Letters to Mr. Jones No. 5: Draft Strategy in the Romo Super Bowl Window
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Dear Mr. Jones,
This is my fifth letter to you this offseason with the goal of helping you have the best one possible. I believe this is the most important offseason for the team in the last 10 years and probably for the next five at least. Given the age of Romo and the make-up of this team, it is entirely possible this may define your legacy.
Will you be remembered as an arrogant owner who ran off Jimmy Jones and never sniffed another Super Bowl after Jimmy's talent reserves were exhausted, or as a premium owner/GM in your own right who managed to capture another Super Bowl before retiring?
Just as in free agency, there are a lot of things you do on draft day that appear to be ill-suited for generating the kind of draft the team needs to become a Super Bowl contender. Every team has chronic tendencies in drafting—some of those are counterproductive. I am going to talk about what you do on draft day that doesn't look optimal and what might prevent you from having the kind of draft you need this year.
Let's start by looking at what you need.
Starting G (possibly two, at least one being very good), a 4-3 DT/ 3-4 DE who can rush the passer out of either set and has a closing burst, a starting center, a space eating NT (if the team stays in the 3-4 as a base set), a ballhawking FS who can cover, and a HB who can get short yardage who can carry the load for a few weeks if needed.
A backup FB who can block, arguably a pass rushing OLB.
Young, developing depth everywhere especially at CB, OL and QB.
In some ways you made clear progress filling needs, but you didn't do enough to substantially impact the perception of the team. It is still a bubble playoff team with numerous holes and suspect depth.
By my count, there are still seven glaring holes after free agency. You have picks 14 (first round), 45, 81, 113, 135, 152, 186 and 222.
If you are exceedingly shrewd and play the odds on each pick, you may be able to fill four of your primary needs in this draft at best, but I think that would amount to a grand slam effort. With respect, there is nothing in your history that suggests you will have that level of success. If you think like you have in previous drafts and use a similar philosophy, it is the definition of madness to expect different results.
To succeed in this draft to that magnitude, you have to think differently than you have in previous years. That starts with putting the team's draft needs into the proper context.
The Tony Romo Super Bowl Window
I think everything the team does for the next couple seasons has to be thought of in terms of the Tony Romo Super Bowl window.
Tony Romo is an unorthodox 32-year-old QB who has played his entire career ducking trouble behind often suspect lines. He is not quite as elusive as he used to be and that is only going to get worse. He is a little undersized and has taken quite a beating over the last two seasons.
Let's realistically look at the window of opportunity remaining for Tony Romo to win a Super Bowl. I think two-four years is all that you can count on and the quality of the interior line may dramatically impact that number. At that point, you are going to need to be rebuilding behind another QB.
Your goals should be to extend the Romo window to five years (or if possible) more.
How do you get there?
Forget about trading down
In the past, you have earned a reputation for trading down on draft day. You target a series of players you like and trade down to the lowest spot where you feel you can get one of those players. By doing so, you often pick up an extra third to fifth round pick—an extra opportunity to gamble on a prospect.
I think this amounts to an unhealthy draft practice. It is like feeding a gambler's addiction. Be honest. How many times did you get the worst or second worst player on your short list? You cannot afford that this year. Your short list has guys who are likely pro bowlers and guys who are likely busts (at least according to on line scouting reports.) You need the best of the lot, not one of the worst.
I think this has become an embedded weakness to your draft philosophy as it has become your standard operating procedure.
From my perspective as a fan, I wonder if group think and a narrowing of horizons annually affects your draft logic. It appears you find your pool of four to eight targeted players in the first round and get to know them really well. Familiarity leads you start to overrate them vs. players who you do not think will be there. Maybe you find reasons to get over missing out on higher rated players. Suddenly there is no reason to consider trading up. Does your knowledge of lesser players close your mind to the chance to add a better player? Only someone in your organization can evaluate that.
DFW radio personality Chuck Cooperstein was asked a few days ago on his radio program if he was there on draft day and it was his decision on whether to trade down and pick up another pick or stay at 14, what he would do. His response was that he would tell you to leave the room.
It was kind of a brutal way of saying "no" to trading down, but frankly it was deserved. Whether to trade down is ultimately the decision of the final authority—you—not your scouting staff.
The trading down logic appeals to the gambler who thinks he is the smartest guy in the room; The guy who thinks he has identified a potential pro bowler in the fourth round. That Jerry Jones is not the guy this team needs this year on draft day.
The Cowboys need the more humble, bean counting, level headed Jerry Jones on draft day.
(The only exception I would think could be worth considering to trade down would be if say New England offered both of their firsts—27 & 31—to trade up. If they'd give that up for the No. 14 and say the No. 152, that would be a solid deal. It would yield the Cowboys a net starting caliber player gain in the top end of the draft. I think that would be worth considering. There is pretty good argument that both New England picks are slightly below where all the high end physical talents run out, so the deal would have to be a little stilted the cowboy's direction in terms of pick value to make it worth doing IMO. And the cowboys would have to draft two "safe picks" there to make it a reasonable strategy. You could probably get two starting caliber linemen there.)
...And seriously consider trading up
Let me throw something at you. Assuming you are not likely to get a guy who fills one of your primary need slots after 113, why not package 14 and 135 and 152 to try to move up two or three slots in the first round or seven to eight slots in the second round?
According to the draft pick trade value chart, the No. 135 and No. 152 pick have a trade values in the ballpark of 38.5 and 31.8 points (=a total of 70.3 points). Moving up two slots in the first round generally runs about 100 points, but it is possible a team like St. Louis or even Kansas City might be receptive to trading down a couple slots at a good price if the draft doesn't break right for them.
If it looks like you might need to leap a team ahead of you to get the best player possible, why not burn some later picks?
Likewise any of the teams between 36 and 39 might be willing to entertaining trading down a few spots, again depending on how the draft falls. They are all young teams who might consider adding two later picks more in their favor.
In the third round, those picks could turn your No. 81 pick (185 points) into the No. 67 pick (fourth in the third round). That would be pretty ideal if you were targeting say a safety or CB who mysteriously slid out of the second round.
That kind of trade could significantly improve the candidates available.
Another option is trading future picks for picks today
Generally, teams and fans hate this practice because you have to give more tomorrow to get less today and because frankly it makes for a boring offseason next year, but consider the Romo window.
If you can get a first round OL who you believe can start and excel this year instead of getting one you believe in next year, does that extend the Romo window? Yes.
If you land a top pass rusher who compliments the current pass rushing talent does that increase the odds of winning a Super Bowl in the Romo window? Yes.
Is that worth a fourth rounder next year? I would argue yes.
Using more gambling metaphors, it is time to "go all in."
I think it actually make more sense to trade your first three picks next year for a mid to late first and an early third this year. I think surrendering a second to gain a year on your first and third could be worth it.
I think it makes more sense to have five of the top 81 players out of this year's draft for the entire remaining Romo window (and if you trade up on pick 81, that could be five picks in the top 70 or so).
Smart drafting that plays the odds could have you filling six of your seven primary needs for the Romo window by the end of this draft.
It makes more sense to me to add a pair of ready to contribute, first round, impactful players this year on each side of the ball than to wait a year on one of them. It makes more sense for Dallas to add a David Decastro AND a Melvin Ingram, Quinton Coples, or Mark Barron this year. It makes sense to consider picking up an added guard or defensive back with the extra third.
Who might be willing to make that kind of trade?
Cleveland is on a three to four year rebuilding project and they may not have their QB. They have an extra first round pick (No. 22) this year.
This year they had the assets to trade up for an elite QB prospect. As things stand, next year they probably won't.
They could draft Texas A&M QB Ryan Tannehill if they don't mind overpaying for a QB who was hot and cold as a collegiate player. And if they don't mind the fact that he reportedly has trouble seeing safeties. And that he might not be better than Colt McCoy this year. (And given that McCoy seems to be getting better, that Tannehill may still not be 3 year from now).
If The Browns are not sold on yoking their team's future to that... they might be receptive to trade their No. 22 pick to Dallas.
Consider their options.
1) They could keep the No. 22 pick. They could draft four guys in the first three round this year. Maybe those players add three wins to their win total. That might earn them the No. 10 pick next year. That may not put them in position to land a top QB. This year and next, they would have five picks in the top two rounds; seven total picks in the first three rounds.
2) They could draft two good players at four and 37 this year and maybe win a similar number of games this season. If they have the their picks in the first three rounds and the cowboys first three picks next year, they would have six picks in the top two rounds; eight picks overall in the first three rounds this year and next.
If their first round pick is in the fourth to sixth range or so, the Browns would probably have enough ammunition to trade up to No. 1, if needed, to land the top QB next year (USC's Matt Barkley?)
For the Browns, pushing their extra first round pick a year into the future may be worth considering.
Even though the Patriots are in a similar position to the Cowboys with an aging QB, as they already have an earlier first round pick at 1(27), they might be inclined to accept a similar deal for the 31st and 62nd picks if they think the odds are pretty decent that the Cowboys might finish with a draft slot a good deal lower than 31 next year.
Minimizing risk on picks
I think this is an important additional concept. There are 32 teams in the NFL. With 22 positions (not counting punters and kickers), there are 616 starting jobs in the NFL. If you were to charitably say that every starter was solid and that each job comes open every 10 years, that would mean that each draft has 62 starters in it. (And that is being very charitable with the math.) In theory, if you are playing the odds in making your picks, you should land a starter every year in the first two rounds.
The fact that the cowboys do not do that most years suggests you are swinging for the fence too much in the first two rounds, Mr. Jones.
Too many projects. Too many underdeveloped talents.
It is very apparent you like to role the dice on draft day. I think you need to try to resist that urge until the fourth round each year (... and probably you shouldn't do it at all this year). The first three rounds should be all about playing the odds in who you pick and trying to beat the odds to land three ready to play starting caliber players.
Drafting Greg Ellis is a great example of the kind of safe pick drafting I am talking about. You need to try to draft three high character guys like him who showed they could play in college (and fit the scheme) every year in the first three rounds.
This year, it is time to look for guys who are not likely to be busts, rather than guys you hope will be stars. This year you would do well to ask the questions "What are the odds this player will not be at least a slightly above average starter in the NFL?"
You need to start scratching players who have a fair shot of being busts. This team isn't hurting for star talents so there is no reason to roll the dice early...This team needs the holes filled with average or better starters for the Romo Window.
Avoid scheme dependent players
I think this is another draft day trap. Scouts and GMs fall in love with talent and sometimes don't think about how they fit. Arguably Bruce Carter is a good example. A lot of LBs have failed to grasp the 3-4 in Dallas. Carter has shown signs of being another victim of this scheme, but he was too talented to pass up.
Sometimes players fail because they don't fit the scheme. Having seen the list of players you are talking to, you need to seriously ask the question, "Am I trying to put a square peg into a round hole?"
I know Bill Parcells has made you love the 3-4. I can't stand it. The Cowboys haven't won a damn thing since we shifted to that scheme. It tends to be weaker vs. the run and less able to protect leads late as the smaller defense wears down, but I know you have been sold and are now a true believer in the whole, "well you don't know who is going to rush the passer on this down! Woo!" crap.
I would still encourage you to think bigger picture.
What happens if Jason Garrett misses the playoffs this year? Well, you are almost certainly going to have to fire him to stop a fan revolt.
Who are you going to bring in to replace him? Are you going to surrender power to an elite proven coach to appease fans? Will the guy you have in mind be a 3-4 advocate? Or are you going to hire a guy who understands the lay of the land in Dallas and can work with you who has earned himself head coaching consideration like Cincinnati's Mike Zimmer.
As you well know, Zimmer is a 4-3 guy.
When Bill Parcells took a crap on the Dallas defense and forced this abomination of a scheme on the Cowboys, he pushed Roy Williams away from the line and into coverage helping destroy the five-time Pro Bowl safety's career. The scheme change also pushed six-time Pro Bowler in La'roi Glover out of Dallas.
You spun your wheels pushing out one Pro Bowler to draft another, rather than adding a drafted pro bowler to one already on the roster.
If you draft scheme dependent guys, you risk the same kind of pointless talent bleed in a year if you have to replace Garrett. That would probably close the Romo window.
Unless you are willing to sign off on a move back to the 4-3 as a base set now, drafting players who can play in multiple schemes looks like a smart strategy.
Can a guy like Courtney Upshaw play DE in a 4-3 if it comes to that? You know Anthony Spencer can.
Is there anything about Micheal Brockers that suggests he can rush the passer as a 3-4 DE? Or, is he just a 4-3 DT? I have the same questions about Fletcher Cox.
I read the reviews of Mike Barron and I love the unanimous praise for the guy. He sounds like just the kind of guy with a little leadership potential that the team could really use on defense. But then I read about his coverage ability and it sounds like every scout is hedging their comments, so if he can't cover at an NFL level they will have hinted at it in their reviews.
Well Roy Williams struggled in coverage and the 3-4 schemes in Dallas helped destroy his career. Can Barron cover well enough to play in this scheme or is this going to be part two of "Parcell's revenge?" If need be, how much will you guys be willing to tweak the scheme to avoid leaving Barron regularly in coverage? More than you did with Roy Williams, or is the 3-4 scheme too limited for that?
When Garrett played here the team played a 4-3. The fact that he mentioned the possibility of returning to it earlier this year, implies he is likely a little more comfortable with that. If you are willing to allow Garrett to implement the 4-3 as he appears to kind of want to do, these kinds of questions about guys like Barron disappear.
As much as I like what I read about Barron and would love another leader on defense, there seems to be a lot less risk involved in terms of fitting schemes with drafting a guy like Melvin Ingram who has excelled at a multiple positions in college who could excel in multiple schemes.
Or with the idea of avoiding scheme dependence in mind, it makes a lot of sense to seriously consider a guy like David DeCastro in the first round. He is good at all the things guards have to do regardless of the philosophy on the OL. There is very little chance of a "he doesn't fit the scheme" bust.
You cannot afford a first round bust.
Is he ready to play?
When you are drafting with the best player philosophy, sometimes you consider guys who need a year or two to develop. The Dallas Mavericks have a great example of this in Dirk Nowitzki. He was always talented, but from my vantage as a fan, he didn't learn the physical toughness required (or at least didn't show it) until he was teammates with Dennis Rodman. In time the constant chirping by local media of "The Mavs won't win a title until Dirk is the second best player on the team" further hardened him, until he became the absolutely singleminded beast he was last season.
I get that it can happen, but it can be a long process. The Romo window is potentially two years. You can't afford to wait for a talent to learn how to play.
If you read the scouting reports on early entrants like Michael Brockers and Fletcher Cox they really raise some flags about whether these guys will be ready to play this year. Listen to these excerpts on Cox.
"Has experience both as a three and five technique. When asked to play the perimeter run game does a much better job extending his arms into contact and has the body control to simply fend off blocks and shed through the play...Inside he tends to get washed up in the action too often vs. the run game...Isn't a real sudden pass rusher despite his athleticism..."
So you are saying he gets eaten up inside vs. the run as a 4-3 DT and lacks the the athleticism and technique to rush the passer as a DE?
I know your scouts love the guy's motor and work ethic and are excited about the player he will be in 2-3 years when he gets stronger, but there are a lot of guys with those attributes. Today he sounds like a 2nd round pick kind of player not a 1(14) player. Is he the player you need this year and next year? You can't afford to wait on a player who is a slow transition.
Well that is my two cents. I hope these suggestions may be of help.
Best of luck to you on draft day, Mr. Jones.
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