Three years with head coach Jason Garrett as a principal in the draft day war room, and the Cowboys first round pick strategy has appeared to be different every year – stand pat at No. 9 for offensive tackle Tyron Smith, trade up 10 spots for cornerback Morris Claiborne, move down 13 spots for center Travis Frederick.
But despite the varying methods, the strategy has always been the same: Use the first round to draft for a Day 1 starter at a position of immediate need. Depending on how the picks fall before them, the Cowboys appear to be more than willing to trade up, move down, or stand pat to do it.
2011, OT Tyron Smith – Cowboys return just two starting linemen from previous season.
The offensive line had collapsed in 2010. Former five-time Pro Bowl left tackle Flozell Adams was released prior to the season, and the void was filled very capably by 26-year-old Doug Free. The rest of the line was porous, however, and three aging starters – guard Leonard Davis, center Andre Gurode and tackle Marc Colombo – would not return in 2011.
O Line was a huge need for the team heading into the 2011 draft, and when USC tackle Tyron Smith fell to No. 9 it was an easy call to stand pat, turn in the card, and make him a Cowboy. He was very likely the highest-rated offensive lineman on the Cowboys board at the time. Houston defensive end J.J. Watt, who went two picks later, may have been a higher-rated player, but the Cowboys went with need.
2012, CB Morris Claiborne – Cowboys dump three corners in the offseason
In 2012, the team traded up to draft LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne. The Cowboys secondary let them down in 2011. Cornerback Mike Jenkins was hurt much of the year, and Alan Ball and Terence Newman were making highlight reels for all the wrong reasons. In 2012, Ball, Newman and Frank Walker would not return. Jenkins would, but largely because he was still on his rookie contract, as the team seemed wary of Jenkins following two straight down years.
The Cowboys needed cornerback help, and they got it in free agency by signing Brandon Carr. But with Jenkins’ play perceived to be in decline, and Orlando Scandrick relegated to the slot, cornerback was still considered a huge position of need entering the 2012 draft.
The Cowboys said afterward that Claiborne was the highest-rated cornerback on any Dallas draft board since Hall of Famer Deion Sanders in 1989. St. Louis was known to be shopping the No. 6 pick in the draft, and when Claiborne slipped the Cowboys pulled the trigger on a trade. The move hasn’t played out as hoped, but it was highly praised at the time. In this case, the Cowboys spent two premium draft assets, a first and a second, for what they believed to be an impact player at a position of clear need. They were true to their board, and they drafted for need.