Judging Top Cowboys Draft Picks: Part 1.
Hey y’all. I’ve been silent for a while but I’m never far from this site and I’m always reading and thinking about my favorite team. I have heard a ton of opinions on the Cowboys draft from sportswriters, analysts, draft gurus and simple fans like myself.
There have been passionate arguments that this was an inspired draft and equally passionate arguments that the team has gone plain crazy and just wasted all this draft capital on reaches and projections. Most of the loudest voices have spoken about the top two draft picks and since I’m no scout, I don’t claim to have knowledge of the benefits of a guy taken at the 10th pick in the 4th round over another at the same position picked at the 23rd pick in the 6th. To be honest, I just don’t care that much about either of them unless they play for the Cowboys.
Lucky for all of us here at YDCFF, you don’t need to get your scouting from me. We have three top scouting minds in Cas, Al and Mike. What I try to do is apply my own brand of logic to all that I have seen and heard and give a perspective that might be interesting to a few of you.
Since the first and second round picks for the Cowboys draft are the ones that seem to be getting all the attention I will stick with those and allow my far more qualified partners to educate you and I on the rest of the draft like in Al’s article here:
Before we go any further, lets frame this discussion to make sure we are speaking the same language. Most analysts preach ad nauseum about how the best teams draft the Best Player Available (BPA) and not for need and then publish grades the day after the draft based almost solely on whether a team drafted for need or not. We are more intelligent than that so we won’t get caught up in that garbage. We are also intelligent enough to know that need and scheme fit are factors that EVERY team uses to create their draft board order even if they don’t want to admit it. With those things in mind, let’s look at the logic (or lack thereof) in the top selections in the Cowboys 2016 draft.
I get the angst and venom regarding these picks and I can absolutely understand why intelligent, experienced observers would be unhappy with both picks. On top of that, I can tell you very clearly, that since I don’t own a team (Jones) or 4 SB rings (Belichick), I personally would not have picked Ezekiel Elliott at 1-4 or Jaylon Smith at 2-34. Both picks have the potential to be disastrous overreaches, and unless you are the Cowboys or the Patriots, your decision-maker couldn’t survive if either of these picks were not 100% right: much less if they both crap out. The truth is, though, they ARE the two picks for my favorite team so without being either a “hater” or a “Kool-Aid” drinker, lets look at what made the team believe these were the right picks for 2016 and then beyond as well as what the other options were.
Today we will start with the first round pick.
Ezekiel Elliott is a beast! This is not scout speak. This is the observation of an experienced football fan, player coach and an almost universally accepted fact. Anyone that disputes that should stop reading this because you will never be able to have an intelligent discussion on football with me. He is a great, not good, running back prospect. Another item that must be stated is that Ezekiel Elliott will be under team control for five full seasons so his impact is not just a win-now selection as so many have suggested. With that being said, I do not personally believe that a great running back prospect is as valuable as a great prospect at edge rusher or left tackle or a cornerback with ball skills; and definitely not a great quarterback prospect. So let’s look at each of these position groups from the 2016 draft to see where the value of the Elliott pick would fall in comparison:
I think we can agree that the Cowboys biggest need this off-season was (still is) edge rush production. Unfortunately, this was a very weak draft for edge rusher. Take a look back at Al’s scouting report on DeMarcus Lawrence here: when he came out in the same draft as Khalil Mack & Jadaveon Clowney. There were some solid edge prospects in the 2016 draft, but none of the edge rushers in this draft are better prospects than Lawrence was that year and he was a 2nd round pick. For more insight on Lawrence check out Cas’ post-draft review of Lawrence and how excited she was for the Cowboys to get him.
So none of these “1st round prospects” are really better than a 2nd round prospect in most drafts. Being the tallest dwarf doesn’t mean you’re are not still short! The other issue I have with the argument for a drafted edge rusher being a 2016 impact is that they are notoriously slow starters as a group. Even the best edge rushers only get 6-8 sacks as a rookie. So no transcendent talents limiting long-term upside and little rookie impact from the position would move me away from edge rusher as a better choice than Elliott even with the high need level.
Two words: Tyron Smith. If you didn’t like drafting a running back at 4, you would hate drafting a right tackle. Nuff said!
Back up/Developmental QB
Like edge rusher, there were no great quarterback prospects in this draft. In fact, this is a terrible draft to need a franchise quarterback or a franchise edge rusher. These quarterbacks were pushed up the board because it was 2 am, the bar was closing and they were the best of whoever was left. That doesn’t make them marrying material and you better be ready to be married to a quarterback for the next decade if you are going to take them in the top 5. That being the case, these QB picks might not even be able to win games as your back up quarterback in 2016.
I know Cas is a big Kellen Moore fan and, while I am not, I would rather have him as my back up in 2016 than Goff, Wentz or any of the other quarterbacks in the 2016 draft class. With those circumstances, I am definitely not taking any of these guys at 4 overall. The bust potential for 2nd tier quarterbacks that were pushed up the board for need is way too high at fourth overall. So, we have good but not great QB prospects which increases the chances that they’ll sit for a year or two & still be a bust. No thank you.
Think back to the biggest drop off for the Cowboys defense from 2014 to 2015. It was turnovers by a wide margin. The two positions that impact turnovers the most are edge rushers and cornerbacks that can cover and have ball skills. See the correlation between last year’s results and the team’s needs? Here is where it gets really interesting. I would have run to the podium with Jalen Ramsey’s card before the crowd had stopped booing Roger Goodell announcing the San Diego pick. So why didn’t the Cowboys do that?
In going back and listening to things coming out of Valley Ranch and not Bristol, Connecticut before the draft, I get the distinct impression that the Cowboys did not view Ramsey as a long-term solution at CB. They viewed him similarly to Byron Jones as a plus CB with potential as a great safety.
More and more of the “insiders” were even saying that most teams were looking at him as a great safety and a good CB in the days leading up to the draft. Remember my parameters above. I did not say I valued defensive backs in general above running backs. That valuation was specific to cornerbacks with good ball skills. So it appears the Cowboys did not view Ramsey as a long term CB and compound that with the fact that he can’t catch a cold sitting in shorts in Alaska during a January blizzard. The Cowboys decided that a great safety prospect that couldn’t catch interceptions was not more valuable in 2016, or the next 5 years than a great running back prospect. I don’t have to agree with their assessment of the player to agree with that logic.
So where does that leave us? I believe that the Cowboys investments in their offensive line has afforded them the opportunity to get better value at running back by taking a less talented runner that could replicate what Demarco Murray (a good, not great back) was able to do in 2014. They could then allocate their most valuable draft pick on a different position. Unfortunately, this was a bad draft for the talent of the players to meet the value of their pick.
As far as I can tell, there was only one healthy player in this entire draft that could reasonably be considered one of the top 5 prospects at his position in the past 10 drafts…Ezekiel Elliott. The fact that the Cowboy draft brain trust got him is something to be happy about as a Cowboys fan. Assuming that Ramsey would be a safety long-term, that is not any more of a premium position than running back. Were I to accept that assessment of Ramsey’s future, I would have taken the Ravens pick to move back 2 spots and took the best of whatever defender they and Jacksonville left me. I would have then used that extra pick on the best remaining running back that fit the Zone Blocking Scheme (ZBS) that this line is so adept at blocking.
Let me know what you think about the first pick of the Cowboys draft and my thoughts on it. In part two of this series, we’ll talk about the only other player that could reasonably be considered a Top 5 draft prospect at his position in the last 10 years…Jaylon Smith and how his selection was complicated by the fact that he is not healthy and may never be healthy.