Saturday, May 17, 2014

Dallas Cowboys 2014 NFL Draft Review

1 (16) - Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
2 (34) - Demarcus Lawrence, DE, Boise State
4 (119) - Anthony Hitchens, OLB, Iowa
5 (146) - Devin Street, WR, Pittsburgh
7 (231) - Ben Gardner, DE, Stanford
7 (238) - Will Smith, OLB, Texas Tech
7 (248) - Ahmad Dixon, SS, Baylor
7 (251) - Ken Bishop, DT, Northern Illinois
7 (254) - Terrance Mitchell, CB, Oregon

Goals Entering the 2014 NFL Draft: While casual fans might have looked at Dallas's failings last year and thought that improving the team's run defense would be chore #1.  True Cowboys fans would take it a step further and suggest that with the losses of Demarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher, that defensive line would be the priority in the first two rounds.  They might have argued that Dallas absolutely had to land two starting DLs in the first two rounds.

Dallas' leadership sees it differently.  New defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli apparently played a big role in Dallas's draft strategy.  Marinelli says one of the biggest problems last year was that Dallas needed a DL who demands a double team.  Dallas was dead set on landing that player.  Ultimately it looks like it proved to be at any cost..  Dallas entered the draft with their eyes on Pittsburgh DT Aaron Donald, UCLA DE/OLB Anthony Barr, OLB Ryan Shazier in the first round (with the idea that Shazier would be a threat as a pass rusher) and Demarcus Lawrence in the second round.

"The starter picks" (top 3 rounds) Analysis: Dallas entered the draft with the 1(16), 2(47), and 3(78) picks. In most drafts, teams that draft sensibly should be able to draft starters with their first and second round picks at minimum. This draft has been categorized as having ridiculous depth vs. most drafts. There appeared to be quite a high talent level available in the third in particular. With those three picks, Dallas should have been able to pull a guy with a 1st round grade, and two guys who would normally have second round grades.

Martin is a dominant college left tackle who the majority of Draft pundits say scouts project at guard in the NFL, (even though Martin never played there in college). With the extended lead up to the draft, players who did well in the pre-draft interviews and workouts rose a little higher than they would in most years.  By draft day, Martin was widely considered to have risen to between the 9th and 13th best player in this draft.

Dallas management says they intend to play him at guard this year and possibly move him to right tackle the following year.  (Based on recent reports, I think the idea of playing a year at guard might be a weird bluff to try to get Brian Waters in to have surgery now so the veteran might be able ready in time to attend camp.  Waters and the Cowboys appear to be playing chicken. It's convoluted. The short story is that the Cowboys like Waters, but Waters doesn't like training camp.)  Dallas also tried hard to get back into the third round to draft a guard, LSU's Trai Turner --- only to see him go to the Redskins with the pick Dallas traded away.  To make the situation worse, it occurred two picks before Dallas's potential trade partner. So Dallas  may not be all that married to the idea of Martin in particular at guard next season.

It would seem to make a lot more sense to plug Martin in at right tackle immediately, pushing the inconsistent Doug Free into a backup role.  Picking up right tackle would likely be an easier transition for Waters.  Additionally Martin is considered a good technician and an aggressive player.  He is not considered an exceptional talent.  In Salary Cap terms, it makes sense to have a player like Martin competently holding down the right tackle spot long term to offset the costs Dallas will be paying at LT.

Surprises to watch: Dallas picked a lot of guys who look like surprising contributors. Hitchens was ranked fairly low by scouting services as a Will OLB due to his 4.7 speed, but he is a hitter who diagnoses plays well.  Dallas had him rated as highly as they did because they evaluated him as a MLB.  4.7 is very good speed for a MLB --- especially in this rookie class. Do not be shocked if Hitchens emerges as the team's starting Mike and Lee is the starting Will.

Street is a polished route runner with some size.  He could be a pretty productive situational backup replacing what Miles Austin provided last season --- before Austin's hamstrings ended his Cowboys career.

Gardner and Bishop are guys who I think will end up having long careers as rotation guys on the D-line.  I feel pretty certain about Gardner due to my familiarity with him as a player.   Bishop is more a guy where the talent fits here.   The Cowboys feel like you can pick up effective 1-techniques late and this looks like a nice player/team fit. Dixon is a special teams guy who will light someone up, but has a slim shot to be a decent starting safety.

Best Value Pick: It's hard to attribute "value" to seventh round picks because anyone who goes that late usually have some big flaws in their game that make a long NFL career a long shot, but Ben Gardner is a guy I thought might go in the third or fourth round.  No one picking him until the seventh suggests that NFL scouts clearly felt he was a guy who maxxed out his talent in college.  I think that is a mistaken conclusion. I believe he slid because there were an abnormally large number of "hit or miss" types with higher upsides in this draft. I think he might have been a 4th or 5th rounder in a more normal draft.  I believe he will prove to be a solid rotation level player on the Dallas defensive line. 

Questionable Calls: Clearly Dallas felt their most most impactful strategy entering this draft was to secure a pass rusher who could demand a double team. (Dallas tried unsuccessfully to trade up for DT Aaron Donald and saw Anthony Barr go early in the draft.)

Dallas's third option to make this work was to execute a two step plan taking Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier at 16 and Lawrence in the second round when they found they could not trade up for Donald.  Dallas had planned to use a combination of  Shazier's speed (utilized on blitzes) and Lawrence's skill to pull a double team and provide a strong outside pass rush.
On paper this plan looks questionable.  Shazier would play the Will spot, keeping Shawn Lee at the MLB spot where he has proven to be too brittle. 

Additionally, Dallas Plays a 4-3.  Picking a LB to provide a serious pass rush has almost never worked for teams that run the 4-3.  Luckily Pittsburgh took Shazier at 15, making the merits of such a move irrelevant.

After the first round, Dallas's personnel department reached a consensus to do whatever was required to at least get the second half of their outside pass rushing plan.

Lawrence looks like a questionable pick to me.  He was a productive collegiate player in a very mediocre MWC. His stats consistently reflect a pass rusher (an important indicator IMO). He did play hard on the field and flashed every skill one would want to see from a pass rusher.  He has big hands and good short area explosion and quickness, but his combine was not eye-opening and his pursuit speed is pretty uninspiring (although his effort seems to be there in chasing down players from behind).

There is some sentiment that as a pass rusher Lawrence falls slightly short.  It may turn out that like Anthony Spencer, Lawrence will have a lot of "close but no cigar" moments in the NFL.

Lawrence played at 244 in college last year and has now "bulked up" to 251. His strength is frequently mentioned as subpar. While he has the frame to add a lot of good weight in the next few years, he is not exactly fast now. Given his height he will need another 10-15 lbs at minimum to stay healthy playing in a 4-3 scheme.  How will added weight affect his game?

Dallas considered this draft to have only 3 top level pass rushers who could demand double teams. Is this really a player who will demand a double team in the NFL next season?  Because if not, it would have made more sense to wait a year to get the team's next star DE.

While he is a high effort player, his game lacks some discipline. I am not sure that is a priority for Dallas coaches who seem much more focused on getting a pass rush from the kid, so I am not expecting much improvement there in the near future.

Lawrence was sidelined by his coaches a couple times in college for breaking team rules. During the draft, Dallas's management was talking about how they were going to help Lawrence grow into a man and how Lawrence was immature in College.  To me, those two items with his weight suggest this not a guy ready to start, and if he isn't, he isn't a guy deserving the first round grade Dallas affixed to him in the media.

I think in a normal draft, Lawrence is still an early second round kind of player.  With a team with a number of holes, do you trade away two fairly certain long-term starters for a guy who may just be a situational pass rusher and only has an early second round grade? Its a tough sale for a lot of Dallas fans...

To put it in perspective, the Ravens picked right Dallas's assigned draft slots and landed a pair of FSU Seminoles in DT Timmy Jernigan and FS Terrence Brooks.  How many Cowboys' fans would trade that duo for Lawrence?

At 47, OLB/DE Trent Murphy, DT Timmy Jernigan, DT Will Sutton, RB Carlos Hyde, QB Jimmy Garoppolo, DE Kony Elay, WR Allen Robinson, T Moses Morgan, T/G Billy Turner, DE Scott Crichton, NT Louis Nix, DE Kareem Martin, G Gabe Jackson, MLB Chris Borland, and RB Tre Mason were all still available.

At 78, Brooks, Jackson, Sutton, Nix, & Martin were still available as was Spencer Long (a guard out of Nebraska that Dallas tried to trade back into the third round to pick), RB Terrance West, WR Donte Moncreif, DT Caraun Reid, DE Chris Smith, OLB Telvin Smith, G/T David Yankey, QB AJ MCCarron, & T Cameron Fleming.

It seems pretty likely that Dallas could land two long term starters/heavy contributors out of that block.  (I would have been pretty excited with just about any combination off that list --- my preference was a Borland/Sutton combo --- instead of reaching for a need. A pairing like Hyde and Nix might not have been what the Dallas plan called for, but could have provided two low risk, high level starter caliber prospects who could function in the Dallas offensive and defensive schemes. Both players would help Dallas with the teams' short yardage situations.)

Dallas management argued that Lawrence was the last of the pure edge rushers in this draft and that Atlanta was looking to take him early in the second.  For Atlanta, it would have been a slight reach --- for Dallas it looks like a big one.  There is nothing that suggests the need to move up in order to have a shot to pick Lawrence was not legitimate, but was picking Lawrence the right move?

Several players with legitimate first round grades fell into the second round.  This draft was loaded with players. 

Lawrence looks like a player who grades out somewhere between Ebenezer Ekuban and Shante Carver. If Lawrence  turns into another Carver -- a 2 to 4 year situational pass rusher who never develops into anything more -- this pick will be one of the Cowboys' worst under Jones due to the depth of this draft and the abundance of team needs.

Summary: Ultimately this draft will not be as good as the optimistic view suggests. One can have a lot of optimism about the players Dallas took in the 7th round, but in general players go in the 7th round for a reason --- 32 teams pass on these guys for 6 rounds.

Dallas is hoping several of those guys come through for them. That is what Dallas has been doing for years. Dallas has used the second fewest number of picks in the top 100 for the last 7 years. A roster filled with later round guys and free agents is a recipe for a lack of quality depth.

If you build your roster with late round picks, almost by definition your team will be less talented than the teams you play. Dallas has 5-10 less top 100 players on their rosters than the teams they play.  Dallas again turned 3 picks in the top 100 into 2 players.

The national and local media say that the quality of their draft entirely depends on Lawrence emerging as a quality starter.  I think that is asking too much.  The cowboys' coaching staff and draft department drafted Lawrence to be a situational rusher in a 8-9 player DL rotation this year.

Martin looks like a 10 year starter at RT.  Lawrence should fit the role of a situational edge pass rusher for the next 3 years at least. Hitchens could emerge as the starter at MLB (pushing the fragile Lee to the Will spot) and may prove a solid and durable in that role. Street looks like a quality 4th or 5th receiver who can provide a big target when needed. Gardner and Bishop could prove to be solid rotation players on the DL for the next 5-7 years.  Dixon looks like a good special teams player and a capable backup at SS.

In a possibly relevant side note, Martin, Hitchens, Street, Gardner, and Dixon were all college team captains. Team captains are usually heady players with a good work ethic.

The Mitchell pick is curious as he does not look like a fit at all for the Tampa-2.  That, along with the team's myopia on securing pass rushers, suggest the team will employ less cover 2 and a lot more man coverage this year, which will help our veteran CBs.

Ultimately if Dallas didn't trade, this draft was tailor-made for Dallas to bring in 7-8 play-eating rotation players, if not starters.  If they traded down in the second round a bit, that number might have gotten up to 10.  Dallas probably got 3-6 guys who fit that bill.


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