Thursday, 3 April 2014

Confessions of an NFL draft addict and revisiting the Dallas Cowboys 2010 draft

Confession time: I am an NFL draft addict.

I’m not sure how this obsession came to be. It started slowly, with Paul Zimmerman’s annual draft previews in Sports Illustrated, then graduating to Mel Kiper’s mail-order draft guides before the World Wide Web turned this craving into a 24-hour, 365-day free-for-all.

I really can’t get enough. While critics initially panned the NFL Network for broadcasting the draft combine from Indianapolis, I watched breathlessly as future stars competed in 40-times, lifts, shuttle runs, vertical jumps. I took notes. PVRd what I missed.

Underwear Olympics? These were final exams for those graduating to the NFL and for many players, it was their initial national exposure. I was riveted. I still am.

Add the intrigue of the NFL player selection process – the clashing of egos between owners, general managers, coaches, prospective players and their families – the checkered draft history of some franchises or their GMs, the millions of dollars and jobs at stake, and I can’t get past this event being the greatest reality show on TV.

Watching Donovan McNabb getting booed onstage by stunned face-painted Philly fans wearing Ricky Williams Eagles jerseys, watching the Gallery Gods mock the Jets annual selections, Jeff Lageman and Kyle Brady come to mind, or watching prospects in the Green Room waiting and waiting to get drafted, Aaron Rodgers, Geno Smith.

It’s no wonder Hollywood finally found a way to turn it into a movie. Draft Day with Kevin Costner. Getcha popcorn ready indeed.

The draft became a statutory holiday in my household, Mel Kiper Day. Then the NFL turned into a three-day festival and thus it is now dubbed (Mike) Mayockpalooza.

The Good Wife knows I am emotionally unstable during this time period, prone to bursts of incoherent shouting, laughter and … rage. Controlled. Most of the time. 

Better to be left alone. It’s like watching a game on Sunday, only with much, much more at stake.

Teams that win the draft end up in bed with the Lombardi trophy. Those precious picks make or break the fortunes of a franchise. Teams can add complimentary free agent players or even trade for a superstar to get over the proverbial hump, but title seeds are sowed in spring.

Which is why as a Cowboys fan, the past few years have been particularly painful.

Without having direct access to the draft room – I object to it being called a War Room, it’s not even a close metaphor – it’s difficult to explain why Jerry Jones and company have fared so poorly without the guiding hands of Bill Parcells and Jimmy Johnson.

There are so many variables involved in any draft choice that unless you’re there, in the room, and witness to trade offers, rumours and the team’s reams of evaluations, it’s hard to pinpoint where Dallas consistently goes wrong.

Is it scouting? Is it assessment? Is it Jones? He is the easy target and the team’s draft record shows there has to be a communication breakdown within the franchise but you wonder how much bad luck has played a factor in the team’s woes.

Thanks to Jones’ marketing wizardry, there have been two “leaks” of the Cowboys’ draft strategy, in 2010 and 2013. Images of Jones standing in front of the team’s big board allowed sharp-eyed draftniks to make out the team’s “cheat sheet.”

In 2010, the Cowboys’ first-round grades were as follows:

1. Sam Bradford
2. Gerald McCoy
3. Ndamukong Suh
4. Russell Okung
5. Trent Williams
6. Eric Berry
7. Rolando McClain
8. Joe Haden
9. CJ Spiller
10. Mike Iupati
11.  Blocked by Jerry’s arm, but likely Earl Thomas or Dez Bryant
12.  Blocked by Jerry’s arm, but likely Earl Thomas or Dez Bryant
13. Bryan Bulaga
14. Sean Lee
15. Jared Odrick
16. Jason Pierre-Paul
17. Derrick Morgan
18. Kyle Wilson
19. Maurkice Pouncey
20. Navarro Bowman
21. Jahvid Best
22. Tyson Alualu
23. Jermaine Gresham

The list was surprising because it was unsurprising. Most mocks heading into the draft had similar first-round values save for three players: Lee, Bowman and Alualu.

Alualu drew gasps when he was taken by the Jaguars with the 10th pick overall and time has shown that the gasps were an appropriate reaction.

The Cowboys got a falling Dez Bryant with their first pick and then made a prescient choice by taking Lee with their second rounder, the 55th pick.

If Lee was unavailable, would they have still traded up from the 59th pick? Or do they take Bowman and still have an extra fourth in their pocket? Given Lee’s injury history and Bowman’s prodigious production with the 49ers, Cowboys fans would have been even more overjoyed.

This was easily the best draft the Cowboys had since Parcells left but you wonder what would’ve happened had both Lee and Bowman been selected before their pick. Would Alualu be our defensive end?

These variables show some of the factors at play with each selection. The Cowboys could have hit gold – Bowman, silver – Lee or copper – Alualu, depending on the other teams’ needs and assessments.

Is it all luck?

The Cowboys traded up to get Lee in what would turn out to be a very deep draft, with few busts. Their next pick was Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, in the fourth round.

To draftniks, it was a slight overvaluation, like Lee and Bowman, and this time, the Cowboys turned out to be dead wrong. They had a fourth-round grade on Owusu-Ansah, just a few notches above Kam Chancellor, who was the next defensive back taken.

Owusu-Ansah was waived by the Saints, didn’t play last season and is now on the Lions’ practice squad. Chancellor is coming off a Super Bowl win and has a Pro Bowl on his resume.

What if another team had taken Owusu-Ansah? What if a Cowboys scout had seen more from Chancellor and bumped his grade up a notch?

What ifs play a great factor at the draft so when you see the myriad of players that the Cowboys could’ve selected with each draft, consider the hindsight factor.

Where were these lists after the selections were made. Do they have the stones, like a young Kiper did, to say picking players like Trev Alberts is why the Colts “draft second every year.”

Or is it really a mug’s game?