Somewhere between drafting Tyron Smith in 2011 and drafting Zack Martin in 2013, a notion developed in the minds of Cowboys fans that Dallas is always looking to draft the best player at his position (in the first round of the draft). But do the Cowboys really?
A combination of post-rationalizing bad picks, high draft positions, drafting a lot of non-premium positions over the years, and occasionally actually drafting the best player at his position has this tenet of Cowboys draftology seemingly writ in stone.
So today we take a chisel to that stone, and hammer away at that dearly held tenet one pick at a time, starting in 2011.
2011: Tyron Smith, OT, 9th pick. Smith was indeed the first tackle off the board, so score one for the Cowboys in this, although the high pick increased the chances of getting the top guy at his position. There aren’t too many drafts in which the top tackle falls all the way to the 9th spot, so the Cowboys got a bit lucky there, but no complaints for drafting an eight-time Pro Bowler.
2012: Morris Claiborne, CB, 6th pick. Dallas trades up for Claiborne and gets the first corner in the draft. 2-0 for the Best Player at his Position (BPP), and we begin to understand where the BPP idea gets some early traction. The pick didn’t work out, but that’s a different story.
2013: Travis Frederick, OC, 31st pick. Here’s where the BPP narrative begins to unravel. Technically, Frederick was the BPP as a center (who drafts a center in the first anyway?), but the Cowboys did not go into the draft planning to draft the best center available. The process that got Frederick to Dallas was a mess and Dallas ended up with the BPP by pure coincidence.
The Cowboys went into the draft with the 18th overall pick, and were looking hard at offensive guards Jonathan Cooper and Chance Warmack, but both were taken in the top 10. And when safety Kenny Vaccaro went 15th to New Orleans - three ahead of Dallas’ original slot - things started to come apart.
With Vaccaro gone, the focus shifted to Florida defensive lineman Sharrif Floyd, who apparently had a top 5 grade on the Cowboys’ board.
It was a crazy draft. They had Floyd in the top five on their board. McClay took over the draft the next year. https://t.co/IaxjGrQYQD— BryanBroaddus (@BryanBroaddus) February 17, 2023
But the coaches didn’t like him, so the Cowboys traded down and ended up with Travis Frederick with the 31st pick.
In fact, an argument could be made that they were hoping to get another offensive lineman, Justin Pugh, with their 31st pick. Pugh was rated one spot above Frederick on the Cowboys’ draft board, but Pugh was picked 19th by the Giants, so the Cowboys took Frederick, the last remaining offensive lineman in the first round.
You could argue further that the Cowboys weren’t even sure whether Frederick would play center or guard, perhaps because they had focused so much on trying to find an answer for either guard spot in the draft. Here’s Garrett on the day after picking Frederick:
Because he has position flex, and has played a full season at either spot, we feel good about plugging him in at either spot and having him compete with the guys we have on our roster. So we haven’t made that determination right now. We like competition, as you guys know, and he’ll certainly be very much in the mix, having picked him in the first round.
Of course, in hindsight we all love the pick, but to claim Frederick was drafted as part of a long-term draft strategy is just nonsense. 2-1 BPP.
2014: Zack Martin, OG, 16th pick. Surely Martin is the prime example of a BPP, right? Not so fast.
Drafting Martin certainly wasn’t the plan going into the 2014 draft. At the time, the Cowboys had four players with the same grade on their board, DE Anthony Barr, DT Aaron Donald, LB Ryan Shazier, and OG Zack Martin.
“All of those guys were right there with the same grade,” Jones said, referring to Martin, Barr, Donald and Shazier.
It’s debatable how those four players were ranked on the Cowboys board (even if they did have the same grade), though I’m fairly certain they would have picked any of the three defenders over Martin. In the end, the discussion is moot, because Barr went to the Vikings at No. 9, the Rams picked Donald at No. 13, and Pittsburgh grabbed Shazier from under the Cowboys’ noses at No. 15:
The Cowboys had the 16th overall selection and were all set to draft Shazier, a 6-foot-1, 237-pound linebacker with eye-opening speed. They were even on the phone with Shazier’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, when the Steelers ruined their plans.
“It was just amazing to see the 412 area code on my cell phone,” Shazier said. “Words can’t even describe it.”
The Cowboys were speechless, too. The player they intended to draft with their No. 1 pick was snatched away one pick earlier by the Steelers.
Had the Cowboys drafted Shazier, he’d have been the third LB off the board, so not the BPP.
Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News at the time reported the Cowboys front office was forced to scramble while trying to figure out what to do with their pick, and were even looking to trade back before eventually selecting Zack Martin.
Martin was the first guard taken in the draft, so again, technically the BPP, but no way was this a strategic choice. They settled on Martin. Of course, I’d settle for a six-time All Pro every day of the week. 2-2 BPP.
2015: Byron Jones, S, 27th pick. Jones was the first safety off the board, so he was the BPP right? Well, the Cowboys at the time thought they had drafted a cornerback, at least Jerry Jones did:
While the Cowboys had other needs, Jones said that finding a cornerback with the versatility to play free safety was of paramount importance.
Or perhaps a corner/safety hybrid? Here’s Garrett shortly after the draft:
“He has the physical traits to go play safety even though he has played corner the last couple of years but what gives us a lot of confidence is you see him play free safety for two years as a starter,” Garrett said. “They had two really good corners when he was a young player so they wanted to get him out on the field. You see that tape and you like what you see on that tape as a young player so I think it is a realistic projection for him to play corner in this league and also to play free safety.”
In the end, Jones ended up playing most of his first three seasons at safety before switching back to corner permanently. The Cowboys drafted a corner with versatility. As a corner Jones would have been the fourth player taken at his position. 2-3 BPP.
2016: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, 4th pick. No debate here, Zeke was the BPP, even if it’s very hard to not be the BPP with the 4th overall pick (unless you’re a QB). 3-3 BPP.
2017: Taco Charlton, DE, 28th pick. Seventh edge rusher taken, not the BPP, not the best anything. 3-4 BPP.
2018: Leighton Vander Esch, LB, 19th pick. Third linebacker off the board, not BPP. 3-5 BPP.
2020: CeeDee Lamb, WR, 17th pick. Third receiver off the board, not BPP, 3-6 BPP.
2021: Micah Parsons, LB, 12th pick. The Cowboys went into the draft with the 10th overall pick, and the understanding at the time was they would pick either of the two top CBs. But Jaycee Horn and Patrick Surtain were picked in consecutive picks at No. 8 and No. 9, after which the Cowboys traded down two spots. They would probably have been happy to get the second CB taken, so not exactly BPP, but we’ll be generous here and give the BPP-crowd a win - after all, the Cowboys may have gotten the best player in the entire draft, and certainly the best LB/Edge rusher. 4-6 BPP.
2022: Tyler Smith, OT, 24th pick. Fifth tackle taken, not BPP. 4-7 BPP.
So there you have it. Only four of the last eleven first-round picks qualify as BPP in the narrow definition of this analysis. And if you review the four picks, they were the 9th, 6th, 4th, and 12th overall picks. Which in a roundabout way tells us that the higher you draft, the more likely it is that you’ll pick the best player at his position. Nothing to do with any type of draft strategy or long-term roster building approach.
The Cowboys hold the 26th pick in the draft this year. Unless they draft a low-value position like tight end, safety, or, God forbid, a running back with their first pick, they are unlikely to get the BPP.
The Cowboys may very well love drafting the best player at his position, but if you’re drafting in the second half of the first round, the odds are stacked against that happening.