While the NFL is a win now league, you can’t build a successful team in one year. The bulk of any roster is made up of players in their first four years, with a core of seasoned and hopefully very good veterans to lead and make plays. For a long time, fans of the Dallas Cowboys were very frustrated as the team struggled to put good rosters on the field. One thing that really irritated many was the refusal to invest in free agents to help the team. Instead, the team focused almost entirely on the NFL draft and growing their own, with a few low-cost additions from outside.
That is not a plan that yields immediate results. It takes time. It also requires some excellent player evaluations. Not everyone is good at that. But looking at the past few years, it certainly appears Dallas has it figured out. If you go back five years, drafting has gone very well. There are some misses, like Trysten Hill, but a lot more successes. CeeDee Lamb, Micah Parsons, and Tyler Smith are a very impressive three-year run of first-round picks that the team hopes to continue with Mazi Smith. Of note, initial reactions of the fan base to both the Parsons and Tyler Smith picks were underwhelming, yet both turned out to yield immediate starters. Parsons is simply one of the best defenders in the league, and following his rookie season, Tyler Smith is seen as a foundational piece for the offensive line for years to come.
However, you should not put much weight on first-round picks. Most teams find a keeper in the first round, although there are certainly some real failures, like the Cowboys had with Taco Charlton back in 2017. One good player a year is not going to make a successful roster. It is the way the rest of the draft picks pan out that determines the quality of the roster.
By that standard, Dallas has been doing an outstanding job recently. Last year they added Sam Williams and Jake Ferguson, both of whom are expected to play significant roles. But the real highlight of that year’s draft class was the fifth round, where the Cowboys used two picks to add DaRon Bland and Damone Clark. Due to injuries, Bland would start eight games and Clark five. All Bland did with his opportunity was lead the team in interceptions as opponents made the mistake of trying to pick on him. That is impressive, but Clark is even more so. He had surgery after the combine, due to a problem the Dallas medical staff uncovered at the combine. Most thought he would never see the field last season, but he fought his way back and now is projected to start this year, as is Bland. That is a return on investment that doesn’t happen often with fifth-round picks.
2021 did not yield as many starters outside Parsons and Osa Odighizuwa, but it is worth noting that all 11 of the players taken in that pick-rich year are still with the team. Most are depth players, but that is crucial. Players like Simi Fehoko, Israel Mukuamu, and Matt Farniok may be one play away from having to step into a starting role. 2020 was a normal sized draft class with seven picks, but in addition to Lamb, it yielded starters like Trevon Diggs and Tyler Biadasz. Neville Galllimore started nine games as a rookie, but injuries and a shift to a bigger 1-tech on defense have limited his contributions the past two years.
While the bargain basement approach to free agency has been a source of much irritation, it is worth noting that the team has found a couple of gems recently in Jayron Kearse and Malik Hooker. Further, the staff has started to exploit low-cost trades to serve much the same purpose. They got Johnathan Hankins during last season, and his impact was clear and immediate. This year, they acquired both Stephon Gilmore and Brandin Cooks, both expected to step into starting roles.
Given how bad things went for over a decade after the glory years of the 1990s, something has changed. That change is one Will McClay, currently the Vice President of Player Personnel. He started as a scout in 2003, focusing on professionals that might be added, and worked his way up. He assumed his current duties in 2017, which is when things really began to look up for talent acquisition. Since the Hill mistake, his voice seems to have become stronger each year. The results have been shown above.
McClay deserves a huge amount of credit. Many question why he is not a general manager somewhere else, but he seems very happy with his current role, probably at least in part to the way he is compensated. There is no salary cap for staff, and while his actual pay is not public, he is certainly being rewarded well.
But there is another part to this equation. That is one Jerry Jones, who holds the title of general manager while his son Stephen handles much of the day-to-day functions, including cap management and contracts. A little personal history is pertinent here. When I first was offered the position of staff writer for Blogging the Boys, I wrote some things defending Jerry. There was a perception back in the early 2000s that he was an autocratic leader, his ego driving too many decisions. But back in 2010, I detected something else. That was when Jason Garrett became the full-time head coach, and to me, it was clear that Jerry was much more collaborative in his management of the team, sharing power with Garrett and Stephen, and frankly deferring to them on many decisions. That is perhaps even more true now, with McClay the third leg of the key advisors to Jerry along with Stephen and Mike McCarthy. McClay finds the talent, McCarthy and his coaches employ them on the field, and Stephen figures out who and how much to pay.
While the picture for this article labels McClay the secret sauce, it really refers to how it shows Jerry listening. Because he does that, with all of his key staff. You may be able to add Dan Quinn to that, whom McCarthy has fully entrusted with running the defense.
Just as when I began, I am very encouraged by how the Cowboys are actually run. It takes several years to build a roster, with that four-year window the key time frame. Our hope is that this year it will all come to fruition. There are always many ways things can get derailed, but quality starters and reliable depth are always key. While it is still on paper as we count down the days to training camp, this looks like the best roster Dallas has enjoyed in a long time.
That is the work of McClay and the rest of management, and they deserve the credit.