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The Cowboys, best player available drafting, and the upcoming 2021 draft

Is BPA a valid idea or just a bad echo of the Jason Garrett era?

NFL Draft, Day 1
Blame it on Redball? It was kinda his idea.
Paul Moseley/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Even though it is still over two months away, the NFL Draft is on just about every fan’s mind. This is especially true for those who follow the Dallas Cowboys, which has for years relied far more on drafting than free agency to acquire new talent. And when the team does go on the clock they want to take the best player available.

Or so we have been told. This has been a big topic concerning the Cowboys since Jason Garrett first articulated the theory, as reported in this WFAA article from March of 2016.

When he first ascended to the Cowboys head coaching position, Jason Garrett shared his talent acquisition strategy: use free agency to fill all the team’s obvious holes - Garrett termed them “must haves” - so that the front office isn’t handcuffed in the draft. The plan is to avoid being forced to draft a player at a specific position of need.

According to Garrett:

“In a perfect world, what you want to do is to go into the draft without needs. I think you tend to draft worse when you say, “I think we need to draft this position or that position.”...In an ideal situation you want to address your needs prior to the draft. Hard to do that, but you’re trying to do that so you can draft as purely as possible.”

If all of Dallas’ roster holes are filled with serviceable guys, the thinking goes, they can follow a purer “best player available” drafting strategy, and select a guy they never never thought would fall to them.

Besides showing just how much influence the reportedly “puppet head coach” had over the entire organization, it offers at least some explanation for how the team has shied away from spending cap space on top-tier free agents in the past. The article cites Zack Martin as a prime example of how this can work. It also was a philosophy that Stephen Jones took to, he always acts like he is absolutely penurious in cap space, and free agents in the first and second wave of signings eat that up rapidly.

When the Cowboys have few glaring needs, that can work out well. However, this isn’t that kind of year for the team, as they have far too many holes to fill, particularly on the defense. It seems clear that they have to factor in need even more than normal to rebuild the roster this year.

Further, there is a great example of how following the BPA philosophy can lead to issues over time. In a three-year stretch from 2003 to 2005, the Detroit Lions took a wide receiver with their first pick every time. While this may have been more about them picking poorly (Roy Williams was one of those selected) it also led to some pretty dismal performances, with the team going 16-32 over that stretch, and not having a winning season until 2011. That was mostly because they selected Matthew Stafford in 2009, and followed that up with Ndamukong Suh in 2010. They did go back to the WR well in 2007 with Calvin Johnson, but clearly had they not gotten Stafford to throw to him, he would likely not have had the stellar career he did. If ever there was a case of making the right call in that kind of situation, he is probably it.

An argument can be made that the Cowboys went with pure BPA in taking CeeDee Lamb last year, but he really represented a position of need as well. They needed a quality third receiver to match up with Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup, and prior to Prescott’s devastating injury, it looked like it was going to pay off royally with some potentially record-setting numbers in the passing game.

Now, Garrett is gone, and Mike McCarthy has the head coach’s chair in the draft room. We don’t know exactly how he feels about the approach, and Jones is showing every sign of being firmly entrenched in his ways. But we can hope that McCarthy and new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn will try to do things a bit differently. Last year’s draft class, which looks to be yielding four starters for this season in Lamb, Trevon Diggs, Neville Gallimore, and Tyler Biadasz, offers some hope, since it seems to have some indications that the team was looking at a combination of need and BPA.

To give Garrett his due, he did acknowledge that there were limitations to his preferred approach. BPA is still a good goal, but in recent years, a modified approach called BPA at position of need has been posited. No matter how good the best available player is when you go on the clock, if you take him over the highest one you have ranked at a position of glaring need, you aren’t getting the best bang for your draft pick.

That is why the Dallas draft board has to take those multiple needs into account. While we are still waiting for Jones to realize he has to pay Prescott, the assumption is that he eventually will cave and get a long-term deal done. Anything else, especially deciding to move on from Prescott, is just too depressing to contemplate. With that assumption, the team clearly has no need to draft a QB in any of the early rounds, and if they think they have something in Garrett Gilbert, there may be no need to use any of their projected ten picks on the position.

Similar cases can be made for running back, wide receiver, and tight end, and other possible needs like linebacker and interior offensive line should probably be held off until late on day two or day three of the draft.

The Cowboys have so many needs this year that even ten picks, with six projected in the first four rounds, may not be enough. It is almost certain that it will take more than one offseason to fix the team, which makes Prescott even more a priority to lock up for more than one more season on a franchise tag. He is going to be the engine that drives this team.

Best player available has to be merged with the holes that have to be filled. Given that there is little chance that Dallas will sign top-tier free agents, that is still going to rely mostly on the draft. It is a constantly changing calculation as the team makes its picks, with double-dipping likely relegated to day three. Some positions like cornerback could merit a couple of premium picks, but opportunity costs also have to be factored in.

BPA was at best a strong guideline and at worst something of a myth for the Cowboys. Now, with a new regime in its second year, we will have anther look at how they put things together - and how they are likely to proceed in the future.