The 2023 NFL Draft is inching closer and closer, and the Cowboys are entering the event with a reputation as one of the better drafting teams in the NFL. They have an equally long list of great picks in the early rounds (CeeDee Lamb, Trevon Diggs, Micah Parsons, Zack Martin, to name a few) as they do late-round picks who have become key players for them, headlined by Dak Prescott, but also featuring the likes of Anthony Brown, Noah Brown, Cedrick Wilson, Donovan Wilson, Tyler Biadasz, and Tony Pollard.
That wasn’t always the case, though. In fact, it wasn’t too long ago that the Cowboys had a reputation for making very poor decisions in the draft. There was a tipping point, though, that pushed Dallas to change the way they approach the draft altogether. That tipping point came ten years ago, in the 2013 NFL Draft, as Clarence Yee pointed out recently.
@rjochoa Is there an article in the archives about the pivotal 2013 draft that changed the way Dallas drafts? From how Floyd was bypassed to the trade back with SF and the long term aftermath?— Clarence Yee (@MadraiRua) April 12, 2023
The 2013 draft was the third draft with Jason Garrett as the head coach, and the former backup quarterback was 16-16 in two full seasons (and 5-3 as the interim head coach) with consecutive losses in Week 17 games that would’ve clinched a playoff spot with a win. The Cowboys were right on the cusp of contending, but hadn’t quite gotten there.
The big change ahead of this draft was a massive overhaul of the defensive philosophy. Rob Ryan was let go as the defensive coordinator and replaced with Monte Kiffin, the legendary creator of the Tampa 2 defense. The Cowboys went from running a hybrid 3-4 scheme that used a ton of blitzes and press man coverage to a prototypical 4-3 that rarely blitzed and primarily ran Cover 2 zone. Philosophically speaking, the two approaches couldn’t be more different.
That colored much of the Cowboys’ pre-draft speculation, as the Tampa 2 requires a dominant 3-technique interior defensive lineman in order to make it work. It just so happened that the draft had four defensive tackles who fit that mold very well in Sheldon Richardson, Star Lotulelei, Sharrif Floyd (who, coincidentally, joined the Cowboys as a coach this offseason), and Kawann Short. All four players were connected to Dallas plenty leading up to the draft.
Once the draft came, Richardson and Lotulelei came off the board in consecutive picks at 13 and 14, respectively. Dallas held the 18th pick, just missing out on both of them, and opted to trade back to the 31st pick instead of taking Floyd. Six picks later, Floyd was off the board as well, leaving just Short. When Dallas was on the clock again, they declined to take Short, who was considered more of a second-round prospect, extending their streak of not selecting a defensive tackle in the first round to 22 straight years (it still stands today at 31 years).
Instead, the Cowboys drafted Travis Frederick, and were immediately lambasted for it. Just a year before, Dallas had given big contracts to guards Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings, and had two different centers with starting experience in Phil Costa and Ryan Cook. The idea of taking Frederick seemed odd from the start, and there were many who gave scathing reviews of the pick.
NFL Network’s Mike Mayock’s instant reaction: “I had a third-round grade on this guy.”
Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller’s instant reaction: “I hate this pick.”
Talked to a guy on #Cowboys staff who knows what he's talking about re: draft. He was baffled beyond belief, to put it lightly.— Armen Williams (@ArmenWilliams) April 26, 2013
Text from one AFC personnel man when I told him the Cowboys took Frederick: "Yuck".— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) April 26, 2013
In the end, the naysayers wound up with plenty of egg on their face, as Frederick played at a Hall of Fame level before retiring early in his career due to being diagnosed with Guillain–Barré syndrome. But the Cowboys were savaged in the media, and it got worse when Short was drafted three spots before their second-round pick. Dallas ultimately walked out of that draft with just three defenders for their new coordinator (J.J. Wilcox, B.W. Webb, and DeVonte Holloman), and only one of them lasted more than a year with the team.
It seems silly to call this draft a failure knowing what we know now about Frederick, but at the time it was the straw that broke the camel’s back for the Cowboys and their draft operation. Remember, this was just a year after trading up for Morris Claiborne (a draft that also delivered “surefire gems” in Danny Coale and Matt Johnson) and just four years after the notoriously awful Special Teams Draft of 2009. Something had to change.
And something did change. Tom Ciskowski, a member of the Cowboys’ front office since the 90’s dynasty days who had effectively run the drafts in recent years, was demoted in favor of fast-riser Will McClay. Named the assistant director of player personnel, McClay was now in charge of all draft planning and putting together the draft board by which Jerry and Stephen Jones followed on draft day.
McClay’s first draft was a challenging one, too. Jerry made no attempts at hiding his infatuation with Johnny Manziel that year, and when the Aggies quarterback was still available when Dallas was on the clock at 16, they ended up using all of their time before submitting the pick. It was later revealed that Stephen had to convince his father to stick to McClay’s draft board, which had Zack Martin as the best available player. Flash forward a decade and Martin is still one of the very best at his position, a lock for the Hall of Fame, while Manziel is the quarterback for the Zappers of the Fan Controlled Football league.
McClay’s first draft also landed DeMarcus Lawrence and Anthony Hitchens, two players who became highly productive players for the Cowboys. Lawrence is still one of the team’s best defenders today, while Hitchens went on to win a Super Bowl with the Chiefs. This marked a sudden change in the Cowboys’ draft success, with one taco-shaped error being the lone outlier in a résumé filled with big hits.
With McClay running the drafts, the Cowboys have found a very well-defined process that they firmly stick to, and it’s yielded proven results over a full decade of drafts. That doesn’t mean the Cowboys are immune to draft night criticism like they endured in 2013; in fact, their last two first-round picks were heavily criticized on draft night. But McClay and the Cowboys were quickly validated in both circumstances, and they owe much of that to McClay’s process being logically sound.
As for McClay himself, he’s enjoyed accolades and recognition ever since. After his first draft, and as it became clear the gem he landed in Martin, McClay was promoted to senior director of pro and college scouting. Following the 2016 draft class, which landed Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott (among others), he was once again promoted to his current title of vice president of player personnel. That makes McClay the highest ranking member of the organization to not be the offspring of the owner himself. McClay has fielded multiple overtures from other teams for their vacant GM jobs, but McClay has always turned them down.
As for Ciskowski, he remained with the team after his demotion, supporting McClay along the way. He retired after the 2019 NFL Draft, capping off a 27-year career with the Cowboys that was highlighted by being the scout who “discovered” Larry Allen back in the day.
McClay’s tenure has coincided with a highly successful run for the Cowboys, at least in the regular season, as they’ve gone 86-60 with just two losing seasons, both of which featured significant injuries to the starting quarterback that year. McClay completely reversed the Cowboys’ draft fortunes and ushered in an era of top-tier player evaluation that has resulted in the Cowboys routinely having one of the better rosters in the league.
Now, as McClay prepares for his 10th draft as the one in charge, the team is in a situation where the draft might not be all that impactful to the team’s success in 2023. They don’t have any glaring needs, thanks to smart offseason additions, and can afford to simply let the draft board fall to them and take the player they really want based on their board. That’s always been McClay’s method, and it has to be gratifying to see the team in this position going into a milestone draft.