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Dallas Cowboys Draft Review

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Did a premium draft slot bring franchise-changing value?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Round 1, Pick #4:  Ezekiel Elliott, RB (Ohio State)

Outside of a few odd circumstances, you never want to find yourself holding a Top Ten (let alone a Top Four) pick in the NFL Draft.  Doing so tends to mean that you beefed it pretty badly during the prior season and are likely much, much more than one pick away from returning to playoff contention.  The Cowboys could well be an exception to that rule, as the core of a (probably over-achieving but undeniably solid) 12-win, Divisional Playoff participant in 2014 staggered to a 4-12 record thanks entirely to the snap, crackle and pop of Tony Romo's collarbone.  But however you came to be holding a premium draft choice, the onus is squarely upon you to turn it into premium value.

Your priorities with a selection anywhere in the Top Ten are threefold:

Priority #1: Draft a quarterback if you don't have one that you can win playoff games with for at least the next four seasons.  The massive bust rate for NFL quarterbacks makes it seem like GM's are really bad at picking this position.  They actually tend to be really, really good at picking QBs - it just happens to be really, really hard to play QB in the NFL at a level that doesn't actively hinder your team from winning playoff games.  By my count, there are 24 teams in the NFL who are currently happy-ish with a starter who hasn't proven to be an active detriment to playoff wins.  Of those 24:

- Ten were selected in the Top five overall picks

- Three more went in the top half of the first round

- Four more went in picks #17-32

- Two were selected in the second round (Derek Carr and Andy Dalton, and neither has won a playoff game yet)

- The five that went in Round Three or later include two of the 4-5 greatest late-round/undrafted success stories in NFL history (Brady and Romo), a totally unique talent who fell solely due to his height (Russell Wilson) and a pair of guys still awaiting a jury verdict (Tyrod Taylor and Kirk Cousins).

Trying to find a bargain at QB is pretty much an exercise in panning pyrite - if you need one and you think there's one available who has a reasonable shot at  winning playoff games, you grab him with no questions asked.

Priority #2: A difference-maker at a hard-to-fill, premium position who can give you value well into his second deal, even if that deal is market rate, because he'll A) continue to play at a high level and B) offer you a level of play that won't typically hit free agency.  Here you're thinking franchise left tackle, true lockdown cornerback or elite edge rusher.  You can maybe get talked into a field-tilting wideout who simply can't be left in single coverage or a true monster at DT ,though you're terrified about a low-Wonderlic position who becomes instantly average when the effort against constant double teams drops off to 80% or so once he's got $25 million guaranteed in the bank.

Priority #3: Trade down and get a bounty from someone who thinks they've ID'd an opportunity to accomplish #1 or #2

Dallas...did none of these things.

#1 got shot down for Dallas as soon as the Rams and Eagles each gave up the goose to jump up to the top two slots in the draft for Jared Goff and Carson Wentz.  Those moves had the unhappy follow-on effect of kneecapping #3, since those QBs were the primary targets for anyone willing to make a can't-refuse offer to jump the line.

As to #2...well, depends on what you think of Jalen Ramsey.  Ramsey brings generational physical ability to the position of "guy in the secondary," and if you think that position specifies to "lockdown corner" then you would have to be insane to pass on him.  If you think that slightly iffy hips, hands and press coverage technique mean that he'd make a greater impact at safety, the issue becomes a bit more cloudy.  The Cowboys were of the latter opinion, and rather than efforting to extract at least some value from a trade-down they took a "Damn the data, full speed ahead" approach and grabbed Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott.

The good news for Cowboys fans is that Elliott should put the "fun" in "fungible asset" for the next five seasons.  He's an elite runner with as well-rounded a skill set as any back in the league.  Elliott could easily turn out to be better than Todd Gurley when it's all said and done.  In fact, there's nothing to say that he might not end up as the best player to enter the league at his position since Adrian Peterson - the man with countless highlights, innumerable #1 overall selections in Fantasy drafts and a lone playoff win to his name.

Because running backs cannot carry you to playoff victories.

The position simply lacks impact potential compared to guys who change the passing game on offense or defense, and the bulk of its value either flows from the offensive front or is easily replicated by a guy you can find in the third round.

Or the fifth round.

The combination of running backs' fungibility and short shelf life also make second contracts nightmarish for any GM and almost exclusively avoided by the game's best and brightest.  Dallas has some time to plan for this and may find a creative way to get good value for a healthy Elliott through his age 28 or 29 season, but it will be a tough task for a team that always manages to find itself hard up against the cap.

There figure to be plenty of moments on offense over the next five seasons when this pick looks mighty savvy, but come 2021 Cowboys fans may be left wondering why they're short a franchise cornerstone.

And they'll be wondering what's wrong with the pass defense a lot sooner than that.

What I'd Have Done: Ramsey or trade down for anything resembling reasonable value with an eye on Elliott (picks 9-12), Vernon Hargreaves/Sheldon Rankins (picks 12-18) or Emmanuel Ogbah/Kevin Dodd/Paxton Lynch (late 1st)

Round 2, Pick #34:  Jaylon Smith, OLB (Notre Dame)

Mocking the first round of the NFL Draft is extremely hard.  The most knowledgeable folks in the NFL Chatter Industry - and the actual NFL - make the best calls they can and then end up looking clownish to anyone who doesn't realize how hard it really is.  Correctly mocking the second round is exponentially harder, but if you ever engage in that exercise and want to give yourself a leg up on the competition then I've got an inside tip for you.  Just take the most ostensibly talented scratch n' dent defender who figures to drop out of Round One and then pencil Sharpie them in for the Cowboys.

Here's a look at how Jerry's wildcattin' ways have shaped Dallas' recent second rounds:

2010 - Sean Lee (LB), Penn State (terrific all-around player dinged for a college ACL tear; Lee played in 35 of a possible 48 games during his Value Period and 25 of a possible 48 games (including an 0-fer on the entire 2014 campaign) since signing a 7-year, $42 million extension in 2013.)

2011 - Bruce Carter (LB), North Carolina (blazing weakside backer dinged for a college ACL tear; Carter gave Dallas 38 of a possible 64 starts during his four seasons on the roster and played at a premium level for...18 of them?  20?)

2012 - No 2nd round selection

2013 - Gavin Escobar (TE), San Diego State (drafted to create a permanent mismatch and he has, as he can neither block nor run away from linebackers.)

2014 - Demarcus Lawrence (DE/OLB), Boise State (impressive edge rusher dinged for three "violation of team rules" suspensions at Boise - and, as we all know, CFB has but one team rule; Unfortunately the One Team Rule in college football is also a no-no in the NFL, and Lawrence finds himself staring down the barrel of a four-game Substance Abuse Policy suspension to start the 2016 season.)

2015 - Randy Gregory (DE/OLB), Nebraska (blazing edge rusher dinged for a failed drug test at the Combine and apparent psychological issues; Gregory will start the 2016 season serving The Most Predictable Drug Suspension Ever.)

2016 - Jaylon Smith (OLB), Notre Dame (elite, versatile LB dinged for a nasty bowl game knee injury that popped his ACL and MCL as well as nerve damage of uncertain prognosis; outcome TBD.)

In five of the past six seasons where the Cowboys had a second-round selection, they rolled the dice on a high-upside defensive player with first-round talent and some sort of a red flag.  The ROI on this particular investment strategy has been substandard to say the least to this point, and all of that preamble gives us a lens through which to view the risk/reward calculus of the Jaylon Smith selection.

The rewards are potentially immense - Smith has undeniable Top Five overall pick talent, and if he's healthy come 2017 he can give Dallas a pair of three-down linebackers who are custom-built to combat modern pro offenses.  The risk is simply stated:  in addition to his ligament tears, Smith suffered nerve damage that has forced him to cope with drop foot, and if he doesn't regain >90% of that nerve function then his effective value will be zero.  The Cowboys' team physician was the man who performed Smith's surgery and who, presumably, has as good an idea about what's going on in his lower left leg as anyone on Earth.  Even so, you can only get yourself feeling good about this pick if you believe that both halves of the risk/reward ratio were evaluated in a sober, serious and clear-eyed manner.

Unfortunately, history tells us that Jerry makes these scratch n' dent, athletic ceiling uber alles selections in the second round driven largely by optimism that remains undimmed in the face of repeated failures to achieve a worthy return on his investment.

What I'd Have Done: Trade down and go with Jarran Reed, A'Shawn Robinson or Smith at a more attractive price (mid 2nd) or get up to the end of the first for Emmanuel Ogbah)

Round 3, Pick #67:  Maliek Collins, DT (Nebraska)

The offseason addition of former Eagles' run-stuffer Cedric Thornton allows Dallas to get Nick Hayden out of the starting 1-technique slot and back to the 8-10 reserve snaps that he should have been playing all along.  The three-tech spot is currently filled by $46 million man Tyrone Crawford, but he may be ticketed for a big end/kick inside on 3rd down role in the near term since the odds are good that at least one of Demarcus Lawrence or Randy Gregory gives you fewer than 300 more snaps before exiting the league.  That creates a need for an interior disruptor, and Collins received the Cowboys' vote of confidence after getting a thorough eval from D-line coach and Super Bowl triva fixture Leon Lett.

If Collins could deliver half the havoc that Lett wrought in his heyday then he'd be a home run at this spot.  He does get off the ball well and sports some impressive lateral quicks for man his size, but you'd like to have seen much more consistent pass-rush production from a guy who spends a lot of the game on the ground and tends to don a pair of roller skates in the run game.  He's got a lot to prove in order to serve as an effective full-time player, even as a one-gap kind of guy.  He's got a decent amount to prove in terms of just giving you an effective sub-package rush...particularly when he's competing with Crawford himself for snaps on third down.

As this pick came up on Friday night, Baylor's Andrew Billings and the Longhorns' own Hassan Ridgeway looked like very attractive options.  Dallas may have been turned off by late-breaking concerns around Billings' knees, and if so they weren't alone as Billings ended up falling all the way to the Bengals at pick #122.  I was more intrigued by the notion of Rod Marinelli stoking Ridgeway's frequently-flickering fire into a raging inferno of wrath on the interior.  They might have deemed that fire to be un-stokeable, though - they'd hardly have been alone in that assessment, either - and on the heels of a second-round selection that could go all the way to zero I can understand just wanting to keep in in the fairway for Round Three.

What I'd Have Done: Take DT Johnathan Bullard from Florida, who turns similar athletic talent into much more consistent production.

Round 4, Pick #101:  Charles Tapper, DE (Oklahoma)

Tapper got asked to make Oklahoma's version of the Ced Reed/Shiro Davis Sacrifice, bulking up from a natural 4-3 end to play an important but much more thankless role as a 4i strongside guy on a 3-man front.  He's slimmed back down into the 260's and managed to rip off a pretty impressive 4.59 forty-yarder at the Combine.  Tapper had all manner of pad-level problems working in the interior, but he's got the straight-line burst and functional strength to potentially give you an average-or-better pass rush as a strongside 4-3 guy.  It would have been nice to spend this pick elsewhere after taking second-round DE's in each of the last two seasons, but we already covered that part.

What I'd Have Done: A high-ceiling developmental corner might have been a nice fit here, but Tapper feels like a reasonable investment.

Round 4, Pick #135 (Compensatory):  Dak Prescott, QB (Mississippi State)

Dallas had been demonstrably doe-eyed for Dak throughout the draft process, meeting or working out with him more than a half-dozen times in the run-up to last weekend.  If you're in the market for a developmental QB in a very dubious draft at the position, you can do worse than investing in a dude with an NFL-caliber arm and the movement skills to threaten defenses when he breaks the pocket and present an effective short yardage/goal line package option off the bat.  He may have to completely re-work his delivery in addition to learning the rudiments of reading defense and keeping his eyes downfield against the rush, but that's what the next three seasons (knock on wood and not Tony's back/collarbone) are for.

What I'd Have Done: I'd have thrown the remote through the TV screen if they'd reached for Prescott in the third round, but as a fourth-round freebie?  Why not?

Round Six, Picks #189, #212 and #217 Overall:

Anthony Brown, CB (Purdue)

Kavon Frazier, SS (Central Michigan)

Rico Gathers, TE/Power Forward (Baylor - the decapitation team, not the rape team)

I'm not going to pretend that I can give you a learned treatise on any of these guys' pro prospects at this present moment, and candidly I'd be more inclined to study up if Dallas had made a productive post-third round selection since Orlando Scandrick in 2008.  Brown has speed (4.35) to burn, but landed in the sixth round after suffering scorch marks of his own to the tune of 17 TDs allowed over the past three seasons.  Frazier is a pure box thumper who warranted a few Barry Church comps, and he should get in the mix on special teams and offer an on-time succession plan for Church himself if he pans.  Gathers represents a low-cost ticket to the Antonio Gates/Jimmy Graham Lotto - if you're going to roll the dice on a marginally productive move TE prospect, I'd rather spend at the James Hanna/Rico Gathers price point than engage in any more Escobar escapades.

The Bottom Line

The only clear theme to this draft was...the lack of a clear theme.  We saw a mixture of short-term Romo-window maximization (Elliott) with a couple of selections who'll come to fruition in a post-Romo world, if ever (Smith and Prescott,) a couple of rotational defensive pieces with a decent need/value intersection (Collins and Tepper) and assorted sixth-round flotsam.  It's easy to see the Cowboys returning to the playoffs this year with a healthy Romo - though they'll have to score a boatload of points to do so - but it's hard to see how they maximized their opportunities in this one.

What do you think?

Also, I pondered a writeup of a very intriguing Texans draft but I'm not likely to do it justice - if we've got any dedicated Texan-watchers in the commentariat, throw up a FanPost and we'll put it on the front page.