1. You must admit — the Dallas Cowboys had a pretty darned good draft last weekend. I give it a B-plus. I’ve seen some give it an A. And we’ve seen what Mel Kiper Jr. gave it (not an A or a B. You can figure it out from there).
In fact, the past few years, the Cowboys have proved to be, at worst, solid at this draft thing. And when you’re trying to build a football team, a winning football team, solid will do. Two division titles in three years — bookended, of course, around that forgettable four-win season in 2015 — attest to how much better this organization has become at this.
Remember, it was just a few years ago most Cowboys fans looked at the Draft as a necessary evil. We HAVE to go through this, just to see what Jerry does and then get to the season. We know that he burned through the fumes of the Jimmy Johnson drafts after several years. He burned through the fumes of the Bill Parcells drafts even faster.
I must admit that as late as four years ago I expected these Cowboys to fall off the cliff into a 1999-2001 abyss (you recall the triple 5-11 seasons, right?) that would likely cost Jason Garrett his job and force Jones to, once again, have to hire a “name” head coach to turn this thing around (Mike Holmgren and Jon Gruden were popular names not too long ago). It seemed a vicious cycle was about to be set in motion again.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Gruden or Holmgren. The Cowboys turned it around. They starting figuring some things out. They started drafting better. And it all started on a Thursday night in late April of 2013 when the Cowboys did what we always joke about. They traded back and took a player we didn’t expect and they passed on a player some felt they should take.
You know who you have to thank for this sudden Cowboys draft renaissance?
You remember what happened that night, right? The Cowboys were sitting on the No. 18 pick in the first round. They were coming off another 8-8 season and the Cowboys needed, well, everything. As the clock ran down to the No. 18 pick, there was this sense the Cowboys might go with a defensive player. Floyd, considered by some to be a Top 10 overall player in the draft, kept dropping. It seemed the Cowboys might have a chance to snag him.
Then it was a case of Jerry being Jerry. He traded back to No. 31, flipping the No. 18 overall pick to San Francisco for that No. 31 overall pick and a third-round pick (which turned into J.J. Wilcox). The Niners took LSU safety Eric Reid. Floyd fell to Minnesota at No. 23 and the Cowboys took everyone by surprise by taking Wisconsin center Travis Frederick.
It was curious, but the Cowboys explained it thusly after the selection. They were interested in upgrading the offensive line and they felt Frederick was one of the best linemen in the draft. They traded back feeling Frederick would be there at No. 31 and in an attempt to snag an extra pick (and an extra contractual year). It worked out. The Cowboys took some flak for taking a center in the first round, but look at what he’s done the past four years and it’s hard to argue with the selection.
There was only one problem. Floyd was actually much higher on the Cowboys’ overall board than Frederick. It took a while for that information to make the rounds, but Floyd was apparently the No. 5 or No. 7 guy on the Cowboys’ overall board. Which begs the question, “Why did the Cowboys pass on a player ranked higher on their board than the player they picked?''
The answer was actually pretty simple. The Cowboys coaching staff didn't view Floyd as a fit for the defense.
But that led to another obvious question: Why in the world was Floyd ranked that high on the Cowboys’ board in the first place?
The answer, we learned, was that the Cowboys’ internal team wasn’t communicating properlly. Floyd was graded with criteria based on the scouting staff's thoughts. ... but not those of new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and what he would be looking for the defensive line. That led to Floyd’s elevated place on the Cowboys’ board that night.
You see, every team’s draft board is different. It’s not like the boards you see from people like Kiper, Todd McShay or Dane Brugler, who all do quality work. But their boards are based on the conceit that they’re ranking players on their big boards regardless of whether they’re a fit for a particular team. They’re grading overall talent. When a team creates its big board it’s as much about fit as it is about talent. That’s why every NFL team’s draft board is different. They all value different things.
So the Cowboys succeeded on draft night 2013 in spite of themselves. But they learned a valuable lesson from the Floyd fiasco. Something had to change. And shortly afterward, it did.
For the 2014 NFL Draft, the Cowboys put Will McClay in charge of setting the team’s draft board. That meant that it was up to McClay to disseminate everything — from the Joneses, the scouts, the coaches and any other outside information — and put together a cohesive draft board that was set according to the Cowboys’ needs and philosophies. Now, that doesn’t mean McClay was unilaterally picking players. The Boss is still The Boss here. But it’s McClay’s job to build the road map, to take the guesswork out of the draft-day decisions and give the Joneses the best possible information.
You can’t argue with the results. From 2014-16 the Cowboys managed to find 10 starters or reserves in the draft — G Zack Martin, DE Demarcus Lawrence, LB Anthony Hitchens (all in 2014); DB Byron Jones, LB Damien Wilson and TE Geoff Swaim (2015); and RB Ezekiel Elliott, QB Dak Prescott, DT Maliek Collins and DB Anthony Brown (2016). That’s nearly 40 percent of the Cowboys’ draft selections from 2014-16. That doesn't even count La'el Collins, the blue-chip talent who went undrafted due to controversy involving the death of an acquaintance. Dallas recruited him into the fold and is ready to stick him at left guard ... Except that last week, DallasCowboys.com printed a photo showing him playing right tackle.
In any event ... take it all together and that’s solid production for any team. It’s not perfect. Some picks haven’t hit (Randy Gregory chief among them). But no NFL team is perfect when it comes to the draft. Not even those New England Patriots. But you have to hit enough to keep the talent churning through the organization, and the Cowboys are doing that. Dallas may have done that in spades last weekend, with five players who could pay immediate dividends in 2017.
And the path started four years ago when the Cowboys mis-graded a player and learned from it.
It’s part of the reason why some in NFL circles predict that McClay will be a general manager one day. It’s also why teams have inquired about him the past two years. It’s also why some Cowboys fans were probably concerned when the Bills fired their GM right after the draft (who does that, by the way?). But McClay made it clear this week that he’s happy in Dallas. Now, I don’t think he’ll ever be the GM here (that succession plan looks clear). But for now, his work in the Cowboys’ scouting department, and his work setting the team’s big board, is the best we’ve seen around here in years.
By the way, Floyd? His career in Minnesota started well, but he’s fought injuries the past couple of years and now Floyd has nerve damage that could be career-threatening.
But if the Cowboys win a Super Bowl soon, maybe they send Floyd a cut of the postseason kitty for teaching the Cowboys a lesson?
2. OK, so that took a while, so let’s keep the rest of this quick. While Cowboys fans are certainly happy about the new draft haul, there are some current Cowboys who, well, may be looking over their shoulders. Our Mike Fisher outlines which Cowboys players might want to make sure they’re at their best this offseason.
3. This week on StarCast, Jamie Horton talks about Tony Romo’s recent foray into state politics. Romo was honored by the state legislature for his NFL career, but Romo may have also been stumping for more support for fantasy sports in Texas. Horton explores all of that in this week’s StarCast.
4. Need one final look back at the draft? Our Mike Fisher compiled all the best quotes, video and other vital information as the team prepares for rookie mini-camp.
5. It wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops on draft weekend, however. You might recall that Orlando Scandrick was rumored to be trade bait and Randy Gregory may have popped another positive test in the league’s drug policy. Well, Fish gets you caught up there, too.
6. Well here’s an odd bit of bowl game synergy:
I think Prescott will enjoy throwing to Switzer, too.
7. The Cowboys’ rookie mini-camp is next weekend. That’s a little unusual. The Cowboys usually have their rookie camp the weekend after the draft. (Also unusual: Dallas has clearance for Jaylon Smith to participate as a "rookie.'' A nice bonus ... though it turns out it's just going to be for meetings, not for Jaylon to fly around on the field just yet.) Three UDFA’s I’m really interested in tracking the next few months:
QB Cooper Rush, Central Michigan: I’ve seen Rush play in person and I’ll write more about him down the line. But the short story is I think he has a chance to play in this league.
OL Dan Skipper, Arkansas: A versatile lineman who can play inside and outside. The Cowboys worked him out hard at the Hogs’ pro day in March.
RB Jahad Thomas, Temple: If the Cowboys are looking for a fourth back, this could be the guy. We'll also have an eye out tonight in Frisco for some of these guys. The Cowboys "Home-Run Derby'' for charity is tonight at Dr Pepper Ballpark. The veterans you know get to hit; traditionally, the rookies get to shag balls. Oh, and for the first time ever, the event is open to the public. CowboysHQ.com will see you there!
8. Tweet of the Week
Yes, 35 years ago photos came in black and white. Often.
9. This week’s “Great Moments in Headline Porn” — “Skip Bayless explains why the Cowboys’ Super Bowl odds have been steadily dropping” from FoxSports.com
So, apparently, Bayless is now a Vegas handicapper. Got it.
10. One More Thing ….
It’s good to be the QB. Especially in Dallas.
Wanna talk Cowboys? Head for the CowboysHQ.com message boards or hit up Postins on Twitter at @PostinsPostcard or Mike Fisher on Twitter @FishSports.