The NFL Draft is the most important event of the offseason. It brings in a new wave of college players, some of whom will go on to help their teams a great deal. However, let me propose a somewhat heretical thought. The draft is given far too much weight. This certainly applies to the Dallas Cowboys, with EVP Stephen Jones constantly preaching the dogma that it is the most important aspect of building the roster. Few teams relegate free agency to an afterthought the way Dallas does, especially this year. But most similarly place more emphasis on the draft than is justified.
It is true that a properly conducted draft with accurate scouting is important. The problem is that getting players of remarkable talent is no guarantee of success. The Cowboys take pride in their drafting prowess, but it has been a long time since that translated to true playoff success. They are far from alone. Constructed to level the playing field, the draft rewards failure each year by giving the best draft picks to the teams that had the worst performance the previous season. Yet time and time again, we see teams sitting at or near the top of the draft order have no significant improvement the following year.
One of the most obvious examples is the Jacksonville Jaguars. This season they held the first pick, taking DE Travon Walker. He was certainly one of the best players in a class that had relatively few legitimate first-round talents. But if the draft was the boost for teams that it should be, they should not have held that selection, because it was the second year in a row for them. In 2021, they took QB Trevor Lawrence, who was not only seen as the cream of the crop but also plays the most important position in football. Things should not have gone so poorly for him, since the two previous years Jacksonville also picked in the top 10. But he walked into a disastrous situation, headlined by head coach Urban Meyer. Meyer was one of the most dysfunctional head coaches in the history of the NFL, getting fired during his first season as the Jaguars once again limped to the worst record in the league. He in turn got the job because the organization in Jacksonville is also one of the worst. Just hiring Meyer, with the many red flags about how he runs things from his college career, was an indicator of that. They were seduced by the titles Meyer won while ignoring how he trashed the teams he coached along the way before leaving his jobs under a cloud.
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There are plenty of other teams that have had long stretches with high draft picks but little success to show for it, including the Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. You can certainly include Dallas in that list. All those have seen things go better in recent seasons, but still went through those dismal stretches where significant draft capital did not turn into immediate success.
Conversely, there is the example of the New England Patriots. With their dynasty during the first two decades of this century, they went year after year without any high picks, and often made strange ones very similar to their selection of Cole Strange in this year’s first round. Many point to QB Tom Brady as the biggest reason. He himself was a sixth-round pick who has arguably outperformed his draft position more than any other player in history. But the real reason for the long run of dominance is Bill Belichick. He helped mold Brady into the most accomplished quarterback the NFL has ever seen despite Brady’s relative lack of physical talent. Brady does bring a great football mind to the table, but that was also something Belichick helped forge. Almost single-handedly, Belichick turned New England into one of the best run organizations in the NFL.
No one is saying that about Dallas. Quite the opposite. GM Jerry Jones and his son Stephen run the show with bizarre habits of announcing their plans and strategy to the world. Whether it is jeopardizing the trade value of Amari Cooper, as Bob Sturm detailed in his recent piece for The Athletic, or flashing the first part of their draft board for social media to dissect, as we covered here, they constantly put themselves at a competitive disadvantage for no other reason than their playing to the media and inability to keep things to themselves.
That is no help to head coach Mike McCarthy. He and his staff have the all-important job of turning the players the ownership provides each year and trying to create a winning team. That is where most NFL teams succeed or fail. The jury is still out on McCarthy as his first two seasons have had mixed results. Working for the Jones family is a mitigating circumstance, but it will do nothing to help him keep his job.
McCarthy was said to have been more involved in the draft process this year than ever before. That is not necessarily a good sign, as there are indications that the focus this year was on repairing the running game for the Cowboys. In a passing league, that is probably not the wisest way to go. Like the Patriots, they have been gifted with Dak Prescott, a true franchise QB that was more or less an afterthought in the draft. Maximizing his potential would seem a better approach, but they look to have gone the other direction on both sides of the ball, with fifth-round pick DT John Ridgeway apparently drafted for his run-stuffing talent with little impact against the pass in college.
This leaves Dallas saddled with its own dysfunctional front office and a head coach who has questionable priorities for improving the team. That seems far more influential for the future than who they picked where in the draft. Without a complementary approach to free agency to also improve the roster, it is putting too much emphasis on one part of team building. We all hope the new players go on to be very successful in the league, but frankly the odds are that only two or three of them will be real assets over the next few seasons, and there are plenty of examples where teams whiffed completely during the draft.
This is definitely a “wait and see” year after the recent offseason and having relatively poor draft capital to work with. A level of excitement will build, at least for some of us, with the minicamps and OTAs starting later this month. You can’t get a good read off of those limited practices, and the Cowboys lost a day of OTAs because they got too physical in them last year. We can hope for the best, but won’t have any real idea until the games start this fall.