How the Dallas Cowboys GM delivered an unexpected draft result

(Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) /

Does Jerry Jones deserve all the criticism he receives from Dallas Cowboys fans? Life is not always black or white but rather a million shades of gray.

Dallas Cowboys Owner, President, and General Manager Jerry Jones is criticized often by fans for the 24 years and counting Super Bowl drought in Big D. This criticism ultimately falls on him as he is the owner and is accountable for all the decisions.

Six franchises have had longer Super Bowl droughts: 49ers (25 years), Washington (28 years), Bears (34 years), Raiders (36 years), Dolphins (46 years), and Jets (51 years). Another twelve teams have never won the Super Bowl: Bengals, Bills, Browns, Cardinals, Chargers, Falcons, Jaguars, Lions, Panthers, Texans, Titans/Oilers, and Vikings. This is not meant to apologize for Jones but rather put it in perspective that the Super Bowl is hard to win.

I have not seen the Cowboys organization chart but I am going to make an assumption that Jones the owner or president and not the general manager is the one that hires the head coach. The Jets, Patriots, Seahawks, Bills, Texans, Ravens, Chiefs, Washington, Packers, and 49ers all have coaches hired before or on the same day as the current general manager. This allows me to focus on the general manager role exclusively on player transactions.

It becomes much harder to criticize the general manager when you compartmentalize the Cowboys GM role for player transactions only. There are two primary ways in which the general manager acquires players: free agency and the draft. The waiver wire, supplemental draft, and trades also come into play but are used less frequently.

I am a supporter of the Cowboys free agency strategy to use value-driven contracts for veterans to fill roster holes in the second and subsequent free agency waves and avoid signing the splash-free agents to over-valued contracts in the first wave. This strategy has a knock-on benefit of acquiring compensatory draft picks which provide a competitive advantage.

The focus of this post is how Jerry Jones, the General Manager, has deployed his draft capital to acquire players. Earlier this week, I posted my methodology for an updated draft pick value chart. I charted every draft pick selected from 2011 through the 2016 draft using the first four years Approximate Value (AV) metric from Pro Football Reference.

The sixth-order polynomial regression identifies an expected AV for each draft spot. I then determined the actual AV for each pick from 2011 to 2016. You can see how the 32 teams performed over these six drafts in my tweet below.

The diagonal line represents balance with expected AV equal to actual AV. The teams above the line delivered more actual AV than was expected. The teams below the line delivered less actual AV than was expected.

Most of the teams are clustered around the line. But there are five outliers – three under the line (Giants, 49ers, and Browns) and two above the line (Seahawks and Cowboys). It is no surprise that the Seahawks and the Cowboys had a decade with more wins than losses and that the Giants, Browns, and 49ers had a decade that trended the other way.

So how did the Cowboys and Seahawks beat the draft? Luck certainly had something to do with it but when Dallas finds six players who deliver more than double the expected AV, you wonder how many times being lucky evolves into skill.

Let’s look at the Cowboys first-round pick in 2014. Dallas was focused on three defensive players: Anthony Barr, Aaron Donald, and Ryan Shazier. Barr went to the Vikings at nine and Donald to the Rams at thirteen.

The Cowboys were on the phone with Shazier’s agent when the Steelers swooped in to draft him with the 15th pick. In fact, Shazier’s dad almost sent out a text telling everyone Dallas had picked his son.

So Dallas was left wondering what to do with the 16th pick. There were still two players Dallas valued: guard Zack Martin and quarterback Johnny Manziel. You likely remember the story about how Stephen Jones snatched the draft card from his father but that is not exactly how it went.

Jerry Jones wanted to pick Manziel but could not find anyone else in the room who supported the pick. In the end, the Cowboys selected Martin and have had the best right guard in football.

During the first four years of his career, Martin posted 48 AV. The 16th pick has an expected AV of about 24. As a result, Dallas had an extra 24 AV over expected contributing to the better than expected draft result. For the record, Manziel only posted a five AV for his short NFL career while Donald (61 AV), Barr (37 AV) and Shazier (28 AV) all would have beat the Cowboys expected AV.

This story is important so that you understand that Jerry Jones the General Manager is capable of trusting his Front Office and making the best draft choice. The General Manager and his team made several good picks in the 2011 through 2016 drafts.

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So maybe think about how the general manager has really performed before you criticize him in the future. I will be next in line to be critical of the owner and/or president for how he has managed his coach and created a culture within the building but that is a story for another time.