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Best player available: How true have the Cowboys been to their draft board in the past?

We take a detailed look at the 2010, 2013, and 2016 drafts to figure out how serious the Cowboys are about drafting the Best Player Available.

Dallas Cowboys v Washington Redskins Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

One of the biggest ironies of the NFL offseason is how the entire mock draft industry (and yes, it is an industry, people make real money with mock drafts) is built around the concept of drafting for need, yet every draftnik will insist teams must draft the best player available (BPA) or at least, in a minor concession to draft-day reality, the best player at position of need (BPAPON) or some similarly abbreviated derivative.

Underlying the BPA approach is, of course, someone’s arbitrary ranking of who exactly those best players are. And draftniks will talk themselves into a holy furor if teams don’t draft the exact player the draftnik had ranked as the BPA.

Yet all we can really ask of NFL teams is that they stay true to their own draft boards.

Legend holds that those draft boards should be constructed “on pure talent,” but that is hardly ever the case. Scheme fit (e.g. 3-4 vs 4-3), player measurables (e.g. minimum height for corners), scouting philosophy (e.g. importance of character vs pure talent), coaching preferences (remember the “quick-twitch” defensive linemen?), and many other factors play a role in constructing draft boards, and explain why no two draft boards are alike.

But there are other, more nefarious, forces at work on draft boards than the examples above. Owners have been known to push players (Dan Snyder picking Dwayne Haskins over the strenuous objections of his scouting staff; Jerry Jones almost taking Johnny Manziel over Zack Martin, but relenting to his scouting staff), and scouts and coaches don’t always see eye to eye, as the following quote from an old ESPN piece by Calvin Watkins and Matt Mosley exemplifies:

Larry Lacewell, the Cowboys’ former director of scouting, said the team used to take pictures of the draft board to make sure nobody would touch it because sneaky coaches would surreptitiously move players around. “It was always coaches vs. scouts,“ Lacewell said. “If a coach liked a certain player, then he might move him from a fifth-round grade to a third-round grade on the board overnight. We get in the next morning and we weren’t sure if the board was right. So we started taking pictures of it every night just to make sure it wasn’t touched when we got in the next day.”

The quote references Lacewell, who retired from the Cowboys in 2004, so you would think Lacewell’s departure and Bill Parcells’ arrival in 2003 would have fixed those issues between coaches and scouts in Dallas. Well, you’d be wrong in thinking that.

Will McClay, the Cowboys VP of Player Personnel, was promoted to his current role after the 2013 draft, and that promotion was a direct result of a huge disagreement between the scouts and the coaches during the 2013 draft.

In 2013, the Cowboys had DT Sharrif Floyd ranked as the fifth-best player in the draft. He was still available when the Cowboys were on the clock with the 18th pick, but the pro guys made it clear they had no intention of drafting Sharrif Floyd, regardless of how high the scouting department had graded him. Instead, the Cowboys traded down.

You could also go back to 2012: CB Morris Claiborne was graded as the “best corner since Deion” but failed to live up to expectations in Dallas. Sure, injuries played a role, but was Claiborne really the best possible fit specifically for Dallas, or was this another disconnect between the scouts and the pro guys?

After the 2013 draft, the Cowboys were happy with their draft haul, but unhappy with the process that had gotten them there. The disconnect between the scouts and coaches led to the promotion of McClay to the most important position in the organization that can be manned by somebody not named Jones. McClay is now in charge of the draft board, and from what we’ve gleaned over the years since, the board is no longer constructed “on pure talent,” but designed to deliver the best possible players that fit the Cowboys system.

And even with McClay in charge, all sorts of considerations will continue to go into making up the final draft board: salary cap ramifications, competitive considerations, player personnel strategies, personal likes and dislikes, etc.

So how true have the Cowboys been to their draft board?

Instead of relying on anecdotal evidence about how high a player was purportedly ranked in which draft, we can look at the actual draft boards from the 2010, 2013, and 2016 drafts, and look at how stringently the Cowboys followed BPA.

However, we’ll only look at the first four rounds of those drafts. As the draft moves through the third day, player grades provide progressively less differentiation, meaning players may be ranked differently but there may easily be multiple players with identical grades. So whether a player was ranked 79th or 80th or 81st becomes a distinction without a difference: a logical fallacy where one assumes a distinction between different things where no discernible difference exists.

Also, strategic draft considerations begin playing a role beyond just the pure ranking on the big board:

In 2012, Ronald Leary was on the board with a third-round grade, but the Cowboys speculated that Leary would go undrafted because of concerns over his degenerative knee condition. They Cowboys were proven right and they signed him as a UDFA.

In 2013, the Cowboys picked DeVonte Holloman (fifth-round grade) over Brandon Magee (fourth-round grade). Why?

They made the call to pick Holloman and chance that Magee would make it to free agency because of Magee’s smaller size and injury history. They also felt Holloman was a better special teams player.

2010

With all of that out of the way, let’s dig into the three draft boards, starting with the 2010 draft. The table below summarizes the first four rounds of the 2010 draft, looks at whether the player drafted was the BPA at the time of the pick, and if he wasn’t, how many spots “Behind BPA” he was.

2010 Round Pick Draft Board Rank Spots behind BPA
Dez Bryant 1 24 BPA - -
Sean Lee 2 55 BPA - -
Akwasi Owusu-Ansah 4 126 BPA - -

In 2020, the Cowboys traded up twice, once for Dez Bryant (ranked 12th overall on their big board), once for Sean Lee (ranked 14th).

You can always discuss the merits of trading up (or trading down), but at the time the Cowboys were on the clock in the first and second rounds, Bryant and Lee were both BPA.

You may not like to read this, but the Cowboys did everything right with the AOA pick, at least from a draft point of view. Their scouting of the player is a different matter entirely, but for what it’s worth, AOA was the BPA (ranked 69th on their big board) at the time of the pick.

The Cowboys would add OL Sam Young in the sixth, and DB Jamar Wall along with DT Sean Lissemore in the seventh. At the time they were taken, each player had two players with a higher rank ahead of him.

2013

Discussion of BPA here will likely be overshadowed by the Sharrif Floyd “Kerfuffle”, as Tom Ryle once called it, but here’s who the Cowboys ended up picking:

2013 Round Pick Draft Board Rank Spots behind BPA
Travis Frederick 1 31 BPA - -
Gavin Escobar 2 47 - - 1
Terrance Williams 3 74 BPA - -
JJ Wilcox 3 80 - - 4
B.W. Webb 4 114 BPA - -

When the Cowboys decided to trade out of the 18th spot that year, there were still five players with a first-round grade left on the board. The aforementioned Sharrif Floyd (5th overall), DB Xavier Rhodes (11th), WR Cordarrelle Patterson (13th), TE Tyler Eifert (15th), DL Björn Werner (17th).

But by the time they were back on the clock with the 31st pick, Travis Frederick was the BPA.

Curiously, when they were back on the clock in the second round, Terrance Williams and Gavin Escobar - in that order - were the best players left on the board. Technically, the Cowboys should have picked Williams here. In practice, Williams and Escobar may have had the same grade, or one so close that there was no real distinction between the two. The Cowboys later explained that they felt there was a bigger chance that Williams would fall farther than Escobar, which led them to pick Escobar over Williams at this spot.

Williams was still around in the third, and he turned out to be a “true” BPA, whereas Escobar turned out not to be a lot of things.

At the end of the third round, the Cowboys ran into a bit of a conundrum. When it came time to make the 80th pick of the draft, these were the best remaining players on their board:

  • QB Ryan Nassib, ranked 28th
  • QB Matt Barkley, 31st
  • DB B.W. Webb, 47th
  • S J.J. Wilcox, 50th

Two QBs would have been BPA at this spot, but the Cowboys chose neither. Both QBs had a second-round grade on the Cowboys’ board, but the Cowboys either felt that there was no need to draft a third QB, or felt they had a bigger need in the secondary. Ultimately, they ended up picking Wilcox over all three, and Webb fell to them as BPA in the fourth round.

The Cowboys rounded out the draft with RB Joseph Randle (third-best player on the board) and LB Devonte Hollman (seventh-best).

2016

2016 Round Pick Draft Board Rank Spots behind BPA
Ezekiel Elliott 1 4 BPA - -
Jaylon Smith 2 34 BPA - -
Maliek Collins 3 67 - - 4
Charles Tapper 4 101 - - 9
Dak Prescott 4 135 - - 9

Many fans fundamentally disagree with picking a running back this high (at least until Elliott delivers a Super Bowl to Dallas), but he was BPA for the Cowboys, as was Jaylon Smith in round two. The Cowboys had Elliott ranked No. 1 overall on their draft board, with Smith in the fifth overall spot.

In the third round, Maliek Collins had two players ranked ahead of him. CB Kendall Fuller had a high second-round grade (23rd overall), but the Cowboys were not in a CB-picking mood. QB Connor Cook (37th) was ranked just four spots above Collins, and while their actual grades may have been a push, Collins wasn’t the BPA at that spot.

And then things went a bit off the rails for the Cowboys.

Sitting at No. 72, the Cowboys tried to trade up to get QB Connor Cook (ranked 37th) but failed to make the trade and Cook was snagged one pick before the Cowboys were on the clock.

So the Cowboys made what may have been their biggest need pick in DE Charles Tapper. Eight players were ranked higher on the board at the time the Cowboys picked Tapper.

  • 3 RBs (Paul Perkins, Jordan Howard, Devontae Booker). But after picking Elliott, the Cowboys may have been more comfortable spending their mid-round picks elsewhere.
  • 2 DLs (Quinton Jefferson, Ronald Blair), who may have lost their attractiveness after the team picked Collins a round earlier
  • 3 more players (OG Connor McGovern, WR Pharoh Cooper, CB Anthony Brown) who were ranked immediately ahead of Tapper, and perhaps had a similar or identical grade.

In any case, the Cowboys went into the draft with needs at DT and DE and made sure they got them in the middle rounds.

Similarly, after first trying to go for QB Paxton Lynch and then also failing to get QB Connor Cook, the Cowboys were in QB-acquisition mode and defaulted to QB with their next pick, lucking into Dak Prescott with the 135th pick of the draft. Eight players were higher on the draft board than Dak Prescott, including QB Jeff Driskell, but in a stroke of imbecilic good luck, they opted for Prescott over Driskell.

Anthony Brown and Kavon Frazier, both with fourth-round grades, were BPA when the Cowboys picked them in the sixth.


The three tables above are conveniently color coded, and if you add them up, the Cowboys went BPA in eight out of the 13 picks listed. We have nothing to compare that with, so we don’t know whether that is good or bad, or how that compares to other teams.

What we can see from the three drafts is that they tend to stick pretty close to their board at the top of the draft, but then have a tendency to go “off board” in the later rounds. Of course, we can post-rationalize all those moves to a degree, and there’s probably more to a draft than simply picking players in sequence off a list, but you can’t help but wonder how much you want your team to stray from its draft board, for whatever reason.

But perhaps the biggest danger in the draft comes not from picking a player a few spots below the BPA, but from “hunting” a specific player or position. Imagine where the Cowboys would be today if they had succeeded in trading up for either Paxton Lynch or Connor Cook in 2016. Or if they had picked Johnny Manziel over Zack Martin in 2014. Or if they had not taken the best remaining “pressure player” in the first round of the 2017 draft, despite that player having only a second-round grade.

“We had a cornerback in the mix but we felt Taco was the right pick for us if he was sitting there,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “We felt we could get a good corner at the bottom of the second. If we didn’t get a pressure player with this pick we might not see one for a while. That had a big time effect.”

And that’s where the Best-Player-At-Position-Of-Need argument can lead to disaster; the bigger you define your need, the dumber your decision often becomes.