This is the time of year where we do 2 things as football fans: 1) we prepare for the Super Bowl and 2) we ponder the current roster of our favorite squad; what we need and what decisions did we make that put us in this position that we are not playing this weekend.
The 2nd objective is what will keep me busy in this space for much of the next 3 months. Several times a week, I want to make sure that we are on top of the Cowboys current situation, but I also want to make sure that we give enough time to looking over the past and learn what can be learned as fans and media so that our opinions are informed.
So, to do that, I think it would be enjoyable to look at some of the moments in the draft past and evaluate whether the Cowboys got the pick right or not.
"Hindsight is 20/20" is what many of you say whenever we go into a study like this as a way to express your feelings about 2nd guessing. The answer to that is, "of course, it is". But, we are choosing to do this anyway. So, if your default observation is going to be that hindsight is 20/20, then don't waste your time with these conversations - it is clearly too much for you to handle.
Hindsight is not 20/20 until the careers are over. So, we don't know the outcome of some of these picks, but rather we are checking in during this present tense to see how the picks went. And while doing this, we must remember that for us, we can chalk everything up to hindsight. The most studious of anyone reading this is that they might have watched 4 or 5 games of each player while in college. But, if you are the Cowboys and are picking in the NFL draft, you have watched their every snap, you have met with them personally, and you have worked him out and evaluated him as a player and as a human. You have met for hours about every scenario and have attempted to project each player 5 years down the road.
For us, it is a discussion on a blog or at a bar. For these men, it can shape the very fortunes of their franchises for the next decade. This is not a decision they made lightly or loosely. They have to get these decisions right, especially on those extremely rare occasions where they are in the Top 10 of the draft.
So, if our conclusions are "hindsight is 20/20" as vindication for any wrong move, then we are letting our front office off the hook way to easily. They must be able to project as well as possible and as well as their competition.
Very few picks are going to be as significant as the 1st one we pick off, but I thought we would start with the one that has dazzled many of you for the last 2 years.
2011 Draft - Pick #9 - Tyron Smith, Tackle, USC
In 2012, here is the entire list of starting NFL tackles that gave up fewer sacks than Tyron Smith: Ryan Clady, Jeff Backus, Russell Okung, Matt Kalil, and D'Brickashaw Ferguson.
In 2012, according to Pro Football Focus, here is the entire list of starting tackles who graded out better at run blocking than Tyron Smith: Joe Staley, Anthony Davis, Duane Brown, Phil Loadholt, William Beatty and Andre Smith.
Tyron Smith is your starting left tackle. He is one of those rare guys who rates very highly in run blocking (where he can be dominant) and pass protection where he gives up just 3 sacks in a year when the Cowboys pass the ball on most plays. Entering his 3rd season in the NFL, what on earth could be your problem with any of that?
The 2011 draft - although extremely early in the game as we look at it in January of 2013 - appears to be a classic draft from a star power standpoint in the top half of the 1st round. Cam Newton went with the 1st pick, Von Miller to Denver with pick #2, AJ Green went 4th to the Bengals, Patrick Peterson #5 to Arizona, Julio Jones was in that giant trade and was a Falcon at #6, and Aldon Smith from Missouri landed in San Francisco at #7. Only Marcell Dareus in Buffalo, Jake Locker to Tennessee, and Blaine Gabbert to Jacksonville are the picks that are undetermined in the Top dozen - with a fair amount of question directed at Christian Ponder to Minnesota at #12. After that, in the next 5 picks, Nick Fairley, Mike Pouncey, Ryan Kerrigan, and Nate Solder all jumped into the league and right on to the field for their teams.
The draft has actually gone very similar to what the masses thought when the draft started. The studs would be packed up top, and then as we get to the back half of the 1st round, we would have a bunch of players that might be good, but all have some questions. And, as pros, we are still waiting on Danny Watkins, James Carpenter, Gabe Carimi, and Derek Sherrod to all offer something on the offensive line. Although there have been significant health issues with several of those names - which is part of the projection process in some cases.
But, the first 3 tackles to go off the board, Tyron Smith at #9, Solder at #17, and Anthony Castonzo at #22 have all jumped right onto the field and have all played very well in 2 seasons. Whereas the next 4 OL (Watkins, Carpenter, Carimi, and Sherrod) to be taken have all disappointed. Then, the 8th, Orlando Franklin, taken at pick #46 by Denver, has stepped right on to that Broncos line and played very well. He was selected 6 picks after Bruce Carter.
On the defensive line, Dareus went very high to Buffalo, then Watt, then Robert Quinn (11 sacks in 2012) to St Louis, and Adrian Clayborn to Tampa (you may recall him destroying the Cowboys and then injurying his knee back in September), Cameron Jordan (8 sacks) to the Saints. 3-4 players, Corey Liuget in San Diego, Muhammad Wilkerson to New York, and Cameron Heyward to Pittsburgh have all had flashes of performance and Wilkerson and Liuget appear to be real studs moving forward.
Overall, a very interesting draft that I think could hinge on the Cowboys at #9.
Before the draft, it seemed that the Cowboys had locked in on 2 players that they loved and thought were going to be available at #9. Smith and JJ Watt from Wisconsin.
I remember the discussion like it was yesterday with some people close to the scene: There is no wrong answer here. It is a play on "What is versus What could be". That means, quite simply, that JJ Watt is seen as a very productive player who is a really hard worker and team leader. But, Smith is the youngest player in the draft and could be a generational talent at left tackle. He is good, but he could be amazingly great.
So, given that both positions were positions of extreme need, you are going to have to choose. And whichever you don't choose, will likely have a void at that spot until you address it down the road.
At the time, I was completely sold that Smith was the right pick. Especially given the Cowboys state of chaos at offensive line. They knew that they had Doug Free, but otherwise, the cupboard was bare at tackle throughout the entire organization. Meanwhile, they at least had replacement level defensive ends for the 3-4. And, they treated that position as a very low-level priority in that scheme anyway, explaining to all who would listen that the job of the 3-4 DE is not to rack up stats. Even though we know that this is not true in many places not named Dallas.
Offensive line and defensive line are, of course, extremely different from the perspective of what the public notices. When your QB is getting tossed about and you cannot pick up a 1st Down because of your inferior OL, it is easy to see and point out. However, when Igor Olshansky plays for several years without making a discernible impact, you don't discuss him because a defensive end can get lost in the dialogue for months at a time - until someone asks why he hasn't made a play, that is.
So, when discussing urgency, you can see that replacing Marc Colombo after Jason Babin destroyed him in 2010 was more urgent than replacing non-descript defensive ends in the 3-4.
Next, looking at each player extensively from a college game-tape perspective, it did seem that both were exceptional players - everyone seemed to agree they were both 2 of the best 15 players available in the draft. The process becomes to determine which is more valuable to your franchise for the next decade.
Were we looking at finished products? Absolutely not. Smith was just a pup, and what made him great was that despite being so young and inexperienced, he was dripping with potential.
Watt, on the other hand, did not seem to be a guy with a much higher ceiling than he currently had. He was very good on certain Saturdays, but in others, he was just ok.
Tyron Smith 2010
JJ Watt 2010 - Final college game vs TCU
In the end, this is a spot where the 2nd guessing of Jerry Jones and the scouting department is pretty difficult. Sure, a re-draft today makes Watt the easy choice, but in that scenario, it is possible he shoots all the way up to the top 3-5.
What a draft it was for star power. Pass rushers include Watt, Aldon Smith, and Von Miller. Need a QB for the next decade? Cam Newton or Coin Kaepernick join Andy Dalton and Blaine Gabbert/Jake Locker as options. AJ Green or Julio Jones at WR?
But, the best offensive lineman might still be Tyron Smith. And in several years we might say the same thing.
Is Watt a better player than Tyron Smith right now? Absolutely. Watt was given consideration for league MVP in many circles, whereas Tyron looks to be the Cowboys best offensive lineman and a real building block for the future.
Tyron is entering year 3 of a 4-year, $12.5m deal, which means he will hit free agency as a 4-year starter who is just 24 years old after 2014. The Cowboys are going to have to make him one of the highest paid linemen in the NFL or they will lose him. The same will be true in Houston with JJ Watt, who had a slightly lower deal, but that will change in the next 12 months I am sure. The Texans are poised to break the bank on that face of the franchise.
There will be other editions of "Draft Hindsight" where we will find a verdict that is much harsher on Jones and company. But, although this one will be considered a mistake some places, I would simply suggest that the Cowboys made a sound football decision that was necessary because of other mistakes along the way.
A more fortified roster can afford to take the "best player available", but the Cowboys always have enough holes in their 2-deep that they scramble every spring just to prepare their team for the fall schedule.
VERDICT: While conceding that Watt is a better player today, the belief that the Cowboys found a left tackle who is a long-term solution and potentially elite at his position is still true. If we believe that position scarcity is a consideration and that left tackle is a spot that most NFC teams desperately need, then it is quite difficult to get too harsh. Tyron Smith may not be the most glamourous pick, but if one imagines the mess the offensive line would be in without him, it likely settles the debate.
HINDSIGHT GRADE (out of 10): A solid 8. 32 games into a career that could last 200, Smith is one of your most valuable assets on the roster.