Monday, May 02, 2016

The Morning After The 2016 Draft - It All Hinges on Jaylon

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 01:  Linebacker Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish walks off the field after an injury during the first quarter of the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl against the Ohio State Buckeyes at University of Phoenix Stadium on January 1, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona.  The Buckeyes defeated the Fighting Irish 44-28.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 595507163
2016 Getty Images
GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 01: Linebacker Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish walks off the field after an injury during the first quarter of the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl against the Ohio State Buckeyes at University of Phoenix Stadium on January 1, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. The Buckeyes defeated the Fighting Irish 44-28. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 595507163
There is literally nothing more ridiculous than offering grades the Monday after the NFL draft. That isn't an insult to those who do it, because I assume most of the people who do it realize it is ridiculous and are just doing what their bosses ask them to do (which, I understand, is a great way to stay employed).  

But, let's not kid ourselves. Just like mock drafts before them, the post-draft grading system is done to satiate the appetite of those who want to know NOW how their teams did -- despite the idea that there is no way to know now. But, the massive flaw is that the media guy in question -- even if he spent hundreds of hours to prepare for the draft -- is actually going to judge an organization that spent thousands of hours, and then measure them relative to the rest of the league (which, collectively, has no doubt sent that total toward millions of hours). And how will they be graded? Strictly on the question asked by each pundit: Did this team do what I wanted them to do?
So, if the Cowboys would have executed my No. 1 scenario going into draft day of Jalen Ramsey at No. 4 and Derrick Henry at No. 34, then I would have given them an A-plus. They ignored me, so I'd better knock them down to a B. Just kidding. I don't do draft grades. Draft grades are dumb, unless we are going to wait three to four years to actually do it right (you know, when they actually prove whether the teams are right or not), but that won't get the clicks. By the way, stay tuned later this week for when I grade the 2012 draft. (I can actually see my editors rolling their eyes as they read this, because they know I am seriously about to do that.)
However, we absolutely must discuss the events from Friday and Saturday in the Cowboys' draft. It was an interesting mission in asset allocation strategies that played out over the weekend, which started with the unorthodox but intriguing idea of going all in on the best offensive playmaker in the draft on Thursday night -- which I wrote plenty about here. But, then what? What did they do with the rest of their picks and what did I think about all of that? Let's get to it.
The Cowboys entered Day 2 with a pretty good feeling -- once their quarterback trade-up idea fell through -- that they were going to get one of their top defensive ends to help them at No. 34. They had two players they loved -- Emmanuel Ogbah and Kevin Dodd at the top of the second and they were picking third. Things would have to break pretty bad for them to not to get either. The Browns and the Titans were not likely to both go with a pass rusher at Nos. 32 and 33.  
No. 32: Browns select Emmanuel Ogbah, DE, Oklahoma State.
No. 33: Titans select Kevin Dodd, defensive end, Clemson.
So, now, the Cowboys are at pick No. 34 and seeing that their top two prospects who can help right now are gone. This, of course, is problematic, but they did discuss overnight what that plan would be in the unlikely scenario of needing to pick their third-best player in Round 2. On the outside, we were wondering if that meant Myles Jack -- a player who they loved without the knee injury. It turns out we were warm, but not quite right. The actual plan was to go get Jaylon Smith, the outstanding linebacker from Notre Dame.
It turns out, if we believe the whispers, the Cowboys' actual plan was to get Ogbah/Dodd and then to get back into Round 2 later and take Smith behind them. This, of course, was all possible because their other aggressive plan of the weekend -- taking the second and third picks to go get Paxton Lynch -- struck out as well. And all of these scenarios match up with the 2015 "War Room," which was to take the solid pick with your first (Byron Jones and Zeke Elliott) and then try to poach another top-20 talent (Randy Gregory in 2015; Jaylon Smith in 2016) by shopping in the red-tag aisle with your additional top resources.
Everyone has a plan on draft day until that plan doesn't receive cooperation from the other 31 teams. Then, the scramble begins. They wanted their playmaker at No. 4, their defensive starter at No. 34, and then wanted to take their redshirt linebacker in the second round by jumping up before New England could grab him later (as I was told by a trusted colleague; you could argue New England is the only other team that has a GM who has no chance of ever getting fired). This provided they could not get their running back and quarterback in Round 1 on Thursday, and then sit the draft out until Round 4.
Now, let's visit about the all-important discussion of Jaylon Smith vs. Myles Jack. These are two exceptional players who most people who study the draft love almost equally. Both are elite athletes and both can do many things. Jack can cover in the secondary better than Smith and Smith can rush the quarterback better than Jack. But as far as being unreal players in the middle of the field, there is no questioning the quality.
The question is twofold: 1) Which do you prefer? The elite coverage utility or the pass-rush utility? It literally is a matter of a team's preference? Because both have uncommon traits. Then, the next issue is far greater: 2) Which do you prefer, the linebacker who might play this year but at some point will need substantial micro-fracture repair? Or the linebacker who will likely not play this year but is expected to be at his normal form for 2017?
The Cowboys made the decision that Smith is that guy -- and also that Jack would not be a gamble they would take that high. It helps that the doctor of Jaylon Smith is on their own medical staff, but let's not confuse things -- they know this is not a cinch. He still requires nerve regrowth and reattachment that happens most of the time without anything but time. But, the risk is certainly present. There is absolutely no way to be sure -- just a few months removed from a substantial injury -- that he will be as good as new. Rather, they are going with "likely to be good as new."
What do I think of that decision? Well, it isn't ideal to draft a guy who is damaged, but when it comes to prospects in this draft, I loved Jaylon Smith -- here is my full profile on him. He is a phenomenal player and person by all accounts. I am not sure how high I would have rated him if perfectly healthy (top 10, for sure), but even with the knee injury I had him in my top 20. I believe the Cowboys absolutely agreed with that.
It's risky, and something only a team with a GM who is not worried about getting fired would do, but how many times have the Cowboys done something like that? Job security governs many decisions in this league. And the Cowboys have rolled the dice more than any other personnel department over the years, having brought in question mark after question mark, so why would that change now?
From there, the Cowboys stayed put in Rounds 3 and 4, grabbing defensive linemen that I would consider "about right" at their draft positions. They took Nebraska's 3-technique defensive tackle Maliek Collins at No. 67 and Oklahoma's Charles Tapper at defensive end. Collins was the 11th defensive tackle taken and Tapper was the 14th defensive end taken. I plan on writing full video reports very soon on both, but for now I will express my excitement that the Cowboys have added two more talented pieces to their defensive line and their idea of a deep and full defensive line rotation, which might be void of dominating difference makers. But, one through eight, Dallas finally looks like it has the quality to compete at a pretty decent level.  
The Cowboys have added Collins, Tapper, Cedric Thornton and Benson Mayowa. That is a pretty nice collection to add to Tyrone Crawford, DeMarcus Lawrence (in October), David Irving, what is left of Randy Gregory's career and, perhaps, someone like Ryan Russell, Terrell McClain or even Nick Hayden.
Then, as you know, the Cowboys got their young quarterback. We are told that Connor Cook was their play at No. 101, but the Raiders traded in front of them to take him and snagged the quarterback from Michigan State. The Cowboys then could either take Dak Prescott or wait to see if he fell to them at No. 135. They took Tapper instead, and then hopped on the Mississippi State quarterback almost a full round later with the compensation pick they got from DeMarco Murray signing with Philadelphia.  
I profiled Prescott here and do see some promise in him, but I did not want to believe the Cowboys were going to grab him at No. 67, as that seemed too high for a guy with only a marginal chance to ever be a regular starter in this league. But, to get him at No. 135? Sure. That works well for me.
From there, four picks remained -- all in Round 6. They still needed a corner and grabbed a promising prospect who fell in the draft from Purdue: Anthony Brown. I think there is every reason to believe he can make this roster.  Then, they grabbed a safety that they felt deserved a 4th round grade, Kavon Frazier of Central Michigan.  He also has a real chance.  Behind them, the final two compensatory picks would have to both be considered likely practice squad players: running back Darius Jackson, from Eastern Michigan (and Garland), and tight end Rico Gathers, from Baylor -- best known for being related to the great Hank Gathers and as the guy who hasn't played any high school or college football. At all. Jackson has a chance to be more than practice squad with Lance Dunbar out, but I would say those are both pure long shots from this spot on May 2.
So, how do I like their draft? Well, they added some elite talents in Elliott and maybe Smith. So, we can't complain about that. They added talent to their defensive line with bodies, although, not the "red meat" variety that seemed to be can't-miss types. They then added their young quarterback, although his upside seems a complete projection. And they added a roster corner. I like all of these things.
But, clearly, this whole thing hinges on Jaylon Smith. He could be their best defensive player for the next decade if he is right. But, the floor is that he never is right again. That is a pretty big range of outcomes, and therefore, if you want to feel good about what they did, assure your buddies Jaylon is going to be fine. And, if you want to feel like Jerry is still a wildcatter who gambles the farm because the action is fun, then you can cringe about the worst-case scenarios.
I guess we better do what draft graders should always do: Wait and see.

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