Jerry Jones went to great lengths to praise Jason Garrett's impact on the 2011 draft but maintain that the process by which the Cowboys make their picks has not necessarily changed. If the process hasn't changed, a closer look suggests that the end result has, as the Cowboys picked a group of players with traits more reminiscent of Jimmy Johnson and Bill Parcells drafts than what we've seen in recent years. Garrett talked all weekend about looking for players with good measurables but also wanting physical players who are 'the right kind of guy.' With the notable exception that second rounder Bruce Carter is not regarded as an overly physical linebacker, the Cowboys appear to have found those characteristics in their draft picks.
Jones told several people before the draft that the thing that has surprised him most about Garrett is that "he's more stubborn than I thought." Almost everyone who roots for the Cowboys longs for a forceful voice who has better football instinct than Jerry, who manages to create accountability despite Jerry, and, of course, is someone who Jerry will actually listen to. Garrett just might be that guy. He and Stephen Jones seem to have a good relationship, and that will be more and more important as time goes on. Jerry seems to trust Garrett, and he clearly likes him. And this draft seems to be evidence that Garrett does hold sway in this organization.
The question is, can Garrett carry the weight of the organization on his shoulders? His coaching and leadership abilities will be sliced and diced constantly, but how well does he evaluate? How well will he and the coaches he's hiring develop these players? Our first evidence on the evaluation front is this draft, and I'm left not with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach like I was in years like 2001 and 2009, where it was absolutely clear that the Cowboys had done almost nothing to help their roster. I'm not giddy like I was in 2005. This time, I feel like I have question marks hovering over my head. Again, I don't mean that in a negative way, but I'm just not sure what to make of it.
Jones reiterated Saturday that the Cowboys did receive a strong offer for their first pick, and if you have an advanced degree in Interpreting Jerry Speak you could decipher that Garrett, et al were against moving down and that Jones got on board with that, as opposed to it being Jerry's initial desire. That's an important distinction to make, because the past four drafts have lacked a forceful voice to counter Jones' instinct to wheel, deal, and treat the draft like a trip to the casino. Garrett mentioned that the draft needs to be about the player as much as anything, and it seems clear that his preference for Tyron Smith was heeded by Jones.
With that, I felt like we were off to a strong start. The Cowboys were picking in the top ten for the first time in eight years, and they needed a difference maker. Smith seems to be the best bet to be that, he plays one of the 3-4 most important positions on the field, and as an added bonus he fills a desperate need. Check mark, good job, warm fuzzies for that pick.
The second day is where the Cowboys will be and are already being scrutinized. They had an ordinary assortment of draft picks, one towards the middle of each round, with an extra one that was essentially an eighth rounder. They have what most perceive to be numerous holes to be filled, due to draft slump that stretches back to 2006. So I think that expectations - even if they weren't completely conscious - that the club could fill their holes with one draft were a little too high.
Stephen Jones made a point of talking after the draft about how the team still could use free agency to fill remaining holes, and this is one of the most important points to be made this weekend. For all of the unusual, awkward aspects of this NFL offseason, the best thing about it is that teams are being forced to handle their offseason in the order they should - draft first, then free agency. It doesn't make sense from a roster building standpoint to sign difference making free agents first, then draft to fill the gaps, but that's the way the NFL does it. This year, teams actually have the luxury of focusing more on picking the best player in their draft and using free agency to round out their roster.
While it's wonderful to draft players after the first round who come in and start or even contribute immediately, it's usually an unrealistic expectation, particularly for a good team. Therefore the fact that the Cowboys picked a player in Carter at No. 40 who has virtually no chance of starting right off the bat doesn't bother me at all. If he's ready to go physically, he'll still have plenty of opportunity to get on the field. He's expected to be a top special teams player, and this team needs those badly. One of the serious weaknesses in this defense is the ability of the linebackers and safeties to defend the pass. It's no easy assignment to ask a rookie to learn nickel pass coverage packages - just ask Sean Lee - but Carter certainly has the physical package to do it. Additionally, the Cowboys don't want to play Brooking for 60+ plays a week anyway and Bradie James is no spring chicken himself, so Carter and Lee will both have the opportunity to get themselves on the field.
More importantly, I think that the pick signals that Garrett and the Cowboys did something very smart in this draft. They looked at needs on a big picture basis, not on a Week 1 vs. the Jets basis. Fans and media analysts clamor for the quick fix, but the draft is generally not the place for that. It's the place for the big picture fix, and the Cowboys drafted to fix a spot that will be a huge need after this season, when Brooking retires or moves on. If the Cowboys chose wisely, Carter will be ready to go and you'll have a seamless transition. My only uneasy feeling here is that it all makes perfect sense if Carter is really that Top 15 talent the Cowboys think he is. Is he? He certainly is from a physical standpoint, and he seems like a great guy, but not everyone agrees that he's that kind of talent. To me, Carter is Test Case #1 for the new set of schemers and evaluators now on staff at Valley Ranch.
The pick in this draft that everyone wants to debate - and the one I most want to discuss - is DeMarco Murray. We were all cruising along, making perfect sense of this draft as the Cowboys' third pick approached. Ok, ILB wasn't an immediate need, but the Cowboys picked a guy they loved. You got your OT in the first round, pick another lineman or a defensive back here - and there are some good ones on the board - and we're in good shape. There were numerous hints that the Cowboys wanted to pick a running back in the top three rounds, but the guys we knew they liked had been picked. Then they pop Murray.
If you're wondering what that faint churning noise that you heard early Friday evening was, it was dozens of draft analysts all trying - really hard and really quickly - to figure out what the Cowboys were doing here. Most of us suspect that Marion Barber is done in Dallas, and even if he's not, his skills have eroded thanks to a massive NFL beating. We also know that Tashard Choice is not Jason Garrett's favorite running back and that Felix Jones does not appear to be able to handle extra carries or extra weight. Why are the Cowboys picking a back whose skills seem to line up more with Jones' than Choice's or Barber's?
The answer that I come to is that Garrett took a step back and said that the whole arrangement is flawed and needs to be reworked from the top down, rather than the bottom up. While Jones is a part time guy, he is not the pass blocker or receiver to be an ideal third-down guy. While neither Jones nor Murray is that rugged betweeen-the-tackles type needed to sustain a power running game, it does make some sense to add a guy whose skills are best suited for passing downs to complement Jones and maybe Choice. Murray is regarded as a good pass blocker, and he's clearly a gifted receiver. He'll give Garrett more options as he lines up to attack defenses.
The only way this makes sense, though, is if Murray is really good. There were good options available at need positions, so this adds up only if he's a big enough threat that he simply makes a bigger impact on this team than those guys. Again, is he? Not a lot of draft analysts think so, but the Cowboys must. Test Case #2.
From there, the draft makes perfect sense. I wanted Will Rackley with that third round pick, because I see guard as a huge big picture need, but they opted for a developmental guy with good upside in the fourth round in David Arkin. Makes sense, particularly if they're going to try to squeeze one more year out of Leonard Davis (not sure that I would) and/or re-sign Kyle Kosier for another couple of years. Arkin could give you more of a true NFL talent to develop than anything else they're going to have on the bench, and he's versatile.
Josh Thomas is a physical nickel corner, check. You're going to want that kind of guy in Ryan's scheme. Dwayne Harris looks like a slot receiver who can return kicks and punts, and he's been highly productive in college. Once Roy Williams is gone and Miles Austin and Dez Bryant are your only particularly established guys, that's exactly what you'll want - a reliable slot guy to complement them who Tony Romo knows will catch the ball. Both of those guys represent fairly low upside additions, but they project into clear roles here and that's great for fifth and sixth round picks.
The Cowboys like Shaun Chapas as an intellectual, versatile fullback. Jerry Jones mentioned that they were surprised that he lasted to the seventh round and had considered picking him a round earlier. Bill Nagy is the classic late-round brawler of an offensive lineman.
For me, this draft can only be confidently graded based on the amount of faith you have in the drafters. If this were a Bill Belicheck draft, I would feel confident that the team simply has more perspective than observers. If I thought that Jerry was orchestrating all of this like he has for the past few years, I'd find it hard to be optimistic. With Garrett's handprint, I just don't know what to think. Time will have to tell, but I think that you have to like that the Cowboys seem to have picked players with high character and good motors and that they clearly approached this draft looking to improve this roster in the big picture, rather than plugging whatever holes seem to be leaking the most water this moment.
I think they picked players for the right reasons; I just think we're going to have to wait and see what kind of evaluations they made. Carter, Murray and Arkin could all work out great, but they generally weren't seen as value picks. Prior to the draft many predicted that we would learn a good deal about Jason Garrett from this draft. One day after the draft, I think that is truer than we realized.