Each year, the NFL draft presents enormous challenges as teams try to figure out the who, what and why regarding hundreds of prospects across the country at every level of football. For the Dallas Cowboys, those challenges have been greater this year, and it is not just because of the effect the coronavirus pandemic has had on the preparation.
The Cowboys, like the Cleveland Browns, New York Giants, Carolina Panthers and Washington Redskins, are incorporating a new coaching staff, adding another layer to the already complicated draft process.
What coach Mike McCarthy might want in a quarterback is different than what his predecessor, Jason Garrett, wanted. What coordinator Mike Nolan might want in a defensive end is different than what Rod Marinelli wanted. It was such a priority to figure out that the Cowboys went over the shapes, sizes and must-haves the coaches preferred in draft prospects before they even discussed the players the Cowboys had under contract.
For hours they met regarding the specific requirements the new coaches wanted from players in their respective positions. Some were similar — big, strong offensive linemen, for example. Some were different — bigger defensive tackles and undersized pass-rushers are now OK.
And now, one day before the draft, they are ready to show what they have learned together.
“I want to give [vice president of player personnel] Will McClay a lot of credit. [McClay] structures this thing and really works it so he can get serious influence and input from the coaching staff,” Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones said.
“As you know, coaches don’t spend the majority of their time evaluating these college players. The scouts do that. On the other hand, [McClay] is able to structure it so that we do really not only encourage but really give and put together an outline so that the coaches can not only evaluate but present the information and meld that with the scout’s information. … You have not a consensus. Don’t confuse that. But you sure have that kind of input, which is different.”
The Cowboys in 2013 had the opportunity to select the fifth-rated player on their draft board in defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, but they opted to trade down. Floyd did not fit what Marinelli wanted, as it turns out, and that decision led to a revamping of the scouting department that has seen the team draft seven players who have made the Pro Bowl since McClay took over in 2014.
“He’s done a phenomenal job with the process and coordination, both with the scouts and the coaches working together,” McCarthy said of McClay. “And really, these last few days with the leadership group, Jerry, Stephen and myself and Will, going back through this list of players has been unique to my experience.”
NFL coaches who join new teams in the offseason, like McCarthy, face various challenges — from adjusting to established general managers to introduction of all employees to learning the ins and outs of the facilities.
McCarthy sat out the draft process a year ago after 13 years as the Green Bay Packers‘ head coach. McCarthy’s replacement, Matt LaFleur, brought in new ideas, but Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst has kept the same philosophy that worked well with other GMs in Green Bay — from Ron Wolf to Ted Thompson.
“There’s not a lot of big-time scheme differences that play into the personnel. There’s subtle things, but for the most part the way we’ve operated around here is that good football players are hard to find,” Gutekunst said. “And if they’re good football players, Matt, his staff, I think they have the ability to adjust to what those guys can do. I think there’s subtle things on offense and defense that Matt wants to do that might be a little bit different, but it doesn’t change the core principles.”
Last year, Cincinnati Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin had to mesh procedures and philosophies with a new coach in Zac Taylor after 16 years of having Marvin Lewis. He remembers the challenge of building playbooks and going through free agency all while getting to know the players.
“It’s always easier going into the second year,” Tobin said. “We feel like we’re further along in the evaluation process together as a group and kind of knowing what we want and what we’re looking for. The second year is the big jump year for our systems and how we work together, for sure.”
An unusual offseason
The effects of the coronavirus pandemic have presented even more challenges for the Cowboys.
Like every other NFL team, the Cowboys had to conduct their pre-draft meetings virtually. Their scouts were not on the road for as long. They had no formal visits from prospects to The Star team headquarters in Frisco, Texas. Since 2005, cornerback Morris Claiborne (No. 6 overall in 2012 draft) is the Cowboys’ only first draft pick not to have made a visit to the facility prior to the draft. The Cowboys also have had what was once considered an advantage be erased — their “Dallas day” workouts of local college players and those who went to area high schools.
But the Cowboys can’t complain.
“The process has been going strong for three weeks,” McCarthy said. “I give our IT department so much credit for keeping us updated with new instruments to make sure we can communicate clearly. It’s been very productive. We’re all in our homes. We spend a lot of times going through each and every prospect, so it’s given us a chance to take a couple of laps through the draft board, especially for the first time going through it with Jerry and Stephen and the personnel staff. It’s been very organized. I’ve been very impressed.”
There were no technological hiccups in the preparation run-throughs for the draft.
Jerry Jones went so far as to call the Cowboys’ unofficial process “seamless.”
“This is, frankly, the most thorough I can remember having all of this information. It seems that it’s presented in a real orderly way. It’s brought out the best order in us,” he said. “Everyone is succinct in their presentation. Everybody is clear on the type of questions. It’s been a good process, and I’m very comfortable we know, as of this minute, everything we would be expected to know about every player.”