Honestly, there is no question that is asked more of those of us who are blessed to cover the NFL than "How did you think the Cowboys did this weekend?" And, there is no question that EVERYONE is less equipped to answer.
Think about how few people that would be acquainted with the depth charts and situations of all 32 teams so that they can release grades relative to the rest of the league. Then, think of all of the people on the planet who would be familiar - and I mean really familiar - with the 254 players chosen in this draft. I think it is hard enough to zero in on the top 100 players and just the depth chart of the Dallas Cowboys. I spend a few hours a day for about 3 straight months trying to watch and absorb as much information as I can. That comes out to a ton of time spent watching college games and studying the players as best I can. And I had almost nothing on 4 of the 7 players the Cowboys selected over the weekend. And when I say almost nothing, I hadn't watched a single San Diego State game, talked to a single scout about Gavin Escobar, and honestly didn't know much about him except what I had read. And that was their 2nd round pick! Think about how little I had in my head or files about B.W. Webb.
I admit all of this to simply show a little honesty as a media member that hopefully has earned your trust over the years, and then tries to take that responsibility seriously. If there is anyone who claims they have done their homework on all 254 players and their homework to study the depth chart, cap situation, and football issues with all 32 teams - then they are wasting their time in the media. They should really be personnel experts in the NFL.
And yet, everywhere I look, here is another media guy grading all 32 teams! With what information? That makes no sense to me and I refuse to participate in what amounts to gathering military intelligence about the middle east by watching cable news. It is an insult to those media departments who employ a dozen guys who evaluate talent all day, every day, for 12 months a year to grade their performance based on 5 minutes of youtube highlights and whether or not they drafted a local player from a college I watch on Saturdays and maybe remember 5 of his college plays. I find that sort of guess work silly and think that you should try to avoid those who attempt to tell you who the "winners and losers" over the weekend are. They are surely taking wild guesses and are seldom willing to share their grading mis-steps from previous drafts. If getting a good grade from the media means taking guys they have heard of, then this is all a waste of time.
I attempt to not feed the monster. And yet, this is my job. To gather as much information as I can and to in some ways evaluate what the Cowboys did with their resources to try to improve their team in the quickest and most efficient way possible, which is by doing well on draft weekend.
So a bit further below, I throw caution to the wind and attempt to do what I just admitted is nearly impossible to accomplish properly:
First, an overall positioning statement on how this whole thing works. I don't believe you can properly evaluate a pick without looking at things from a macro point of view. Like spending too much time on one play in a full game, to discuss one pick from one draft when you are attempting to construct a competitive team in a very competitive league is very difficult.
The fact is that the best-run organizations in football botch picks routinely. They all have horror stories of misevaluation because this is a very difficult process to choose young men and try to project the next decade of their lives. It is a very physical game that requires health and a complex game that requires development and progress through coaching and self-motivation. To simply assume that a player would turn out the same regardless of where he is drafted is silliness. If John Elway was traded on draft day of 1983 to the Cowboys, we have no idea what would have happened. We do know, though, that the Cowboys would not have picked first in 1989, so Troy Aikman goes to Green Bay. Without Jimmy Johnson but with Lindy Infante, do we really think that Aikman would have still won 3 Super Bowls?
Good teams botch picks and bad teams have good picks. It is all part of a batting average type of measurement where the good teams hit a better percentage. Just because Albert Pujols strikes out 3 times in one night doesn't mean he isn't the gold standard for hitting. And the same is true when the Patriots botch a pick. It happens. But, you can't botch too many.
Second, when you have too many holes you are in a situation where there are no wrong answers (any pick you make will address a need, most likely) and there are no right answers (no matter who you pick, there will still be some major needs that don't get addressed). This is the curse of the 2013 Cowboys draft. They had needs and needs and needs. They had too many holes and not enough plugs. They shocked the NFL with all of the street free agents that they signed mid-season who stepped right onto the roster and into the huddle because of their absurd lack of depth. They could not afford injuries in a sport that injuries are part of the deal.
So, when they entered this weekend, they were at a distinct disadvantage against the league for 2 reasons. 1) they had more needs than your average team and 2) they had fewer picks than your average team.
When you do look at those NFL Draft grades that I asked you to ignore, you will find that it starts with your pick load. The Ravens and 49ers are celebrated for their awesome draft. Well, they entered with the 2 most picks. Green Bay was congratulated for their draft. Well, they had 10 picks on Day 3 to use and trade with. Minnesota graded well - I should hope so with 3 1st Rounders. You will generally see that the teams with volume are going to hit the target more often.
And this is why the Cowboys operate from a distinct disadvantage. This is the macro view. They butchered several drafts in a row by most counts. 2006-2010 have very little left to show for it. We have discussed this at great length and if you compare them with the power teams in the league, you will see that the issue lies there - not with what they do in the 2012 or 2013 draft.
Imagine a car in a race that is 4 laps down before it finally gets its set-up right. It would make no sense to criticize them too hard for whatever happened after that. They were too far behind to recover. And that is where the franchise stands. Too many holes and no matter who they take, it is the wrong answer.
There is an amazing story in Sports Illustrated a few issues back about Al Davis and the rebuilding of the Raiders franchise after his death. Reports inside include the idea that they did not employ a full-time groundskeeper or even have a draft war-room that was used. They simply did things Al's way and this led to them falling further and further behind the rest of the league as he got older and older.
They were unable to compete without a philosophy or a method for competing in a league that is unforgiving for the last decade when they never won more than 5 games after their Super Bowl 37 season. It was a league power that stopped being a league power once its leader no longer knew how to do it nor how to accept assistance.
Now, with their new General Manager Reggie McKenzie at the helm, they are attempting to dig out of their massive hole. He may or may not be able to do this job, but he is at least going to install some methodology that worked for him in Green Bay under Ted Thompson. Build a board through incredible work, trust your board, and follow the process closely without deviation.
With reports that the Cowboys did not follow this process over the weekend when the room disagreed about taking Sharrif Floyd at #18 or trading down to get #31 and #74, we are left with whispers that Jerry Jones stepped in and grabbed the steering wheel when his personnel department and coaching staff wished to do otherwise. They spent all year setting up their board and doing their work, but when the moment of truth arrived, the veto power from the man on the throne slammed down. And the personnel department shook its collective head. It is his team and he can do what he wants, but to go against your brain trust when that has found trouble in the past, well...
As I said on Friday, I think trading down is a solid idea for a team with too many issues to address. And the very real possibility that they received Travis Frederick and Terrance Williams for Sharrif Floyd or possibly, Tyler Eifert seems like pretty good business in one sense. But, if you employ a personnel department to evaluate the odds and the quality of the players involved, while you are off at the X Games or at a presidential library opening (or artwork releases or Papa Johns or negotiations with the NCAA or...), it would seem that you should be willing to trust their judgement. And if there wasn't a history of vetoes and over-rulings in the 1st Round of drafts of the past, it wouldn't be a big issue. But it has happened again and again. And it hasn't always been the wrong play (DeMarcus Ware over Shawne Merriman) and maybe that is why it continues to happen.
And although it would be hyperbole to compare Jerry Jones and Al Davis in some ways, it is not a stretch to assume that the only way either would ever relinquish power is when they no longer walk the earth.
This, of course, caused head shaking and disappointment when the personnel department couldn't believe that they had a chance at a special player that fell in their lap. The Cowboys loved Floyd and didn't believe he would get to them. So when he did, most thought this was an easy call.
Jerry did not. He traded back and then they decided to pull the trigger on the last remaining offensive lineman on their "top tier", even though most thought that was "too rich" to steal a phrase Stephen Jones used to describe LSU safety Eric Reid going at #18.
The final 6 picks in the draft were full of curiosities as well. Taking Gavin Escobar is an interesting play and one that reminds us that Jason Garrett was ready and willing to take advantage of the entry of "12 Personnel" into the league back in 2008 and 2009. 12 personnel is the best way to balance up your offense between run and pass because it is a package that does not tip your intentions either way but keeps your weapons on the field (rather than using a fullback, you replace him with a pass catching tight end who can occupy the safeties down the middle of the field).
They tried and tried with Martellus Bennett to make the 2-Tight End attack lethal and despite Stephen chiming in that Bennett was "very productive" in his 4 years in Dallas, we know that it never came close to working. Bennett never had a 300 yard season in a Cowboys uniform. In fact, in 1 year in New York, he fell only 200 yards short of his 4-year total in Dallas. 12 Personnel was a flop here for 4 seasons, but clearly the conviction is still in the coach to try to do what other teams have done so well, and Escobar gives them a weapon that looks the part. He clearly ran a troubling 4.85 40 at the combine where 10 years earlier Jason Witten ran a 4.70 (and Bennett a 4.73 with James Hanna clocking a 4.45). But, we should remember that they were talking up the idea of taking Tyler Eifert from Notre Dame at #18 in the first place, so this was clearly an objective. Whether it should have been a higher objective than linemen is something that we should debate for quite a while (I was hoping for 900+ lbs of human in the first 3 picks and we certainly fell well short of that).
I didn't consider Tight End very far up on their list of needs, but they chose to bolster their offense with a play-maker who certainly would go up and win a ball in the air at San Diego State and was ultra productive. Obviously, 12 personnel does give defenses a real issue if done properly, and just because Bennett couldn't make it work does not mean the strategy won't work. It simply means they got it wrong. I certainly don't mind the player, but I do wonder if they could afford to spend lavishly on this sort of upgrade given that they continue to ignore the defensive line throughout the draft. With LSU's Bennie Logan and Penn State's Jordan Hill both on the Cowboys list of possibilities, I did find the strategy curious.
On the other hand, I have written at great length about the inefficiencies of the offense and the inability to run the ball under any circumstances. Not being able to run makes the pass defenses more problematic and the pass rush more fierce. But, to see them address center and 12 personnel like this has me hopeful that both of these moves are an indirect remedy for better balance and better running attacks.
At #74 (the extra pick from the trade back) they snag Baylor WR Terrance Williams. Williams is electric and addresses the 3rd WR spot which is so vital around here because Miles Austin and Dez Bryant are likely to get banged up a bit, making #3 the #2 for a portion of the season. He is a home run hitter and a very good value in the 3rd Round. He also puts you in a spot where after 2014, he might be Austin's replacement or in a worst case scenario, he covers you if Dez Bryant's contract situation gets out of hand (which I doubt happens). This is a position of need and the Cowboys ran almost nothing but 11 personnel with 3 WRs for all of its production in 2012, so it is tough to argue with the player - but again, it did not address OL, DL, or Safety causing many to slap their foreheads in disgust.
At #80, they finally targeted one of their primary needs (at least as we have assumed) which is safety. But, in this particular case, it was not the most likely of the available safeties left, Fresno State's Phillip Thomas. Thomas had led the NCAA in interceptions and was a noted ball hawk. Nor was it noted strong safety, Shamarko Thomas of Syracuse. Instead, they went with Georgia Southern's JJ Wilcox. Wilcox obviously has incredible physical tools including a 4.53 40, but is perhaps most identified because he has played safety for just 1 college season.
Wilcox is still learning the position after running back and wide receiver earlier in college, but has no issues with confidence or self belief. He has tools and the Cowboys believe they can help him continue to figure out how to grow into being an NFL safety. They clearly saw Thomas and Thomas as guys without the same upside, and although project safeties give me great pause (Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, I am looking at you), I am excited to see what Wilcox and Matt Johnson can bring to a safety position that has not had legitimate young prospects in a while.
With just 3 picks on Day 3, the Cowboys had to ring the bell on 3 occasions. Obviously, I need to go see B.W. Webb's film at William and Mary before I get too carried away, but I am very excited to see his speed, his big plays as a special teams man, and another corner that might replace Orlando Scandrick at the end of this season as the 3rd corner. This pick #114, like a few others, seems to try to cover themselves for future financial cutbacks. Of course, they don't appear to have covered themselves very much at the spots when Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher are unrestricted next winter.
Webb is certainly tiny and with 0 interceptions last year, we need to see how he competes at the next level, but when looking for a corner, I always like to start with a guy who is under 4.5 and generates electricity when he has the ball. Webb looks the part so that is a nice start at least. We might wonder, much like in Round 2 when they passed on Eddie Lacy, Le'Veon Bell, and Montee Ball, if the Cowboys should have considered Johnathan Franklin to fill that 2nd Running Back void. They did not, until Round 5.
That is when at #151, the Cowboys targeted their RB. It was another Big 12 South product in the form of Joseph Randle from Oklahoma State. Certainly at 4.63, he is not a burner, but he appears to be a workhorse who also has the ability to catch the ball and go and at 204 might be able to share the load on blitz pickups. This need was further up my list than another corner, but to get Randle in Round 5 I believe is a pretty good achievement. They desperately needed to through this up the list of priorities with the durability issues of DeMarco Murray, so there can be no real dispute on this idea other than to wonder if they might have found a better player earlier.
Finally, their final pick was in the 6th round at #185. DeVonte Holloman from South Carolina is a linebacker who should do what most 6th rounders do and that is to supply exceptional work at special teams and depth in the lineup. This team clearly needed linebacker depth after last year's issues and finding Holloman seems reasonable. This deep in the draft you just take the most talented player left almost regardless of position, so until I learn more about him, it is tough to consider this at all as a place to 2nd guess.
Again, to review what I said earlier, when you have old mistakes on top of older mistakes you have too many holes to fill. When that happens, there are no wrong answers (they needed players at every spot they took and they each have a chance to play a major role) and there are no right answers (they took just 1 offensive lineman in the entire draft and maybe reached on him and they took no defensive linemen whatsoever).
I look forward to breaking down the college work of each of these players in the weeks to come and writing a personal review on each of them when I have digested enough of their games. In the meantime, I certainly understand the critiques but I am also interested in the additions. Even in the case of Travis Frederick, if he can finally give them solid center play, I don't think anyone will have a major issue with that decision going forward.
It has been said a number of times, after draft weekend, the position a player is taken is just a footnote. It makes no difference when the ball is snapped who went where and in what round. They all simply become NFL players and in this case Dallas Cowboys. Undrafted players and 1st rounders fight for the same spots and compete now regardless of how they got to this league. And from that standpoint, the Cowboys appear to be infused with 7 promising prospects who can all help this team win. There is plenty of room for 2nd guessing, but from where I sit, if I was the type to grade drafts, I am not sure I could have a major issue with the concepts behind most of these picks.