Draft Philosophy 101

It's a debate that rages on every year before the NFL Draft.

A team will identify improvements needed at various positions, and anticipation will swirl among that team's fans around the prospects for that team's improvement, whether that improvement comes via free agency or the draft. Should the team draft college players with the intent of filling specific needs at specific positions, or simply grab the proverbial "best player available?"

There is some logic for each side of the argument.

On one hand, if a team's braintrust concludes that the team is one good defensive end or one good tight end away from making the playoffs, or making a Super Bowl run, then it's hard to argue with the decision to draft to fill a specific need. Each team has a "draft board" with more than enough names to fill every pick in the seven-round draft, and each team also has a rating system that rates players by position. With each pick during next month's draft, a name will be removed from both lists.

In some cases, there's no decision to be made.

If your team has the first pick in the draft, and there's a John Elway or Peyton Manning or Jim Brown available -- a supremely talented player who can change the fortunes of an organization right away -- then that's the player who simply has to be taken. But assuming the team in question doesn't possess the first overall pick and has multiple needs, which approach should be taken?

What about with this year's Cowboys? Should Dallas follow its draft board without exception and take the highest-rated player remaining? Or should the Cowboys "reach" and tap the top player at a pre-determined position of need?

To help decide, consider two scenarios:

When the 1985 Draft came around, the Cowboys, like all teams, had needs. Running back was not one of them. The team had Tony Dorsett, who was in the midst of a Hall-of-Fame career. There were a lot of other directions in which the Cowboys could have gone in the draft, yet they chose to spend a fifth-round choice on running back Herschel Walker, who a few years later was sent to the Vikings in exchange for half of the current and future population of Minnesota, in the form of a slew of players and draft picks. One of the added draft picks turned out to be Emmitt Smith, who led the Cowboys to their Super Bowls at the beginning of the 1990s.

Ebenezer Ekuban was another in a long line of pass rushing specialists that never panned out in Dallas.
On the other side of the argument, consider that between 1994 and 1999, the Cowboys -- like most teams -- were in search of a pass-rushing defensive end.

Four times during that span, the team spent its top draft choice on a defensive end. Of those four, only Greg Ellis (drafted in 1998) remains with the team. The other three -- Shante Carver in 1994, Kavika Pittman in 1996 and Ebenezer Ekuban in 1999 -- were considered major draft busts. Likewise, the Cowboys were not subtle in 1995 in their intent to land a backup running back to spell Smith. The team's top choice: Sherman Williams of Alabama.

Of course, there is no right answer to this debate: drafting is an exceedingly inexact science, just as colleges that sign a class full of blue-chip recruits doesn't always translate to a trip to a BCS bowl game. Every draft has its share of players who turned out to be much better or worse than was expected from a player drafted in his position. But history suggests that unless a singularly talented player remains available when the Cowboys pick, they should resist the urge to go after a player simply because of the position he plays and take the player the coaches and scouting staff have determined to be the best player remaining on the board.

More often than not, a team that has a choice at or near the top of the draft has that pick because there are numerous holes the team needs to fill. Therefore, it often is assumed that a player might go to that team because the team needs a little of everything -- there's no need to target a player because of his position. The Cowboys weren't a terrible team last year. They weren't a good team, but they weren't a laughingstock of a team that got pounded by 30 points each week .... and of course, several needs -- quarterback, defensive tackle, cornerback and offensive guard -- have been addressed in free agency.

Like every team, Dallas has needs. But the reports from scouts suggest that there is no John Elway, no Jerry Rice, no LaVar Arrington -- a player who appears to have the ability to completely change his new team. There are several good players in this draft, and that's what the team needs to do: compile its reports and build its draft board, and take the best player available, regardless of position. With the decline in the Dallas defense last year, and amid reports that the team will switch (at least part of the time) from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4, there will be a temptation to adjust the list, to add a space-eating interior defensive lineman (like newly acquired Jason Ferguson) or to reach for a linebacker to fill the void left when Dexter Coakley went to St. Louis. Don't do it -- grab the best player available, not an intriguing guy who might turn out to be a great player.

Want further evidence? As the 1984 draft approached, it was no secret that the Cowboys wanted a speedy receiver who could stretch opposing defenses. Their 12th-round pick that year? University of Houston "wide receiver" Carl Lewis.

Worked out nicely, huh?

CowboysHQ Top Stories