Monday, May 12, 2014

The Morning After: The Cowboys 2014 NFL Draft Weekend

Another draft weekend is in the books and another round of talented football players are on their way to the Valley Ranch facilities to hold up new jerseys and to get to work as a part of the "hope springs eternal" football news cycle.  In this case, it is the hope that the 2014 NFL Draft will supplement the 2014 Cowboys roster with enough bright, young faces that the issues of 2013 will be but a faded memory.

And, at this point, all seems optimistic - even from this chair - as I start sorting through the tape, resumes, and reputations of the players that the Cowboys have chosen.  I think, it you sorted through this blog's archives, you would see a similar view just about every season on the day after draft weekend.  The fact is, there are many talented players in college football every year who populate the NFL, and the Cowboys get their share.

Unfortunately, until we see them play on Sundays, many of us are taking wild guesses.  It would be more assuring if you could take the guesswork out of drafting players (or for us, just evaluating the process of drafting players), but unfortunately, there is no way for NFL franchises to actually do that, despite all of the time and manpower you can imagine.  There simply is no way to predict with conclusive success how a young man will deal with a major step up in competition, a major amount of money in his pocket, a new level of pressures, expectations, and life experiences, and just the most under-rated burden of his body staying fit enough to contribute.

Therefore, we have tried to learned what works the best for teams who are drafting well.  And what constitutes drafting well?

Well, from this spot, it appears that we have learned that the best teams in drafting over the last NFL generation: Baltimore, Seattle, San Francisco, Green Bay, New England, Pittsburgh all seem to come up when we have these conversations - all have a few things in common.  It starts with the fact that everyone of them make mistakes.  They make a lot of mistakes.  They spend high picks on guys who fail and don't even make the team.  They think they have gold when in reality they don't.  They swing as hard as they can and they miss.

So, how are they still able to be thought of as one of the best drafting teams in the business if they are making these mistakes?

Numbers.  They throw numbers at the problem.  They use the shotgun approach, rather than the sniper tactics.  You can use your precision shooting, we are going to follow a process and a prototype for all of our picks and we are just going to grab the highest candidate who falls to our spot, rinse, and repeat.

Now, this certainly doesn't mean that those teams aren't trading up when the time is right.  They all do.  It also doesn't mean that they aren't trading for veteran players with draft picks or whiffing altogether on a move where they swung too hard.  But, it does know that they realize that the batting average is not the whole story.  Sometimes, the number of at bats is what truly matters.

That is a way of saying that the thing that troubles me about the 2014 Cowboys draft was that they did something that I believe they simply could not do.  And something they have done too many times in this Cowboys era (2007-present, or said another way, since Jerry Jones sat back in the king's throne with no equal power broker).

They did what we call, "trading up to get your guy."  We call it that because just about every draft in this era, we have "traded up to get our guy" used in a post-draft press conference when describing someone in the Top 3 rounds.  To do so, they spend a ton of assets, and put all of their proverbial eggs in one basket.

In 2007, they traded up to get Anthony Spencer (a 2nd, a 3rd, and a 5th), Mike Jenkins in 2008 (traded up using a 1st, 5th, and 7th), Dez Bryant in 2010 (a 1st and a 3rd for Dez and a 4th), Sean Lee (a 2nd and a 4th), and in 2012, Morris Claiborne (a 1st and a 2nd).  Add in the 2009 Roy Williams trade (a 1st, a 3rd, and a 6th for Roy and a 7th), and this weekend's Demarcus Lawrence trade (a 2nd and a 3rd) the total is shocking:  7 players for 17 picks (and 2 additional lesser picks in return).

In each case, afterwards, those who wish to look at the cup as half full reason the deal as saying, "well, if you are sure that he is that good you should secure the player."  But, in aggregate, you continue to give away bodies.  If you consider Top 100 picks where teams find the majority of their starters (and most experts do), then you gave 2 starters for Spencer, 2 for Dez, 2 for Lee, 2 for Claiborne, 2 for Roy Williams, and 2 for Demarcus Lawrence.  In other words, 6 players at the cost of 12 starters.

If we do a 2 for 1 deal once in a while for the right guy - Seattle thinks Percy Harvin (a 1st, a 3rd, and a 7th) was worth it, Green Bay wanted to move up to get Clay Matthews (a 2nd, a 3rd, and a 3rd), then fine.  But, can you do it 6 times in 8 years?  The Cowboys just did.

So, let's go back to the discussion of how to throw numbers at a problem.  My friend and fellow draft nerd, David Newbury tabulated "Top 100" picks over this 2007-present era to find out how the Cowboys rate with bullets in their guns.  As many of you have grown frustrated because of poor 2nd and 3rd round picks, it is amazing how many have decided they aren't worth anything anymore.  Robert Brewster, Jason Williams, and even Martellus Bennett have made people think that if the Cowboys had more picks in the 2nd and 3rd rounds, they would just screw them up anyway.  If you are that defeated by the incompetence of your favorite franchise, there may not be anything I can say that will make you feel better.  But, let's examine what he found:

MOST TOP 100 PICKS (2007-2014)

Team Total Picks
New England  31
Detroit 29
Cincinnati 28
St Louis 28
Miami 28

LEAST TOP 100 PICKS (2007-2014)

Team Total Picks
Washington  18
Seattle 19
New Orleans  19
Dallas  20
New York Jets 20

The league average over this time span is 24.7 picks in the Top 100, which of course, are generally 1st, 2nd, and 3rd round (a few 4ths) players over a span of 7 seasons which should constitute players between the ages of 22 and 29 on your roster.  In other words, the very spine of your roster going into 2014.

You may see some pretty strong teams in the lower list and some poor teams in the higher list.  This is where batting average does come in.  Also, bounty gate cost the Saints, RG 3 cost the Redskins, and the Jets and Seahawks have also made veteran trades - almost none as poorly done as the Roy Williams deal.

Conversely, the Rams shook down the Redskins, the Patriots get everyone to give them Top 100 picks, and I have no idea about how Detroit has done so average with so many assets.

The point is that there is no question that other teams make major draft day mistakes.  No GM is perfect and no GM is hitless.  The issue in this league always seems to be depth, and the ability to navigate through a 6 month brutal marathon and to be able to withstand health issues and to be able to plug in a capable backup, rather than beg a guy out of retirement or off his couch to come start for you.

Which is why, on a day like Friday, when the Cowboys have to trade up to "go get their guy" who is described as the "guy they needed" and the "last dynamic pass rusher", you generally get guys like me who start with the indigestion even though I personally like Lawrence quite a bit.

But, desperation allows for poor decisions and overpaying.  Overpaying allows for a top-heavy roster which can and will be taken down every year after Thanksgiving or so when attrition has had its effect on every roster in the league.  We talk about injury luck like it is a real thing.  In reality, injury luck is needed much more by teams who don't buy injury insurance in the April draft each year.

So, which are you?  Shotgun or sniper?

=====

OK.  Enough about my griping.  I said they needed 3 starters minimum from this draft and it appears they started looking for depth when they picked on Day 3.  In fact, when they took Anthony Hitchens, the linebacker from Iowa, they put this in the newspaper:
Iowa linebacker Anthony Hitchens received the call of a lifetime Saturday afternoon from Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. 
The Cowboys selected Hitchens in the fourth round, and Jones informed Hitchens of the selection. After exchanging pleasantries, Jones said: “You’ve got a special teams coach over here that laid in front of the train for you. Whatever you do, you’re going to have to be the best special teams player we’ve got.”
Whoa.  That isn't weird at all to draft guys to start in special teams and challenge them to dominate, but you would think that several teams would not be so bold as to tell the 3rd player chosen in their draft publicly, that he is here for special teams.  At least one that is coming off a season where the number of holes far out-weighed the number of plugs.

That said, Hitchens, as well as WR from Pittsbugh Devin Street and the 7th round bounty of DE Ben Gardner of Stanford, LB Will Smith from Texas Tech, S Ahmad Dixon from Bayor, DT Ken Bishop of Northern Illinois, and CB Terrance Mitchell from Oregon mostly seem like players (DT excepted) who will have to make this team initially on the strength of special teams play.   However, I want to make clear that the only player from this group that I studied with any sort of depth is Dixon.  So, I will review Lawrence and Dixon here, but reserve judgement on Hitchens, Street, and the rest of the 7ths until I have done my due diligence.

Overall, there is a lot of defense, but not a lot of immediate boost, it appears.  They put a ton of their eggs in their free agent strikes:  Henry Melton, Jeremy Mincey, and Terrell McClain to fix their defensive line with the returns of Tyrone Crawford, Anthony Spencer, and Ben Bass from seasons lost (and in Spencer's case the potential of worse) to injuries.  Basically, discount finds from last summer in George Selvie and Nick Hayden are the only returning contributors and the rest is from a group of injury returnees (3), free agents (3), and defensive line rookies (3) from this draft.  In other words, for this part of the team, they did throw numbers at the problem.  In fact, anyone who has completely ruled out Josh Brent should likely not do so just yet (sizable suspension pending). 9 new bodies on the defensive line.  If they can find 5-6 keepers from that group, they might be building in the right direction.

Otherwise, they may have found an outside depth option at WR in Street which they really needed and perhaps another depth option at linebacker in Hitchens.  Those breakdowns will be coming soon.

Now, on to Lawrence and Dixon.

I wanted to reprint my reports on these two players from when I wrote them earlier in the spring and had no idea they were going to be Cowboys.  This will hopefully capture a bias-free look before the optimism of new picks rushes in:

Here is Lawrence's review from April 25th:

Demarcus Lawrence - Boise State - 6'3 - 244 - 4.80 
Lawrence is a name that you are hearing more and more as the draft season develops, with people even making the case that he might belong in the 1st round.  But, there are many things for us to consider as we break him down. 
First, he ran a speed at the combine in his quickness and agility drills that is problematic for his position and size.  4.80 with 1.68 splits is not what we are looking for from a guy who is another ideal edge rusher in the 3-4 as a standup guy. 
The good news is that he plays faster than his time is on the watch.  If you pop in one of his games from last fall, you will see a very explosive edge rusher who has LB quickness and is able to cause plenty of problems from a rushing standpoint, and different than Marcus Smith, he is taking on and defeating tackles routinely. 
Lawrence has a smaller body of work, as he was a community college guy before he got to Boise and was also a guy who was suspended 3 times for different violations of team rules in just 2 seasons which is really quite a pace. 
But, when you look at him closely, you see a Marinelli motor and a guy who has some real skills off the corner that cause you to see what the Cowboys clearly see in him.  The question is how far up the charts will he go. 
StatsSacksTFLsFF's
201310.520.54
20129.513.53
Totals20347

31 plays behind the line of scrimmage in 2013 and another 4 fumbles forced tell you that he is exciting, but man, what do you do with him on 1st and 2nd down when teams wish to run the ball right at you?  He doesn't love run defense, but perhaps in this day where the Redskins and Eagles are certainly not running a traditional FB, I-formation offense anymore, the Cowboys are content going undersized at the edges and replace it with quickness and a number of "rush men". 
If they have decided that guys who look like 3-4 outside linebackers are what they want to run at weak side defensive end to carry the torch in the post-DeMarcus Ware era, then guys like this make more sense.  He seems really undersized, but really interesting to go get sacks.  This type of guy is interesting to me at #47, but it is highly likely he is gone before that.
As you can see, I am absolutely fine with this type of player.  But, would I rather have Timmy Jernigan or Jeremiah Attaochu at #47 added to Will Sutton or Louis Nix at #78?  I think you know my philosophy on adding many quality bodies to the mix over placing all eggs in the basket of one guy.  I think Attaochu is the only other edge rusher comparable to Lawrence (but maybe a step down) so their careers will be linked in my mind.

But, I do like Lawrence plenty.  So, while over-payment and lack of depth are significant issues, at least it is a player who is well regarded.

And then the very well-known and controversial safety from Baylor, Ahmad Dixon.

Here is Dixon's review from February 19th:

Ahmad Dixon - Baylor - 5'11 - 205 - 4.56 40
Let me confess that one of the players I really became fascinated with over the last few years is Dixon from Baylor.  He does things to get noticed and he has many of the things I prefer in a safety, including confidence, force, and intimidation skills. 
When he hits you, and then tells you about it, you will be well aware that he has been there.  He leaves a mark, no doubt about it. 
All of that tells me he will continue to achieve and play many years in the NFL and likely do things to get his name noticed at that level, too. 
But, when we break down his skill set, we see all of the features of a strong safety - which is a close relative to a small linebacker, rather than a free safety - relatives of the cornerback.  And if there is something this particular NFL outfit doesn't need, it is another safety that is a biscuit or two from playing LB.  And, in today's game, strong safety is less interesting because of the idea that at some point, he is going to have to man-up in space against a world-class athlete and hold his own.

StatsINTsTacklesFF's
20131811
201221020
20111890
20100161
Totals42882


I love Dixon's effort and his makeup to a certain extent.  To watch his head to head battle with Texas Tech's Jace Amaro was entertaining and they both got their licks in.  But, Amaro won the day (Dixon won the game, of course) and was able to get open with a fair bit of ease.  Dixon would hit him and hit him hard, but that seems to be his one answer to a lot of problems, looking for the huge hit.  But, I just don't think that works long term against complicated pass offenses, and I certainly don't see him as a free safety candidate.  He is uncomfortable in man coverage and surely can't be a free safety solution. 
I watched plenty more than that one game (also Texas and TCU), but the Texas Tech game did really scare me about what happens when he has to deal with the athletic tight ends of the NFL. 
At the right price, I would take him here, but like several other safeties in this draft, I just don't think Dixon is a particular fit in Dallas.
My summary here is not flattering, but that is back when people were asking about him as a Top 100 player.  To get this guy at pick #248 is what I would consider exceptional value and while I don't think he can be an every down safety in the NFL, he will now have every chance to prove it.  But, am I excited about having a hitting machine on my special teams for the reasonable price of a 7th?  Absolutely.

Well played, there.

I don't have a draft grade for you, because as I said, I need to spend at least an hour on each of these players I don't know and even then I only studied the Top 100 players so to act like I know what was on the board relative to what they picked is both disingenuous and silly.

But, when asked what I think about the 2014 draft, I believe a lot of it will rest on the Cowboys ability to evaluate JJ Wilcox as a fine option at free safety so they can ignore Calvin Pryor, improving the line with Zack Martin to give depth and options when Doug Free is out, assuming Tony Romo will be fine health-wise, and that they have done enough to keep from being susceptible to injury attrition in the upcoming holiday season.  

That is a lot of "ifs", but hopefully fewer of those questions than when they entered this offseason.


1 comment:

Dallas Child said...

I keep hearing people talk about trading out of potentially getting 3 top 100 players by trading their 3rd round pick.....but that also assumes that 3rd round pick will be a player in this league. Chances are, the majority of the players in this draft will be out of the league at some point in the next 3 or 4 years. Hell, there will be some 1st rounders who either will be cut or out of this league in the next few years. That's the NFL draft. So understanding that, I have a hard time being upset about trading a 3rd rounder to get a player who some had as a 1st round grade on him.

Then I read this tidbit by you this morning:

"n 2007, they traded up to get Anthony Spencer (a 2nd, a 3rd, and a 5th), Mike Jenkins in 2008 (traded up using a 1st, 5th, and 7th), Dez Bryant in 2010 (a 1st and a 3rd for Dez and a 4th), Sean Lee (a 2nd and a 4th), and in 2012, Morris Claiborne (a 1st and a 2nd). Add in the 2009 Roy Williams trade (a 1st, a 3rd, and a 6th for Roy and a 7th), and this weekend's Demarcus Lawrence trade (a 2nd and a 3rd) the total is shocking: 7 players for 17 picks (and 2 additional lesser picks in return)."


The 7 players with 17 picks is troublesome. Disturbing even.

But the part that I noticed are the caliber of players we've traded for and what they've become. Mike Jenkins.....ex-Pro Bowler. Dez Bryant....Pro Bowler. Sean Lee......no Pro Bowl but I think you can argue he's had a few Pro Bowl seasons in him. Roy Williams....Pro Bowl. Anthony Spencer...Pro Bowl...

Now i'm not saying "Pro Bowls" equate to how great a player is or that's the bar but if i'm going to trade up and get a Pro Bowl player? Its hard to fault the Cowboys for trading up.