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Cowboys “money draft” signals a major change in team-building approach

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The nerds are winning in Dallas.

NCAA Football: Alabama vs Duke
Trevon Diggs is one example: Use your draft picks on high value positions.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a week now, and we are getting over the near disbelief about how well the Dallas Cowboys did in the 2020 NFL Draft. There was a large chorus of observers raving about how value just kept raining on the team. What’s ahead is always more interesting than what has been done and cannot be changed. In light of that, we just put together a four part look at the current state of the Dallas roster, which attempted to encompass the returning veterans, the free agency pickups (and losses, in some cases), the draft picks, and the UDFA signings. Along the way, in the installment including linebackers, it was noted that what the team did not do in building the roster was just as important as what it did.

Upon further reflection, that short passage didn’t do the topic justice. If you combine free agency and the draft, something significant just happened. The entire approach to putting the team together has evolved. If you are a fan of analytics, this should make you excited, because it seems to be rooted in one of the oldest conclusions to come out of the whole movement.

That conclusion: The most important positions to address in the draft or free agency are the so-called “money positions”. They are quarterback, EDGE rusher, offensive tackle, wide receiver, and cornerback. Here’s another way of putting it.

That refers to how you pay your roster, but it also can serve as a guide to how you spend your draft picks as well. If those five are the ones that you invest the most money in, you should also use that limited draft capital to get the most value you possible. Further, these are positions that generally offer the biggest advantage to the team through things like DVOA and WAR valuations.

So take a look at what the Cowboys did with their seven draft picks: A wide receiver, two cornerbacks, an EDGE rusher, a developmental quarterback, a center, and a defensive tackle. While the latter two are not traditionally part of the most important positions, they are still somewhat crucial. The center position is of course where every play starts, plus it is also important against the interior defensive linemen who are becoming more a factor in helping rush the quarterback.

That makes all the draft picks this year good value beyond just filling a need. But there is another way to look at things that may be more significant for the future of the Cowboys: What positions they did not acquire in the draft.

Through a rather simple process of elimination, the less valuable positions, or the “non-money” ones, are running back, tight end, interior offensive line, interior defensive line, off-ball linebacker (which is all linebackers in a 4-3, or the interior LBs in a 3-4), safety, and specialists. The Cowboys had to invest a couple of picks in those guys in the trenches, but still they used five of seven to go for positions of unquestioned impact. If you take things a bit further and consider more than just two tiers of positions, DT, IOL, safety, and TE sort of occupy a middle level, with running backs (including the fullback position that some teams eschew completely) and off-ball linebackers generally the least valuable of the non-specialist roles.

Our own OCC made this argument before the draft.

A few days before the 2016 NFL Draft, my good friend rabblerousr explained the three circles that made up his first-round Venn Diagram:

1. Blue-chip

2. Durable position (no RB/ LB)

3. Money 5 (QB, WR, LT, CB, DE)

Imagine his delight when the Cowboys drafted the one-two punch of Ezekiel Elliott and Jaylon Smith that year!

Judging by the contracts the Cowboys handed to Elliott and Smith, they seem to be pretty happy with both selections, but they did get lucky with both picks. What happened to Todd Gurley and the Rams could just as easily have happened in Dallas, and Leighton Vander Esch’s neck issues highlight the issues with durability at the linebacker position.

Applying all that to the talent acquisition process, it leads to a conclusion that one coherent strategy is always go early and heavy on the “money” positions, particularly in the draft, and use affordable free agent signings, late-round picks, and UDFAs to fill out the others. It also means that you especially avoid using premium picks on positions for which there is a body of evidence supporting the idea that late-rounders and UDFAs can often come in and do the job. Running back is the one most often used as a clear example where many teams don’t just find an adequate player, many very productive starters have been found that way in recent seasons across the league.

There is also a separate argument concerning the tight end position. For many teams, it has evolved away from being most important as an in-line player who helps block in the running game to one that is more of a big wide receiver. That is even more true in the college ranks, where few teams even care about how a tight end blocks or even if they have one on the field. Many either just go with four wide receiver formations most of the time, or send the tight end out into the pattern when he is employed.

We are waiting for the return of real football activities to find out just how much things have changed under Mike McCarthy and his staff. But the draft already gives us convincing signs that the philosophy guiding the draft has led to a major shift in direction.

The Cowboys did not take any backs, linebackers, tight ends, or safeties in the draft. Safety was seen as a big need this offseason, but the signing of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was a big step in addressing that. They also signed TE Blake Bell, but he is mainly a depth signing.

This approach is very, very different from the nine drafts conducted while Jason Garrett was head coach. One thing that has emerged since McCarthy supplanted him is just how much influence Garrett had in the draft process. The way Dallas utilized their draft picks under him shows a completely different view of positional value.

Those drafts totaled 74 picks in all. A rather disappointing 17 of them were seventh-rounders, but that’s a subject for another day. What is a clear indication of how RB/FB, LB, and TE were overvalued under Garrett is that the team invested 23 of those picks to acquire those positions. That is 31% to take positions that, in the most common 11 offensive personnel and nickel defensive personnel packages, only represent 18% of your total players on the field. They really tied up a lot of their player portfolio in penny stocks. Making it even worse is that they used six “premium” picks, meaning first-, second-, or third-round, on these positions. With picks traded away in some drafts, the Cowboys had only 24 of premium chips to use on draft day during the Garrett stretch. So that is 25% of your high value draft picks thrown at that 18%.

The inefficiencies were truly pervasive. Garrett wasn’t just conservative in his thinking. He was about 25 years out of date, stuck in a roster mindset burned into his brain during his time as a backup QB with Dallas in the glory years of the early 1990s. It was the exact opposite of what the data and numbers in the 21st century say you should do with those limited draft picks every year.

Now, although the sample size is as small as possible, we have evidence that there is a truly new way of doing business at the Star (or, in this case, the yacht and various basements, home offices, dens, and living rooms.) The Cowboys spent 71% of their draft capital on “money” positions, and the other two on second tier level players. Exactly zero was sunk in the least productive roles. When you add in the incredible value versus expected draft position that Dallas got in this draft, then you just have even more evidence of just how powerfully they crushed this year’s picks. Not that you probably needed it.

It is a new day for the Cowboys, and given McCarthy’s explicitly expressed fondness for the proper use of analytics, it should just be the start. They aren’t just getting great talent coming out of college.

They are getting the most valuable players they can.