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Cowboys draft 2023: Positional value and the Dallas’ first-round pick

Here’s another way to consider how to use the Cowboys’ 26th overall selection in the NFL draft.

NFL Draft
Was this a good move in 2016 or not?
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

What do the Dallas Cowboys need to do with the 26th overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft? That is the burning question today, and for the next two weeks. There are not many urgent needs for the team thanks to their most effective offseason in recent memory. That has the benefit of giving them great freedom in how they use that pick. But first-round draft capital should always be used efficiently.

And there, as someone once said, is the rub. What does that mean? A big part of defining it is what position they take at 26, assuming they don’t trade back. There are some positions that are seen as being a better return on investment than others.

One particular prospect has really fired up the debate for the Cowboys is Texas running back Bijan Robinson. In terms of pure talent, he is seen as a top 15 player for the draft later this month. (CBS Sports has him as the 10th best prospect overall.) That is considered by many to be too high to take a RB because of the short careers they usually have, so there are many fans that hope he slides to 26 so Dallas can get him as a replacement for Ezekiel Elliott.

Of course, there are many who don’t want to see the Cowboys take a running back in the first round, no matter if he is one of the five or six generational players in this year’s draft. (That’s sarcasm, please don’t roast me.) There are similar discussions about taking a tight end at 26, which is an idea that seems to be gaining steam.

In light of all this, it is always good to find something to help understand what makes sense in the draft. My podcast partner Roy White pointed me to something that helps do that. Bill Barnwell of ESPN has a very detailed and informative article specifically addressing the question of drafting Robinson in the first round. It is worth a read no matter what side of that debate you are on, but deep in the article is a table that offers a much better view of what pays off in the first round and what doesn’t. He looked at the fourteen teams that made the playoffs last season to find out what the most successful franchises have done to build playoff-caliber rosters. Here is the table and Barwell’s explanation of how he put it together.

Bill Barnwell, ESPN

I split these rosters into categories by position based on how they were acquired, with groups for first-round picks, second-to-fourth-round picks, fifth-to-seventh-round picks and undrafted free agents, free agents with multiyear guarantees, free agents with single-year guarantees, players acquired for significant capital via trade and players acquired at a modest cost on the trade market. I also threw in a percentage for “premium” acquisitions, which I considered to be first-round picks, free agents with multiyear guarantees and players who cost significant draft capital in trades. We can get a sense of how the league’s playoff teams were built philosophically by seeing how they were formed.

If the numbers seem a bit off, Barnwell also explained that this was based on only the ten most prominent starters for each team, not eleven, to account for variations in how personnel is used in different schemes.

The important column here, for this article, is the first-round draft picks that were in the playoffs. This gives us an idea of what works and what doesn’t in the first round.

Here is the number of first-round picks for every position group and how useful or not they are in the first for getting to the playoffs.

QB: 8

It’s not a shock that over half the teams have a first-round quarterback on the roster. While there are other positions that have more, those all have two or more starters on the depth chart.

QB is a position that is very different from all others in many ways, not least the salary the best command. Further, QB has more influence on the success of a team than any other spot on the roster. So just consider it a special case. Once you get past it, the comparisons become more relevant to this discussion. And it seems completely out of the question for the Cowboys with Dak Prescott on the roster.

RB: 3

This includes Ezekiel Elliott, who was released by Dallas earlier this year, as well as Saquon Barkley, who may be nearing the end of his time with the New York Giants. This says that it is a bad investment in the first round.

WR: 9

While this is a position a where a team will have two starters, it is still a good indication that it is seldom a bad idea to invest a first-rounder in a wide receiver (assuming you get a legit first-round talent, which of course applies to all positions.)

TE: 0

Yeah, this seems a bit of a red flag. While this entire chart is reflective of how the league as a whole values positions, to not have a single first-round tight end playing in the postseason might just also tell us it is a bad place to use such high draft capital. There are some mocks that have the Cowboys taking a tight end at 26, and that definitely seems to be going in a risky direction.

OT: 12

This was a real eye opener. That is a ton of successful teams that have used first-round picks at tackle. Dallas was one of those teams, with rookie Tyler Smith their LT. But with him, Terence Steele, and Tyron Smith all hoped to be ready for the start of the season, it doesn’t seem like a place they would want to use a first-round pick.

But here, it is important to remember how they had planned to use Tyler Smith last year. He was practicing at left guard and was penciled in as the starter before Tyron Smith was lost for most of the year with a training camp injury. They still have an issue at LG this year, the spot where the starter for the season is the least certain. The long-term plan for Tyler was to begin his career at guard, then move out to tackle when Tyron retired.

It might make a ton of sense to try that again. Take a college OT, then work out how he and Tyler will be used in the future. Or even this year, when they might want to put Tyler back at guard if they get a true stud tackle in the draft.

OG: 3

This of course includes Zack Martin, one of the best in the business. Still, this is not a position where using a first-round pick is necessarily the best way to go. Especially if you are a team that likes to converts college OTs to OG.

OC: 2

Given that there are two guards and only one center in the starting lineup, this is slightly more popular way to go in the interior of the line. But IOL just isn’t valued as much. Fortunately, the Cowboys seem quite happy with Tyler Biadasz, and this really isn’t a consideration for them.

We discussed this overall idea on the latest episode of Ryled Up on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you do not miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.

EDGE: 10

This is no surprise at all. EDGE is one of the “money” positions, and if Barnwell considered Micah Parsons in this group, which he should have, the Cowboys invested well a couple of years ago. There is a saying that you can never have too many good pass rushers, so like wide receiver, this shouldn’t be counted out for them. And we shouldn’t be unhappy if they go this route.

DT: 7

This was a surprise, but that is probably because we’re so used to how Dallas puts little value on IDL. This is a strong hint they should rethink that. And with Dan Quinn, they just might.

One can always hope.

LB: 6

This is also a bit of a surprise, because conventional wisdom holds that off-ball linebacker is a low value position. The Cowboys were slammed for taking Leighton Vander Esch in the first, but he is technically on his third contract now with the team, if at a very reasonable price. While Damone Clark may be the plan for the future alongside Vander Esch, this might be one that the team considers. And we might need to slow down with the slings and arrows if they do.

CB: 4

You know, conventional wisdom is not doing so well with this whole exercise. Cornerback is supposed to be one of the most valuable positions on a team, yet most of the playoff qualifiers last year got by just fine without a first-round pick as a major contributor. Given how they set themselves up with the trade for Stephon Gilmore, you wouldn’t expect them to go CB this year in any case. But if one is there at 26, it is hard to argue with the idea of taking one, if the way the position’s value is viewed is at all correct.

S: 3

Here, the Cowboy’s low priority on the position lines up with the reality of playoff success. That seems likely to hold this year.

Based on what seems to work for successful teams, RB and TE just don’t look like a good way to use a first-round pick. WR, OT, EDGE, and DT would be much wiser, and the latter three fit with another good practice, building the roster from the inside out. The other positions are lukewarm, but this year, Dallas could go with one of them because they have done such a good job of freeing themselves from need.

For me, OT would be the direction that would make the most sense, with the knowledge that it might actually be to move a player inside. WR comes in second in my mind. I’m really cooling to the idea of RB or TE myself, but honestly, I’m just not going to be that upset with whatever they do. What do you think?

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