Cowboys Need to Stick to B.A.A.
FRISCO – The key to understanding the Dallas Cowboys’ draft plan isn’t so much about listening to Jerry Jones as it is “listening to who Jerry Jones listens to.” For about 25 years now, I’ve called it “B.A.A.” That’s an acronym for “best available athlete.” And besides being fun to pronounce on the radio — “BAAAAA!” — its commonsensical, at least to me.
So why is Jerry saying things like this? “Where we’re going to be picking (28th overall), I think we can improve our team in several areas on each side of the ball, but particularly on the defensive side. There are going to be some players there, and we have several places that we can basically add to some good players we’ve got there now.”
Dallas has needs on defense, particularly in the pass-rush department. And maybe in the upcoming NFL Draft they use a couple of picks to seek help at that position – a position that is second only to quarterback in terms of unearthing consistently great ones. But picking by need is begging for disaster. B.A.A. is the way.
B.A.A, of course, doesn’t literally mean “best available athlete” — so no, the basketball player who is a great athlete or the punter who runs a 4.2 forty doesn’t suddenly qualify as the guy Dallas should pick in the first round at spot No. 28. No, B.A.A. means “best available guy,” “best available player,” or even “best available player at a position of need,” if you wish to meld two philosophies.
But pick exclusively for “need,” or even prioritize things that way? That’s how the Cowboys, who wanted pass-rush help 20 years ago just as they do today, over the course of three drafts used premier picks on Shante Carver and Kavika Pittman. Hey, they weren’t very good NFL players but at least they were pass-rushers, eh? That’s a mind-bogglingly stupid strategy and one that ignores a bunch of simple facts. Among them: Rosters in this NFL churn constantly, the “need” you don’t have today may be one you have tomorrow — and vice-versa.
So don’t “pick positions.” Pick players.
I’ve always believed this….and luckily for Jerry and for Cowboys Nation, so does Dallas draft guru Will McClay. The Dallas Cowboys are lucky in the sense that Will McClay gets this. “There’s a clear plan to try and improve the team overall,” McClay said recently on SiriusXM NFL Radio. “People are going to say ‘defense.’ I think coach (Rod) Marinelli did a wonderful job and for us to get to 13-3 and have the season that we did, it shows that we have talent there. “We want to continue to improve that, but we don’t want to force anything.”
This seems like such an obvious concept and yet…consider this line from the Dallas Morning News regarding McClay’s B.A.A. beliefs: “Not many are going to like the words that are coming out of Will McClay’s mouth…” I beg to differ. Anyone and everyone in Cowboys Nation who understands the best way to draft is absolutely loving McClay’s words. “I think one of the things that you learn is if you plan you’re going to get a player on this side of the ball then you force it,” McClay said. “What we’re going to do is let the chips fall where they may. We’re going to grade and evaluate the players and we’re going to pick the right players for us. We have our objectives and goals in mind. “We want to build depth, but we want to build a strong team, too.”
This approach, combined with a commitment to “stay true to the board,” is what netted Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott last year. The Cowboys didn’t “need” a running back. But Elliott topped their board, and if the No. 1 guy is available in the No. 4 spot? That’s a fit.
McClay is central to all of this. Once again this offseason, other teams have made overtures at McClay, who officially is Dallas’ “assistant director of player personnel.” He could get a bigger title and more authority elsewhere. But, “Will is happy here,” COO Stephen Jones told reporters at the Senior Bowl last week. “There have been people who have been interested in him.” But McClay stays for at least another year… and builds.
Now, back to the D. None of the aforementioned philosophy ignores real concerns on the Dallas defense. Another 2016 draftee, Maliek Collins, is already a big help on this D. Charles Tapper, like Collins a D-lineman taken last year, didn’t get to play in 2016 due to the pars defect in his back, but he’s now reporting he’s cleared to play. Defensive tackle Cedric Thornton underwent shoulder surgery this week, and that’s not a big concern. But Tank Lawrence just endured his second back surgery in the last 13 months — not a great sign. Oh, and Randy Gregory is locked up inside the NFL drug-program prison, though the NFLPA might be working to force rules changes on his behalf.
Meanwhile, while Dallas is hopeful that 2016 draftee Jaylon Smith is experiencing the firing of the nerve that will allow him to debut this year, management also knows that defensive backs Barry Church, Brandon Carr, Mo Claiborne and J.J. Wilcox are hitting free agency. “All those are guys we’d like to sign,” COO Stephen Jones said. “(But) you don’t get to sign them all back.”
You also aren’t likely to go sign some $100-million pass-rusher in free agency. So the hunger to find that sort of talent naturally takes us back to the NFL Draft. And the desire to pick defense, and more specifically, to pick a pass-rusher, is understandable. Understandable, but wrong, if that desire conflicts with B.A.A.
Cowboys owner Jones almost certainly knows this; the top pick in his drafts the last six or seven years reflect this knowledge. But if he wavers? Will McClay will be in his ear, baaaaa’ing the right philosophy, the right three letters. B.A.A.