There is a consensus pivot point for the Cowboys franchise reflecting a new approach to team building. Dallas no longer seems interested in making the splash maneuver in every circumstance. After years of Jerry Jones overpaying for every big name possible, a more disciplined management style seemed to be driving the Cowboys decision making process.
It was the 2014 NFL Draft, and Todd McShay (and many others) promised us Dallas would never pass on Johnny Manziel.
“‘I’m told by two different people that he is the No. 1 player on their board,’ he said on SportsCenter. If Manziel is there when the Cowboys draft at No. 16, they’ll pick him, according to McShay’s logic.”
The expectation was that Jerry Jones would never be able to resist drafting the phenomena that was Johnny Football.
“Tony Romo is 34 and coming off his second back surgery, and I think this team is further away from winning a championship than people think. Can Jerry Jones pass up on this kid? I don’t believe so.” – Mike Mayock
This did not transpire. Perhaps if a homeless person had advised Jones to draft Manziel then history would be different, but we will never know (sorry, I will never pass on an opportunity to point out that Jimmy Haslam drafted Johnny Manziel because a homeless guy told him to).
Jones and company stuck to the plan and drafted Zach Martin instead, who is debatably the best guard in the NFL. It marked the third time in four years that Dallas spent a first round pick on an offensive lineman.
At times the plan has followed conventional wisdom and at times it has defied it. Either way, Dallas couldn’t care less. They did it their way and they’re currently in prime position to reclaim the NFC East and return to the playoffs.
The discipline appeared to be short lived for Dallas. Twenty picks later the Cowboys shot up the board from the middle of the second round to the top of the second round. In a trade with Washington, Dallas sent picks 47 and 78 to acquire the 34th pick in the draft.
According to the Chase Stuart draft chart, the 34th pick is worth 12.1 points of draft capital. The 47th and 78th picks combined are worth 17 points of draft capital. The 16th pick in the draft is worth 16.9 points of draft capital.
In essence, Dallas shipped out the 16th pick to obtain the 34th pick. Woof. Put another way, Washington profited by a value of 4.9 in the deal, which is equivalent to the 106th pick. For trading down 13 spots Washington created the 106th pick out of thin air.
The move was reminiscent of the 2012 draft day trade Dallas struck to get their hands on Morris Claiborne. Dallas shipped out the 14th and 45th picks to get to the 6th pick in order to take the cornerback. In total they gave the Rams 28.2 points of draft capital while getting back 23.2 points of draft capital. Interestingly enough, St. Louis created the equivalent of the 105th pick out of thin air in the trade down.
Given Claiborne’s early career struggles, you’d think Dallas may had finally learned the lesson that no one can beat the draft. They did not, however. But the key difference here is they absolutely nailed the 34th pick. That was the pick that netted the team Demarcus Lawrence.
Dallas had a methodology repeat of 2014 in 2015. They stayed disciplined in the first round before going full-on Dallas in the second.
The Cowboys sat back with the 27th pick in 2015 and took athletic freak of nature Byron Jones.
Stop me when you’ve heard this one before. In the second round they again chose an athletic freak, this time one with off-the-field concerns. Randy Gregory was an uber athletic pass rusher from Nebraska that had first round talent mired in character concerns. Dallas drafted him.
All the moves Dallas made prior to 2016 laid the foundation for a franchise altering draft. 2016 is the perfect microcosm of the Dallas Cowboys and the NFL draft.
We can fairly critique the merits of taking a running back in the first round, let alone 4th overall, but Dallas did not care about your sound reasoning and logic. With Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, and Joey Bosa off the board, Dallas was left to choose between Ezekiel Elliott and Jalen Ramsey.
Dallas took the running back over the drool-inducing potential of a shutdown corner. “I’ve had my finest hours in business going against the grain,” Jerry Jones said during the 2016 draft. “This draft is a little bit contrary, but it’s in step with how I think.”
Jones wasn’t the only one that wanted to buck conventional wisdom that day either. From Peter King’s column:
“His coach did too. Garrett, on Monday, closed his office door and spent seven hours looking at every snap of Ramsey at Florida State in 2015, and every snap of Elliott at Ohio State in 2016. He liked Ramsey. He loved Elliott. Garrett told the Joneses he favored Elliott.”
Four more major developments ended up defining this draft, with three of them resulting in the team drafting Dak Prescott by accident.
Dallas followed up taking Elliott in the first round by drafting Jaylon Smith out of Notre Dame. Smith, tragically, tore his knee during his bowl game against Ohio State. Viewed as a top five pick prior to the injury, Smith lasted until the 34th pick where the Cowboys were happy to take him despite him needing a functional red-shirt season his rookie year. Some medical experts wondered if Smith would ever regain full strength in his knee, and by extension if he would ever reach his prior heights of performance.
It would be the second time in three years that Dallas landed a defensive stalwart with the 34th pick in the draft.
The move was criticized by many. Two picks later the Jacksonville Jaguars, the team that ended up with Jalen Ramsey, selected linebacker Myles Jack. Jack was the complete inverse of Smith. Jack was formerly viewed as a first founder and also fell due to a knee concern, but Jack’s knee was at present healthy. The issue with Jack is it was presumed his knee would fail him in five or six seasons.
It was fair to contemplate the wisdom of taking the linebacker that needed a red-shirt rookie campaign over the linebacker that was an immediate impact starter, although perhaps living on borrowed time, when Dallas was entering the season with a 36 year old quarterback. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to take Jack, maximize the Romo window, and deal with the repercussions five years down the road? After all, this is the Jerry Jones Dallas Cowboys, their whole existence revolves around maximizing the short-term.
To further illustrate the questioning of the decision making, everyone lauded the Jaguars in 2016 for having the best draft, in large part due to their first two picks. Dallas could have had that exact start to the draft, or at least half of it, and chose not to.
The Cowboys just loved Elliott and Smith too much, and were willing to play the long game this time.
As for Dak, he was never supposed to be a Cowboy in the first place. In King’s column he chronicles the trade negotiations Dallas had with Seattle in an effort to move up from that 34th pick eventually used on Smith to take quarterback Paxton Lynch. The offer was 34 and 101 for 26. Denver beat the offer – 31 and 94 – but had the Cowboys wanted Lynch badly enough, 34 and 67 (the Cowboys 3rd rounder) would have gotten the job done.
Jones initially second guessed not pulling the trigger, then was “at peace” when the team landed Smith in the second round.
Then day three commenced, with the Cowboys having the third pick of the fourth round. Cleveland had the first two picks that day, and opened the frame by taking quarterback Cody Kessler. Dallas “marginally” preferred Connor Cook to Prescott. Dallas tried to jump up one spot to secure Cook, but Cleveland declined two offers. Then Oakland jumped right in front of Dallas and selected Connor Cook out from under them.
Instead of pivoting and taking Prescott with Cook off the board, the Cowboys opted for defensive end Charles Tapper. It wasn’t until pick 135, 34 picks after the Tapper pick (there’s that number 34 again), that Dallas would select Prescott. It took two failed efforts to trade up for different quarterbacks and the entire league passing on Prescott for a fourth time in order for Dak to end up with a star on his helmet.
The Cowboys spent almost their entire 2017 draft on defense after rookie phenoms Prescott and Elliott joined Dez Bryant and the league’s best offensive line in stewarding the team to a 13-3 record the season prior. The team spent its first pick on a pass rusher before double dipping at cornerback in the second and third round, taking Taco Charlton, Chidobe Awuzie, and Jourdan Lewis, respectively.
After nabbing Ryan Switzer to break up the defensive streak, the team came back to selecting multiple defensive players throughout the 6th and 7th rounds, headlined by current starting safety Xavier Woods.
With the league trending away from linebackers coupled with the release of Dez Bryant, Dallas taking a first round receiver was one of the most common pairings in 2018 mock drafts. As it turns out, Dallas had their pick of the litter and passed on them all.
Instead of opting for flashy playmakers in D.J. Moore or Calvin Ridley, the Cowboys took Leighton Vander Esch 19th overall. The team was aware of how the defensive performance dropped when Sean Lee was off the field. It was still unknown at this time how Smith would turn out long-term as well.
Dallas attempted to improve upon a strength in the second round by selecting guard Connor Williams. The team finally addressed the receiver position in the third round with Michael Gallup.
History Doesn’t Repeat Itself but it Rhymes
Many, including yours truly, saw the news Dallas had traded a first round pick for Amari Cooper and had an immediate thought: They didn’t learn their lesson from the Roy Williams trade.
Alas, and on brand, Dallas doesn’t care. It doesn’t care it was viewed as poor asset management. It doesn’t care about the concept of trading five years of cost controlled salary for one and a half years of it. Dallas does not care Cooper’s cap hit is spiking to $13.9 million in 2019.
Dallas just does not care. They wanted Cooper, so they got Cooper. They believed him necessary to make a push for the division and halt any regression from Prescott. The wisdom of the move can be scrutinized, but the early returns are positive.
On that note, how does this all fit together?
Looking at the Outcome
Dallas is riding a four game winning streak punctuated by a home win over the Saints. The Cowboys defense held Drew Brees and the NFL’s highest scoring offense to only 10 points. Dallas has now climbed up to 7th in defensive DVOA, and 6th in weighted defensive DVOA. Dallas is fielding a top coverage unit with a top ten pass rush.
Both of those unit rankings are lead by two studs obtained in the draft. In the secondary it is Byron Jones and on the line it is Demarcus Lawrence.
Jones, to this point in the season, has been a top three cover corner in the NFL. His transition from safety to corner has been profound and transformative for this defense. Against the Saints, Jones held Michael Thomas catch-less on the two targets in his coverage. Jones limited Julio Jones to one catch for 19 yards on three targets in his coverage. Corey Davis managed one catch for 17 yards on four targets against Jones.
Even with Odell Beckham Jr. as a weapon, Eli Manning decided to throw a one pass in Jones’ direction with OBJ as the target. OBJ didn’t catch it. The Giants in total amassed one catch and 0 yards on five targets in Jones’ coverage. It was a similar story for the Seahawks, who accomplished three catches for 10 yards on 10 targets against Jones.
Demarcus Lawrence is again playing at an elite level for an edge defender. Lawrence was worthy of a Second Team All-Pro designation in 2017, and has not regressed. Lawrence is tied for 9th in the league in total pressures and tied for 6th among edge defenders. More traditionally, he has compiled 11 sacks, tied for 8th in the NFL. Aaron Donald has already locked up Defensive Player of the Year honors, but Lawrence belongs in the grouping of the second tier contenders.
To round out all three levels of the defense, Dallas now deploys one of the best linebacker duos in the league. The 2016 bet that Jaylon Smith would regain his form is now providing fruitful results. Smith looks every bit as fast as the Notre Dame star we all remember.
Rewatch the Cowboys Texans Sunday night game and you will see two plays in which Jaylon Smith eviscerates the ball carrier’s angle to the pylon on a goal line carry. Watch any Dallas game and you will see Smith 30 yards down field blanketing a receiver. Not a tight end, a receiver.
And the other linebacker in the elite duo isn’t Sean Lee, it’s Vander Esch. Vander Esch is the third highest graded linebacker this season and is in the top four for both run defense and coverage. Dallas is sporting the highest graded linebacker teammates, just beating out the Panthers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, the NFL standard for a linebacker pairing.
Dallas also did as well as one can reasonable expect with the aforementioned defensive heavy 2017 draft. Awuzie has provided decent play opposite Jones, while Lewis has flashed elite slot play in 2018 in limited snaps. The Cowboys are getting starter level performance out of Woods as well, a major win for a 6th round pick.
In 2016 the next pick Dallas made after Prescott was Anthony Brown in the 6th round. Brown has performed at a similar level to Awuzie this year. The Cowboys were able to add contributing secondary members in the 6th round of consecutive drafts.
After a rocky start in Oakland, Amari Cooper has worked his way up to 16th in WR DYAR. Cooper in total has caught 30 of his 40 targets while in Dallas for 425 yards and 3 TDs in five games. The past two weeks he has caught 16 of 17 targets for 256 yards and 2 TDs. That is Michael Thomas level efficiency. For as “disappointing” as Cooper has been this year he is posting the best catch rate of his career and his yards per reception is right in line with his career norm.
The debate over when it is appropriate to draft a running back will rage on forever. The Cowboys decided if the guy is good enough it is never too high. Right or wrong Elliott is 7th this year in RB DYAR. That is identical to his 7th place finish last year and in 2016 he finished 1st. Yes, Jordan Howard was taken in the 5th round in Zeke’s draft class. Yes, Jordan Howard finished 5th in DYAR in 2016. I am on the “wait at running back,” side of the spectrum.
And yes, the Dallas offensive line is a monster. Anchored by three first rounders, Zeke enjoyed the 4th best offensive line by adjusted line yards his rookie year. That 4th place ranking held steady in 2017, and the team checks in at 9th so far in 2018. Perhaps any running back could run behind this line.
But Dallas laid this foundation before Zeke was brought into the fold. The team spent the 9th pick of the 2011 draft on Tyron Smith. Two years later the Cowboys took Travis Frederick in the first round after trading down. They then restrained themselves from Johnny Manziel to take All-Universe guard Zach Martin.
Say what you want about the process, and if you read this site you know I’m team #TrustTheProcess. But Dallas is sporting a top tier offensive line and features an elite running back.
The Big Picture
Dallas is 18th in DVOA. They have climbed their way to 12th in point differential, and 10th in ELO rating. After starting 3-5 they are in complete control of their own destiny. They have a one game lead in the division with a home date against the Eagles next on deck.
None of this should be overly surprising, yet it feels like it’s viewed that way. In 2016, the first year under Prescott’s stewardship, the team went 13-3 and finished 3rd in point differential. In 2017 Dallas went 9-7 and finished 15th in point differential despite Zeke serving a 6 game suspension and Tyron Smith’s extended absence allowing the likes of Adrian Clayborn to do their best Lawrence Taylor impression on a favorable Sunday afternoon.
If Dallas hangs onto the division this will be two playoff appearances in the three years of the Dak era. The lone miss will be justifiable out of circumstance.
Teams have recognizable management strategies. You know the Patriots are going to trade down 50 times at the draft. Other teams, such as previous iterations of the Falcons, were good bets to aggressively move up the board. Teams select for need, others take the best player available. Some care about positional value, others famously take a running back 2nd overall in lieu of a quarterback.
Some teams spend heavily each year in free agency – Washington – while the Ted Thompson Packers avoided the open market like the plague. Teams are stingy with draft picks as trade resources, while other teams will shell them out like candy to acquire impact veterans while taking advantage of the league’s biggest cheat code which is the rookie scale quarterback contract.
Dallas doesn’t seem to have a guiding principal. In any draft they can trade up or down, build in the trenches or take the splashy running back. They may even stumble ass backwards into the third quarterback on their wish list, only to watch him blossom into a solid NFL starter while the other two are already out of the NFL. They’ll ship out a first round pick for a year and a half of a receiver, but surprisingly keep their powder dry during free agency in recent years.
Yet look at what they have accomplished. Dallas did it their way. They bet on themselves, and it’s working.