.) Those grades, many of which will be laughed at in a couple of years, don’t really have a mechanism to adjust for how much was done with the material at hand. Most also don’t address or gloss over Cooper’s value.

The pertinent question, one that admittedly won’t fully be answered for a long time, is: Did the team accomplish its goals in the draft? They talk like they did, but so does every other franchise at the moment.

Since that is absolutely to be determined, we move on to other things.

The pre-draft visits once again played a major role

Three of the eight draftees, Trysten Hill, Tony Pollard, and Mike Weber, were at the Star leading up to the draft. 37.5% is a solid confirmation of just how much the team uses those visits to find players they want to target. And several of the other selections mentioned contact with the staff during the Senior Bowl, the combine, and pro-days. A lot of that can be attributed to just doing as much due diligence as possible, but clearly the team likes to go with players with whom they have some first-hand knowledge.

And it extends to the UDFA signings, as both Chris Westry and Jon’Vea Johnson were invited to Frisco. They also got a look at Jalen Guyton during Dallas Day.

There’s a reason we track those visits so closely during the run-up to the draft each year.

This may have been a true “best player available” draft

One source of consternation was that the team did not address one of the biggest perceived needs, safety, until the sixth round. However, this year’s free agency was seen as having done a particularly effective job of “filling in the holes” so that there were no truly pressing needs for the team to address. They had all the likely starting jobs filled, and most of the key backups, before they ever went on the clock on Friday. So they were able to a large degree to go with the best player they had on their board at a given point.

The selections seemed to bear that out. Hill was one example.

Third-round pick Connor McGovern was another that fits this, even though he stated in his call with the Draft Show at DallasCowboys.com that he had no prior contact with anyone from the team. And an offensive lineman fits right in with the “build up in the trenches” philosophy Jerry Jones espoused. That in itself might not be the wisest way to go in 2019, as there is an argument being made that the quarterback, receivers, and defensive backs are actually the most valuable pieces for constructing the roster - but given the way Dallas approaches things, taking an offensive lineman makes perfect sense. And McGovern must have really impressed the scouts and coaches to warrant that third-round slot.

Further evidence of this came on day three, as the six selections focused on three areas, running back, defensive back, and pass rushers. Doubling up not once but three times has to reflect a desire to go with value (according to their board) rather than trying to fill needs.

They had to have a lot of faith in their existing roster to do this.

Trading back to get more bodies

With the paucity of picks, it didn’t seem that the Cowboys had much chance to make trades. But they fooled us there, gaining two additional selections late on day three.

Part of that was possibly driven by how that fourth-round pick, Tony Pollard, played out. It seems that the team was originally hoping to get him and then still have another player they wanted at pick 136, but it appears that was ruined when both Isaiah Johnson and John Cominsky were taken before Dallas’ compensatory pick rolled around. At that point, with the talent pool obviously thinned out, more picks became a better value in their mind. That is likely due to the final point here.

Using late round picks to make UDFA signings easier

This is one of the more subtle things to come out of this. In the fifth through seventh rounds, there is some value in using the picks to get a player you want, but that might be a bit difficult to secure in the free agent frenzy that comes immediately after Mr. Irrelevant is taken. This would particularly apply for Joe Jackson and Jalen Jelks, who come into a crowded DE room, and to Mike Weber, with Ezekiel Elliott and now Tony Pollard already on the roster. Both might have been more willing to go to a team with less competition to improve their chances. It is true that the Cowboys have a certain cachet.

But even Luke Gifford’s desire to land in Dallas was influenced by the perception that there is a real chance to break through. And Westry got a nice guarantee (reportedly $100K total), because money always talks.

Drafting a player in the late rounds keeps the team from having to outbid other teams for a player in the UDFA market who is seen as having real value. The evidence is that was exactly the strategy here.

Every year is different, but some of these things are ones we have seen the team either exhibit, or in the “best player” aspect, espouse in the past. And all give us a hint of how the brain trust works at the Star.