Saturday, April 27, 2013
In defense of offense: The Cowboys' draft
By Dan Graziano
Playing Gavin Escobar with Jason Witten will give Dallas options it didn't have on offense last season.
It's the making-of-the-sausage aspect of the NFL draft that's the problem. If the Dallas Cowboys had begun this offseason with picks 31, 47, 74 and 80 and drafted these same four players, the fans' reaction would have been quite different (though they'd still probably be mad about having lost the Super Bowl). The reason everybody was so upset about the Cowboys' draft 24 hours ago was this trade they made with the San Francisco 49ers in the first round and the idea that they didn't get enough in return for the No. 18 pick.
But from here? From the tail end of Friday night, with three rounds and four Cowboys picks in the books? To me, it looks as though the Cowboys are having a pretty good draft.
The first and most important thing they needed to do, above all else, was find offensive line help in the first round, and they did. You might not like Travis Frederick as a first-rounder, but the fact is this draft was weak at the top. And if you're sifting between sub-optimal options, why should you feel compelled to pick the guy other people have agreed to like as opposed to the guy you like? "Trust your board," is every team's pre-draft mantra, and if the Cowboys' board called Frederick their answer, there's nothing wrong with taking him with the 31st pick.
What happened next seemed weird because it was offense again with the first two picks Friday night. A team that has Jason Witten used its second-round pick on a tight end its fans had never heard of, Gavin Escobar, instead of a safety or a tackle or another offensive lineman. So the crying began anew, as well as the same old jokes about how the owner needs to fire the GM when we all know there's no chance of that ever happening. Then, in the third round, with the pick they got in that first-round trade, they went offense again, taking Baylor wide receiver Terrance Williams.
But then a funny thing happened. The outlines of the plan began to congeal in front of everyone's eyes. And through the prism of a pick that finally felt like a really good one, it all started to make sense. The Cowboys just signed their franchise quarterback, Tony Romo, to a gigantic contract extension. When you do that, you're inclined to build up the offense around him. And by taking an interior lineman in the first round and a pair of dynamic passing-game weapons in the second and third, that's what the Cowboys were up to in the early part of the 2013 draft.
Recall the common complaints about the Cowboys' offense. (The non-Romo ones, if you will.) It's unimaginative. It stalls in the red zone. It doesn't have a reliable No. 3 wide receiver, and its No. 2, Miles Austin, is always hurt. The picks of Escobar and Williams address all of that. Escobar is a considerably better player than James Hanna, last season's sixth-round pick, and the ability to put him on the field along with Witten will offer the Cowboys options they didn't have on offense last season. Escobar is a reliable pass-catcher who can outfight defenders for the ball in traffic, and that will serve him and the Cowboys well up and down the field, but especially in the red zone. Williams is a big-play outside receiver who allows them to use Austin in the slot when they go three wide and can be a game-breaker if teams overcommit to Dez Bryant on the other side. They have found fresh options that offer more variety for an offense that too often limits its quarterback's options in key spots. And by taking the lineman first, they've helped shore up Romo's protection, as well.
Some wanted a running back, but you can always get one of those, and there are still plenty on the board with four rounds to go. Some wanted a tackle or a guard, and I couldn't have argued if they wanted to overaddress the line. But you're more likely to find a usable offensive lineman in the fourth or fifth round than you are to find a big-play tight end or receiver there. Eric Winston and others remain on the free-agent market as possible answers at tackle. They did something about the line with their first pick, and the opportunity to do more exists for them.
Some wanted defense in the second round -- a three-technique defensive tackle or a playmaking safety. They ended up with a physical safety in J.J. Wilcox with their original third-round pick, and they like what he offers in terms of upside. But the basic theory with the Cowboys defense appears to be that the changes on the coaching staff, the switch to a 4-3 front and improved health will deliver improvement. They lost six defensive starters to injury last season, and if those guys all come back and thrive in their new 4-3 roles, those are their big additions on defense.
No, spending the early part of the draft on help for Romo was a completely worthwhile choice of priorities for the Cowboys, who came out of the first three rounds with three offensive players they like and can find multiple ways to use (plus that new safety). They're focused on putting Romo and coach Jason Garrett in the best possible position to succeed by expanding the boundaries of the offense's capabilities from play to play and week to week. If you're Romo and Garrett right now, you're thinking up new plays and personnel formations that weren't available to you last season when Bryant, Austin and Witten were your only reliable pass-catchers, and you're excited.
The draft is about hope that things will get better. A look back at the first three rounds offers the Cowboys a number of ways to imagine a more fun and productive offense. It doesn't really matter how it started or how they got here. So far, the Cowboys have to feel as though they're having a pretty good draft.