The Dallas Cowboys are still a year away. Sort of.
Not from competing for a championship; that time is now and the window is clearly open. They are still a year away in terms of having what could be termed as a complete roster. Unless Dallas goes full-tilt in free agency this year, there will still be unaddressed needs once the draft gets here. Each recent season, the holes have gotten smaller and smaller, but they are still there.
In the salary cap era, no team is going to have superstar players at every starting position. The goal is to have all starters above what’s viewed as replacement-level. Despite the inspirational and motivational aspects of the common saying, “Next Man Up” is pure fallacy. In most scenarios, starters are better players than their backups. Much better.
From FootballOustiders: “Let’s say you have a running back who carries the ball 300 times in a season. What would happen if you were to remove this player from his team’s offense? Those plays don’t disappear with the player, though some might be lost to the defense because of the associated loss of first downs. Rather those plays would have to be distributed among the remaining players in the offense, with the bulk of them being given to a replacement running back. This is where we arrive at the concept of replacement level, borrowed from our partners at Baseball Prospectus. When a player is removed from an offense, he is usually not replaced by a player of similar ability. Nearly every starting player in the NFL is a starter because he is better than the alternative. Those 300 plays will typically be given to a significantly worse player, someone who is the backup because he doesn’t have as much experience and/or talent. A player’s true value can then be measured by the level of performance he provides above that replacement level baseline, totaled over all of his run or pass attempts.”
Every team deals with this concept, and tries to stack their roster with as much quality depth as possible, so the drop off isn’t too severe. The issue is when you don’t have enough starting-quality players on your team, and the guys you are forced to start have replacement-level talent. This is the case for Dallas at the 1-tech defensive tackle position, both safety spots and the left guard position. With free agents at the top of the depth chart, it could also be the case at the linebacker positions, as well as right tackle and running back. It will be difficult for Dallas to fill all of those spots with starting-level guys, and they will have to settle for league-average guys and possibly still have replacement-level guys penciled in.
The Cowboys had as good a shot as any of the NFL’s Final Four of being crowned Super Bowl Champion earlier this month. They tied for the league’s best record, and didn’t have their hopes snuffed out until a controversial referee ruling took their offense off the field late in the divisional playoff at Lambeau Field.
Dallas was the only team tied for the best record in the league whose franchise quarterback didn’t start every game. Brady, Wilson, Manning and Rodgers all started all 16 games. Of course, Dallas lost the lone game started by Brandon Weeden, and in that game the Cowboys lost home field advantage.
No team was hotter than the Dallas Cowboys down the stretch. Sure, the Seahawks had a longer winning streak; but the performance of Dallas over the final month of the season was unmatched by any team over any four-game stretch of the season.
Home field advantage was highly important in the NFC bracket of the playoffs. The home team won every game, and when the top 3 seeds all had the same record; the team which ended up third due to tie-breakers got the short end of the stick based on an arbitrary judgment of which portion of the schedule is most important. That unlucky team was the Dallas Cowboys. Would a home game have guaranteed they moved on? Of course not, but it would have been interesting to see how that fateful call was made if the rowdy, raucous crowd that bellowed as the play was reviewed was in favor of the team in blue.
So no, the Cowboys aren’t a year away from competing for a championship. They are, however, still a year away from having a complete roster. They still have too many holes needing to be filled for them to completely approach the NFL Draft as a conquering hero, with the freedom to move around as they see fit. For most teams in the NFL, drafting Best Player Available (BPA) is a bit of a farce. Most teams have to subscribe to the theory of BPAPN, Best Player Available at a Position of Need.
Drafting BPA with a bad roster makes sense. Drafting BPA with a loaded roster makes sense. Drafting BPA with a roster that has some strong areas while others are weak will still help your team but might not be the optimal strategy.
Take Atlanta, with glaring holes on the offensive and defensive lines. Imagine when they get on the clock, the clear-cut best player available is Amari Cooper, wideout from Alabama. Is it really in their best interest to draft him, despite their deep receiving corps, over a trench player with a slightly lower grade? Later in the draft, sure, but draft capital has to be spent wisely. That’s why BPAPN is the preferred strategy for the large, middle-tier of NFL teams.
A team identifies their biggest needs, and then choose the best player at any of those positions. Positions of Need are separated into tiers, with fluidity at the top and bottom of the tiers. Simple, yet effective. That’s the BPAPN way and it works well in tangent with the Tendencies and Tells CowboysHQ discussed earlier this offseason.
The third strategy is the most frowned upon, yet is often the most utilized when fans and media go through the exercise of mock drafting. That is, figuring out what the team’s biggest need is and chasing it in the first round. That’s followed by finding the second biggest need and going in that direction in the second round. This strategy is what leads to teams reaching for a player.
If defensive tackle is the team’s biggest need, but all of the DTs with a first-round grade are gone, then Dallas shouldn’t take a DT with the 27th pick. They should still seek value with the pick (provided they don’t trade back) for the positioning and get a player at another position they need though not quite as badly as defensive tackle.
Dallas has had mixed results in sticking with this philosophy. In 2014, they watched DT Aaron Donald, DE Anthony Barr and LB Ryan Shazier get plucked in front of them, and instead of picking the next guy at any of those positions, selected another need in G Zack Martin. They, however, were in a position of needing to reach and used a third-round pick to move up and secure DE Demarcus Lawrence in the second round. They felt they “had” to make that move based on not getting a solution to their edge rusher problem in free agency and paid a steep price. When Dallas started 6-1 with Lawrence on the shelf, investing that much draft capital seemed ill-fated for the short-tem.
It will be vital for Dallas to not be forced into making such moves in the coming draft, as they still need as many picks as possible to get their roster to the point of only starter-level and league-average type players. The good news is Dallas has shown that under the right circumstances, a team with holes can still be a contender if everything breaks right. In order to stay competitive, though, those holes need to be addressed because new ones pop up every year.
The race is to stay ahead of the pace with stockpiling the roster. Dallas still is a year away from having a roster with no glaring needs, but it's much closer than it was when Jason Garrett took over. Can they complete the transition before they have to go in search of a new quarterback? The clock is ticking.
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