This is an interesting time on the NFL schedule. We're in that sort of post-free agency purgatory where teams have re-tooled and shuffled players around, but are still looking at the opportunity for major upgrades in the NFL draft. There's a good 6-7 weeks between the start of the new league year and free agency, and the NFL draft. Regarding the Cowboys' strategy on free agency versus the draft, it seems to be fairly consistent over the past five seasons.
Ever since we signed Brandon Carr, we've taken much more of a need-filling approach in free agency to glue up any glaring holes (as well as sign back our own players), in order to put the front office in position to pick best player available at the end of April.
To allow ourselves to do that, however, the Cowboys have to familiarize themselves as much as possible with the prospects of the current year's draft. This comes through various formats: watching tape, attending the NFL Scouting Combine, interviewing players and their former coaches/teammates; the list goes on and on.
Analyzing Dallas' Weight of Pre-Draft Visitors
Another method of familiarization that people seem to get pretty hung up on is the 30 allotted team visits that each franchise is given to bring in prospects, give them a tour of the facilities, introduce them to coaches, administer additional interviews, and so on.
Let's take a look at last year's pre-draft visitors, and follow that list throughout the draft.
2016 Draft Visits:
The first thing you should notice from this chart is that our front office seems to use about half of their visits on prospects in the top 50-60 players of the draft. Last year they used 17 of their 30 visits on players they had rated in the top two rounds. This makes sense given the investment that teams make in the first two rounds.
The next thing you should notice is that only two of our draft picks (three players, including free agent, Rodney Coe) came from the pre-draft visits. This is hugely important, but you have to analyze why to make a proper assumption.
So that's exactly what I did.
Round 1 – This is fairly straight forward. The Cowboys had the top two prospects on the board, both of whom visited Valley Ranch prior to the draft last year. Ultimately, the front office chose to go with the top guy, and we all know how that worked out.
From here, all other pre-draft visit players were selected prior to their next pick in the second round.
Round 2 – This is where things got interesting. Of Dallas' second round rated pre-draft visitors, only two were still on the board when it was their time to pick: Derrick Henry and Connor Cook. Referring back to the Cowboys' draft board, they only had one player remaining (a top-five guy on their board) when it came time to make their selection: linebacker, Jaylon Smith. Thus, the conversation likely came down to these three players.
Given the selection of Ezekiel Elliott in the first round, the idea of selecting Henry was likely quickly scrapped, thus giving way to the choice of picking Smith or Cook. Given that they had a later round grade on Cook, and a top-five grade on Smith, the conversation likely didn't take too long, ending in the obvious selection of Jaylon Smith.
Derrick Henry would be selected by the Tennessee Titans in the middle of the second round.
I mention that this is where our draft got interesting for a couple of reasons. With Jaylon Smith's injury status indicating he would more than likely need to red shirt his rookie NFL season, I have to think that the Cowboys almost knew they would select him in the second round.
Why do I say this? There was a slim-to-none chance that Smith would be selected in the first round and top of the second. Thus, by rating him so highly, it was almost a given that he'd be the highest rated player when they were on the clock in the second (trade scenarios aside).
The only thing that would've made this more interesting is if one of their first-round graded players was available at their second round pick. But, since they weren't, we'll never know. I have to assume that the conversation was fairly quick when they chose to select Smith.
Round 3 – As we came into the third round, the Cowboys were sitting on the clock with three eligible pre-draft visitors on the board: running back Paul Perkins, and quarterbacks Connor Cook and Jacoby Brissett. Again, we can likely eliminate the running back because of the first round selection. This leaves us with the two quarterbacks. So this means Dallas selects their quarterback of the future at the beginning of the third round, right?
Well, not so fast. Given that Brissett had a late third round grade, they were likely targeting him in the fourth round, and thus didn't want to take him this early. So Cook's our man? Not quite. Instead, the Cowboys chose to take a guy they had rated five players later on their board in defensive tackle, Maliek Collins.
I have no explanation for this move, other than either someone pounding the table for the player, or the team being turned off to Cook from the actual visit. They didn't bring Collins in pre-draft, nor did they have him rated higher than Cook.
With Romo's career winding down, Cook seemed like the selection here. We had who we thought would be a staple at 3-technique in Tyrone Crawford, and had just signed Cedric Thornton at 1-tech. The Collins selection seems to simply be a draft day decision based on war room discussion, and one where they didn't pick the pre-draft visitor.
Round 4 [First Pick] – This was another interesting selection the Cowboys made last season. When the fourth round began, Connor Cook was still available, and we all remember what happened: Dallas tried for a second time to trade up to get a quarterback they saw fall a little bit (the first being Paxton Lynch at the end of the first round), only to be out-bid by the Oakland Raiders. Thus, when their pick came a couple of selections later, Cook was off their board.
So, who were they looking at?
Running back Paul Perkins was still available, as well as offensive guard Connor McGovern and quarterback Dak Prescott. In retrospect, we're all sitting at our computer screaming, “PICK DAK!!!!!!!!!!!” However, hindsight is very much 20/20.
So given the Cowboys had three players still on their board, two of which were not considered reaches (given their board), you'd think the pick would come from these guys, right? Think again.
Perkins was likely eliminated — again — because of the earlier selection of Elliott. We all know the team liked Dak; after all, they had a million pre-draft workouts with him. But, they also had him rated about half a round later than where they were currently picking at round four, pick three. So, they probably felt he was a little bit of a reach at this point.
Going back to Dallas' overall draft board, removing running backs for the aforementioned reason of picking Zeke, Dallas had DE Ronald Blair, OG Connor McGovern, WR Pharoh Cooper, CB Anthony Brown, and DE Charles Tapper as their top guys, in that order. If we stuck with the pre-draft visits theory, McGovern was the guy. But is he currently a Dallas Cowboy? Nope.
This time, the team goes in another direction again with the selection of Charles Tapper, DE, Oklahoma.
There are a couple interesting take-aways from this selection. The first is that it would appear when the Cowboys are comparing players at the same position within a couple of spots of each other on the draft board, they will likely sway towards the bigger school guy. But this should not be news to any Cowboys fan. They also went more with need at this pick by selecting a rush end.
Again, the Cowboys do not pick the player that they brought in for the draft workout. Why? Likely another war room discussion, leading to best player available at a position of need.
Round 4 [Second Pick] – At this selection, Dak Prescott, McGovern, and Brown were the top three players on the board for the Cowboys. You have to think that Dallas had lost out on their potential quarterback of the future twice, and wanted a guy who could come in and learn under Tony for a couple of years (*evil smirk*), so they finally get their quarterback.
Turning the page to this season
Current List of Pre-Draft Visitors:
- Derek Barnett
- Takk McKinley
- Taco Charlton
- TJ Watt
- Charles Harris
- Tarell Bashum
- Tanoh Passagnon
- Tre White
- Adoree Jackson
- Derek Rivers
- Chidobe Awuzie
- Gareon Conley
- Marcus Williams
- Kevin King
- Cordrea Tankersley
- Fabian Moreau
- Teez Tabor
- Quincy Wilson
- Justin Evans
- Treston Decoud
- Obi Melifonwu
- Tedric Thompson
- Xavier Woods
- Shaquill Griffin
- Juju Smith-Schuster
- Curtis Samuel
I want to highlight a couple of items that I find a little eye-opening, that should hopefully give us some insight into this front office's intentions a few weeks prior to draft day:
1. The Cowboys first round selection will very likely come from their pre-draft visits.
This should come as no surprise to most fans. If the player you want the Cowboys to select is not on the list of pre-draft visitors, you may want to give up on that dream now. In the past six drafts, only Morris Claiborne was not a pre-draft visitor, as he was likely a player they didn't see falling out of the top five.
This theory eliminates all offensive players from first round consideration, and defensive names such as Budda Baker, Tim Williams, Marlon Humphrey, Reuben Foster, Zach Cunningham, Malik McDowell, Carl Lawson, and Sidney Jones.
2. The Cowboys invite widely regarded first round picks as pre-draft visitors, but may not have them graded in the first.
Players such as Laquon Treadwell, Kenny Clark, Karl Joseph and Will Fuller were all considered first round guys who the Cowboys had rated later than most.
I think this second takeaway is very important to understand. It acts as almost a “smokescreen” effect. The Cowboys are certainly okay selecting any of the players they bring in to The Star, but it's not always as early as you think.
This is where my speculation comes in, but I feel like this eliminates the following players from 28th pick consideration: Taco Charlton, Chidobe Awuzie, Teez Tabor, Adoree Jackson, Cordrea Tankersley, Marcus Williams, Derek Rivers and Obi Melifonwu.
I won't go into a scouting report for each of these guys, but for one reason or another, based on tape, scheme fit, school/division size or character concerns, I don't see the Cowboys having these players as first rounders.
Hot Take: I also think there's a decent possibility that Derek Barnett comes in as a second round grade for this team. I don't believe he fits the mold of what they're looking for as a first round right edge rusher. He's not extremely athletic, and seems to most often win with motor, or incompetence by the offensive lineman.
Yes, I understand that the 28th pick is almost the second round, but I believe that they will like others there more.
The Final Bunch
Taking all of this into consideration, I think there's a strong chance that the Cowboys' first round pick will be one of the following players:
- Takk McKinley, DE
- TJ Watt, DE
- Charles Harris, DE
- Tre White, CB
- Gareon Conley, CB
- Kevin King, CB
- Fabian Moreau, CB
- Quincy Wilson, CB
Now, there are still four player visits to go, so this list can obviously grow. But for now, this is what we're working with. All of these players either showed natural scheme fit or uncanny scheme flexibility on their college tape.
These defensive ends can all be solid 1-gap edge rushers and can immediately contribute in Rod Marinelli's rotation.
All cornerbacks listed above show natural skills and don't struggle in coverage. Marinelli employs a press cover-3 scheme in his secondary, which is a very simple coverage system to grasp. This allows the team to look more for athletic and cerebral cornerbacks.
All five guys hit the measurable threshold this front office looks for, and they all played in big college programs.
No one can say who Dallas will select on the first night of the draft, or even if they'll select a player then at all. All of that depends on their board and what happens on draft night. However, based on past trends, I have a good feeling that one of the above players will be a Dallas Cowboy come mini-camp.