Understanding the 2023 Draft

Tempering Expectation and Disappointment

There’s no season like draft season for over-valuing NFL rookies. Sometimes, this means exaggerated expectation for the actual picks that we took to transform our team. (They won’t.) Sometimes, this means exaggerated disappointment about the picks we didn’t take—pretending that the guys the Eagles took will transform their team (they won’t) or that the Guard We Didn’t Take would have fixed our offense (he wouldn’t have).

A draft is for guys who contribute. In a strong draft, you might get one or two quality starters, and even those may require some development. Sometimes you miss; even when you hit, results are rarely immediate.

This year, the Cowboys picked near the bottom of each round of a weak draft. So if we get better than last year, it will probably be an incremental process—better health, player development, trading for difference makers (Gilmore and Cooks), signing free agents to cover holes (Edoga), and drafting guys who will contribute to the rotation (Mazi, Schoonmaker, Overshown, Vaugn). Meanwhile, we chose traits all up and down the draft class that might develop into starters, realizing that most won't actually start.

I draw two specific conclusions that cut against conventional wisdom, precisely because I have noticed over the years how few draft picks immediately contribute at a high level.

1. Mazi is probably a two-down player, and that’s OK.

Leading up to the draft, one camp saw Mazi’s traits and considered him a rare pass-rushing 1T. (Think Vita Vea.) Leading up to the draft, another camp saw Mazi’s record and considered him a run-stuffer.

The first camp felt vindicated when the Cowboys, for the first time in decades, took a big-bodied DT in the first round. We know they’ve always wanted the Vita Vea type, but haven’t had a chance to get one—until now?

Alas, on further consideration, I’ve concluded that we still haven’t found our chance to get the monster pass-rushing 1T that we’ve been coveting. This isn’t the Vita we’ve been looking for.

Why do I think this? To put it bluntly—because we took him at 26. Vita Vea, DaRon Payne, and Dontari Poe were actually drafted in the top 15. In a weak draft like 2023, a true pass-rushing 1T would never have been available at pick #26. OK, I realize the Cowboys claim he was 14th on their board. But if he were really a Vea-type player, he would have been great value--the steal of the draft.

I don’t think even the Cowboys believe that. They didn’t run to the podium. Instead they debated whether he was or wasn’t more valuable than another good prospect whom they considered a backup. (More on this below.)

We drafted Mazi because, in a weak draft year, picking at #26, nobody was projected to immediately beat out our 3-down starters. Given that, it makes sense to grab a reliable 2-down starter who does immediately upgrade his position (over Bohanna and Hankins). It’s good value—just not great value

2. This draft class probably didn’t have a quality rookie starter at offensive guard.

This brings me to my second conclusion: This draft did not have an answer for Dallas at LG.

I refer you here to this analysis of O-line players taken in the 2022 draft: It’s got a lot of detail, but one takeaway is that there weren’t any guards drafted last year who were actually ready to start their first year.

Remember, Zack Martin was taken with the 16th pick. Travis Frederick was considered a steal, and in redrafts he went at #20. (Tyler Smith was even more of a steal, and taken #6 in a redraft.) We’ve been spoiled by our incredible first-round O-line drafting, with first-round picks who were immediate upgrades. But it's silly to think that we can do that any time we want--it's contingent on our scouts finding a great prospect.

In this draft class, nobody in the NFL (including the Cowboys) thought there was a Zack Martin or Travis Frederick. Bergeron and Avila, the first IOL picks taken, lasted until the second round. If the way the draft played out reveals the thinking of NFL scouts, we have a progression of second-round IOL picks that culminate in Torrence. It’s not just the Cowboys who didn’t treat Torrence like a day 1 starter—neither did the rest of the NFL. (Buffalo took him but lists him as a backup; the starter ahead of him, Bates, grades out worse than Edoga.)

So when the videotaped Cowboys war room said Bergeron was a backup (versus Mazi as "starter"), many jumped to the wrong conclusion. They thought the Cowboys were saying, "We’re set at LG." (That would have been delusional; we obviously have a need at LG, and everything the Cowboys have said about re-shuffling our OTs shows that they know LG is a weakness.) Maybe the Cowboys simply meant that Bergeron isn’t ready to start. They didn’t choose Mazi-the-pass-rusher over a LG starter; they chose Mazi-the-run-stuffer over a LG backup.

Yes, the Cowboys know we are weak at LG. But they didn’t think the draft could shore up that weakness. If you’re drafting for the future anyway, why not use your second-round pick on a developmental TE who can join the rotation gradually—and wait until the fifth round for a developmental prospect at OG?

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