Everyone knows drafting is an inexact science, to say the least. For every first pick who fast-tracks his way to the Hall of Fame — John Elway, Peyton Manning, etc. — there are can't-miss stars who miss (see Tony Mandarich, Ryan Leaf, etc.)
But logic dictates that the higher a team drafts, the more likely it is to find a useful player. Were the Cowboys hailed as scouting geniuses when they drafted Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith? No, because those were two of the most productive star players in college and each projected as an NFL star. Sure enough, each had a career filled with Super Bowl trophies and Pro Bowl appearances, and acknowledgement for each as being among the best at his position.
But where league personnel executives and scouts make their living and their reputation is in the later rounds. There are a number of reasons a player can slide below where his actual talent dictates he should be selected:
• Maturity: some people simply grow later than others, and a player who adds significant height and/or weight after turning professional can exceed all expectations. Likewise, off-field maturity can lead to improved work ethic and lifestyle choices and habits.
• Surrounding cast: one of the oldest clichés out there is that no matter how great a player's individual talent is, football remains a team game. How prolific would Adrian Peterson have been in college if the Oklahoma linemen couldn't block anyone? Would Matthew Stafford have been chosen first last year had he not had a crew of fast, sticky-fingered receivers to whom he threw at Georgia? Surrounding talent doesn't create talent that isn't there, of course, but it can help that talent shine in the eyes of scouts.
• Off-field issues: a talented college player who gets arrested or has disciplinary issues can slide because teams will determine that he is too risky to merit high-pick dollars. If those issues can be set aside after reaching the NFL, the team that scouted him and took the risk looks brilliant.
There have been several years in which those lists of "brilliant" teams have included the Dallas Cowboys.
• In 1963, Dallas spent an 11th-round choice on SMU center Ray Schoenke. Granted, he had most of his professional success with the Washington Redskins (where he was named one of the top 100 players in team history) after spending a couple of seasons in Dallas, but it was the Cowboys who had the foresight to select him out of SMU.
• In today's era of the seven-round draft, would Navy quarterback Roger Staubach — a 10th-round selection in 1964 — really go undrafted?
• Dallas found its third late-round gem in as many seasons the following year, when the Cowboys selected defensive tackle Jethro Pugh out of something called Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina. Pugh never made the Pro Bowl, but was a solid player through his 14-year career, all of which was spent with the Cowboys, and would have garnered far more attention had he not shared the defensive line with some of the brightest stars in team history — first Bob Lilly, and then Harvey Martin, Randy White and Ed "Too Tall" Jones.
The magic number for the Cowboys seems to be 7 — the round in which Dallas has uncovered three little-known players who became bona fide stars.
• The 1967 draft brought a little-known defensive end named Rayfield Wright to Dallas. All he did during his 13 NFL seasons was convert to offensive tackle, keep Staubach in one piece as the anchor of the Dallas offensive line, become one of just 13 players in NFL history to play in five Super Bowls and end up in the Hall of Fame.
• Few NFL fans had ever heard of Emporia State University until 1991, when the Cowboys selected defensive end Leon Lett, the shy giant who is remembered for two remarkable gaffes on national TV and a struggle with substance abuse, but also was one of the NFL's best defensive linemen during his era.
• In 2005, it was no secret that the Cowboys were trying to bolster their defense. They spent their two first-round picks on Troy linebacker DeMarcus Ware and LSU defensive end Marcus Spears. But as good as they are, the gem of the class might well be seventh-rounder Jay Ratliff. A decent-but-not-great defensive end at Auburn, Ratliff was viewed at the time as nothing more than an afterthought in a draft that also brought linebacker Kevin Burnett, defensive end Chris Canty and running back Marion Barber to Dallas. But as the anchor of the defensive line in the Cowboys' 3-4 defense, Ratliff now is an annual fixture at the Pro Bowl as arguably the best interior lineman in the entire NFL.
Draft can be guessing game
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