Friday, March 29, 2013

Evaluating the 2012 Dallas Cowboys Draft Class

Each year, as we look ahead to the next draft class, we like to spend a morning putting the cap on the last draft class for the Cowboys.  Last week, we spent significant time discussing how this team has been built, and that demonstrated again how the NFL is a young man's league where your roster is made of quite a few 1st and 2nd year players.  This is especially true of a team that is over-leveraged with veterans who eat up the significant part of their salary cap.  Sometimes the only way to make up the difference as you try to fill out your roster is to plug the holes with kids.

Last year, when we did this exercise, we spent time on each pick of the 2011 draft and saw quite a few things that were noteworthy.  The Tyron Smith and DeMarco Murray picks already looked great and the Bruce Carter pick still was curious.  One still sticks out as the most painful move of the 2011 draft:
Round 5, Pick 143 - Josh Thomas, Cornerback, Buffalo 
Clearly the worst pick of the draft, as Thomas did not make the team out of camp at a position of great need. Instead, they went with a retread, Frank Walker, and sent Thomas away. He was claimed by Carolina the next day, and plays with the Panthers to this day, although he was only active once in 2011. This pick hurts a lot when you consider the Cowboys needed a corner in Round 5 and passed over Richard Sherman from Stanford who went off the board a few picks later at the same position and had an outstanding rookie season in Seattle. If they had Sherman, there would be a completely different feel to the 2012 offseason in Dallas. Instead, their search for young corners continues. 
Surely, that gives anyone indigestion who follows the draft and the NFL.  It is one thing to point out who is available at a certain juncture of a draft, but it is another to see that you take a corner in round 5 and another player at the same position is a special player who appears to be an elite talent.  Yes, all the other teams passed on him, too, but the Cowboys really, really need to not only nail their early picks - which they are doing much better than they used to - but also, make up some lost ground by finding those diamonds in the rough that they used to find back in the old days.  And Richard Sherman is a player at the same position they targeted who then became a 1st Team All-Pro Player in his 2nd NFL season.  Do you have any idea how that would have affected everything?  They don't sign Carr then and have the $50 million for Carl Nicks, perhaps. If they could simply find something worth bragging about in the mid to late rounds then they might not always have more holes than plugs.

Round 1, Pick 6 - Morris Claiborne, Cornerback, LSU

Some years we have a good idea of what the Cowboys are looking to do on draft day and some years we clearly have no idea.  2012 was the latter of the two, because as draft day approached, the name Claiborne was not on the charts for many.  In fact, if they did trade up, there was a pretty strong belief it would be at the safety position to go get Mark Barron or perhaps on the defensive line to get Fletcher Cox.  But, the Cowboys moved up aggressively and sacrificed their 2nd rounder (a pick that would have landed another strong player - Peter Konz or Jerel Worthy were there - to go get the corner from LSU.  It was a strong price to pay, but early indications seem to be that he might be the type of corner who can handle the expectation level.  He played 909 snaps for the Cowboys in 2012 and seemed to show "ball hawk" attributes as one of those rare birds who can find the ball and take it from you whether it be in the form of interceptions or stripping fumbles.  He happened to be the guy standing in the proper spot to recover fumbles, too, which helps a team who doesn't take the ball away enough.  Called for 2 penalties in road games, but aggressive and physical on routes much of the year, Claiborne is a promising piece.  His tackling on run plays is not his strength and the final game might have been one of his worst, but overall, the Cowboys can feel good about the player even if most of us regret the huge price they paid to get him.

Round 3, Pick 81 - Tyrone Crawford, Defensive End, Boise State

Crawford was another name upon his selection that made plenty of people rush to google to figure out who he was.  He was sold early on as a guy who would force his way into the lineup and be able to turn some heads quickly with his burst at the snap and his potential ability to be the rare run-pass DE as opposed to the many DEs they have had who are either run or pass.  The issues were that he was raw and needed significant development to put together an arsenal of pass rush moves that might prove to be his way to impact the league.  Well, 303 snaps in his rookie season later, and we have yet to really have our jaws drop with his contributions.  He seems to have that good news/bad news review in that we have not noticed him doing anything that says he is not capable of holding his own, but we have also not seen anything that has jumped off the screen positively yet, either.  We assume the scheme change will suit him well, but given his use that was sparingly, this is likely a spot where we are still waiting into year 2 to define what exactly he can be.  He is a useable rotation piece, but to promise anything beyond that is difficult to do.

Round 4, Pick 113 - Kyle Wilber, Linebacker, Wake Forest

By the time you get 113 picks deep in any draft, you have to curb your expectation levels a bit for a player in his rookie season.  Then, in the case of Wilber, who was injured in the spring and then again in August where he needed surgery to repair his thumb, we just don't know much about him a year later.  He played on special teams, but as far as knowing his strengths and weaknesses as a linebacker and whether he might be a candidate for the SAM position in the new 4-3 is merely guesswork for us and for the Cowboys.  Even with significant injuries everywhere but outside linebacker, we only saw 16 snaps for Wilber who they flirted with as an inside linebacker when all of those players fell to injury, but it did not take long for them to move in a guy like Ernie Sims instead.  Wilber is a player who may have an upside that we are not fully aware of as we go back and review his work at Wake Forest again, but in 2012, it was a season that almost never got started for him - a theme you are about to see is one shared by many rookies.  Health did not smile on the Cowboys rookie class.  Wilber's grade must remain incomplete for now.

Round 4, Pick 135 - Matt Johnson, Safety, Eastern Washington

There was no player the Cowboys added after Claiborne last spring that I was more excited about than when they added Johnson.  In breaking down several games at Eastern Washington, it was clear he was a man amongst boys at a lower level of college football, but a guy who had instincts as a safety that very few Cowboys players at that position have had in a long time.  But, the tractor never left the barn as all season we marveled at the fragility of his hamstrings.  Those hamstrings have kept him away from public review for the entirety of training camp and the regular season.  In a sport that values durability, this is obviously a disappointing summary of 2012 and one where we are now hesitant to put any expectation level on the kid in 2013 until he shows he can report for duty.  Without any medical expertise, we shall simply acknowledge the confusion of why the Cowboys were so delayed to put him on the injured reserve, but in a position where they really seem to have very few plans, Johnson could reveal himself to be squarely in the mix moving forward.  But, his 2012 was most disconcerting.

Round 5, Pick 152 - Danny Coale, Wide Receiver, Virginia Tech

Any time you cut a pick at the end of training camp, you certainly feel a strong level of disappointment, and that is exactly what happened with Coale.  Coale was the 2nd consecutive 5th round pick of Dallas to be cut at the end of training camp and the 2nd highest pick of the 2012 draft not to make his team.  He never was completely healthy in camp and then went to the practice squad when he was unclaimed.  While playing for the practice squad in 2012, he tore his ACL in his knee and now appears to be a bit of a long-shot to ever do anything for the squad.  At this point, but a footnote of the 2012 draft class.

Round 6, Pick 186 - James Hanna, Tight End, Oklahoma

Unlike Coale, this is the most likely pick to be labeled the diamond in the rough of the draft.  Hanna appears to have tremendous upside as a receiver and will now have nothing blocking him in the lineup. The team played him more in December then he played all year and he had moments of strong play and flashes of being a guy who will be difficult to cover in the secondary.  In a league filling with mismatch tight ends who might be too fast for linebackers, yet to big for defensive backs, Hanna has a chance.  With John Phillips no longer in the picture, there is reason for optimism, but his big question will be whether he is capable of run blocking, especially as a player lined up next to the tackle against the big boys in the box.  That is his rap at this point having only played 109 snaps in 2012, mostly as a flexed tight end in the slot.

Round 7, Pick 222 - Caleb McSurdy, Linebacker, Montana

When picking 222, you just want a guy who can come in and play special teams with great effort and abandon.  Well, when Caleb McSurdy blew out his achilles heel, that didn't materialize and he is now no further down the road than he was when his name was called.  He will be in the mix at training camp, but I am not sure I would expect too much from him and then anything received as a special teams contributor and a backup middle linebacking option will be an added bonus.

The following were undrafted rookies from 2012 who still have a chance:

Cole Beasely, Wide Receiver, SMU

Seemingly able to defy odds and help out in limited duty, his 128 snaps actually rank 3rd amongst the rookie class.  He has something, although when a player this small does nothing on special teams, it is a problematic note in the battle for a roster spot.  He has a chance to develop and will continue to get every opportunity to find a bigger role since the Cowboys have very little competition after Austin, Bryant, and Harris.

Ronald Leary, Guard, Memphis

There was a lot of optimism around Leary when they signed him to a virtually guaranteed deal out of Memphis when he went undrafted due to medical questions that will likely shorten his career.  However, seeing his poor technique in training camp, it was clear he would require plenty of development to ultimately be in the picture.  Lucky for him, depth at guard on this roster is not something to get excited about.  He is in the picture heading into 2013 camp.

Lance Dunbar, Running Back, North Texas

The diminutive Dunbar was not considered to have much chance to make the Cowboys out of camp, but kept hanging around all season.  Another player, like Beasley that is not much of a factor in special teams, but because he can do many things has survived a full year on the roster and was on the field for 91 snaps.  We shall see where it goes from here, but the fact that we are still talking about him does say something.  If Felix Jones is not back, it of course enhances his chances quite a bit to stay, although the Cowboys seem to need another RB as DeMarco Murray has not stayed healthy as a pro yet.

Ben Bass, Defensive Tackle, Texas A&M

Another local product who emerged on the roster was Bass.  Just 26 snaps over 2 games was his full total and he might be a player hurt by the scheme change moving forward.  But, as we head into camp, he will continue to try to show the ability to move players around on a defensive line with very few young prospects.

Overall, here is the full snap count from the rookie class

Name - Round2012 Snaps
Morris Claiborne - 1st909
Tyrone Crawford - 3rd303
Kyle Wilber - 4th16
Matt Johnson - 4th0
Danny Coale - 5th0
James Hanna - 6th109
Caleb McSurdy 7th0
Cole Beasley128
Ronald Leary0
Lance Dunbar91
Ben Bass26

Again, compared to the 2009 draft, 1500+ snaps is a strong start, but as you can see, there are many names on this list that never got out of the starting blocks.  They are all still on this roster, but we hope to see some major strides moving forward.

Not a horrible rookie class, but not nearly as strong as it might have been, so far.


Michaelangelo McCullar said...

"a pick that would have landed another strong player - Peter Konz or Jerel Worthy were there"

That's assuming the Cowboys make a good decision with their second round pick. You keep making conflicting arguments and it needs to stop. You complain that the Cowboys make bad draft decisions, but then when they trade 2 picks to make as near a lock of a pick as possible, you complain they can't afford to give away picks. It can't be both. If the Cowboys are so bad at drafting, then isn't it better they draft one lock of a player than gamble with two picks?

Sturminator said...

Yes, it can be both - and it should be. It is not efficient in any way, shape, or form to trade your assets up to get a sure thing when you cannot afford it - anymore than it would be efficient to drive a Corvette if you were struggling to pay rent in a 1-bedroom apartment. They cannot afford that "sure thing" because of all of the issues they already have.

Meanwhile, this attitude that many in the fan base holds that "they wouldn't have picked a good player at that spot, anyway" is not helping the mentality of it all.

Cowboy fans should demand more of their franchise than this attitude. It is not a requirement to hit on every pick, but it is a requirement to assume all preparations are being made to hit on picks as often as possible. The alternative - the give up idea of trading many picks that "would have been wasted anyway" to get 1 sure thing - is why this team is in the spot it is in the first place. Don't fall into that trap.