IRVING, Texas – Over the course of a three-day draft weekend, phrases like "sticking to the board" or "drafting for need" or even "reaching for need" will get tossed out repeatedly.
In the Cowboys' case, they found a way to do all of that here in the last three days of the 2014 NFL Draft.
While it's way too early to tell how those strategies will pay off, needless to say the Cowboys used various approaches this year but still seem rather optimistic about the nine players that will be joining the club as the "future" of the franchise.
Of those nine, seven of which are defensive players that can potentially help a unit that not only ranked dead-last in the NFL in total defense, but was the worst statistical defense in franchise history.
So it seemed only logical the team would reach for defensive needs. And they eventually did, but not before making a rather safe, logical pick in the first round to grab Notre Dame's Zack Martin with the 16th pick. Martin arrived at Valley Ranch Saturday to meet his new team and hold a press conference with the media, where his new No. 71 jersey was displayed.
The Cowboys had their eyes on defensive standouts Anthony Barr, Aaron Donald and Ryan Shazier, who all went in the first 15 picks. And with the team choosing not to draft Johnny Manziel, the highest-rated remaining player on their board, and no logical trades on the table, they went with Martin to shore up the offensive line.
In doing so, defense immediately went to major need in the following rounds. That was evident when the Cowboys admittedly overpaid on a trade with Washington to move from 47 to 34 to land pass-rusher Demarcus Lawrence out of Boise State.
That defensive trend continued for most of the draft, as the Cowboys picked six of seven players on Saturday from the defensive side of the ball, including all five of their seventh-round picks.
In the fourth round, the Cowboys picked Iowa linebacker Anthony Hitchens, followed by Pitt wide receiver Devin Street in the fifth round. Without a sixth-rounder, the Cowboys waited around until the seventh when they loaded up on more defensive help, picking Stanford lineman Ben Gardner, Texas Tech linebacker Will Smith, Baylor safety Ahmad Dixon, Northern Illinois defensive tackle Ken Bishop and Oregon cornerback Terrance Mitchell.
Defense was certainly a major theme all weekend, but more specifically the defensive line, where the Cowboys picked up three players. They also agreed to terms with undrafted free agent Chris Whaley of Texas, although previous injury issues will likely keep him from contributing right away.
"I think that's a pretty good common denominator here. The obvious is the obvious," Jerry Jones said on Saturday night. "We were trying to emphasize defense in terms of numbers. We think that one of the ways to mitigate some of the big challenge that we have in our defensive front is numbers. Actual numbers on the field. That was the strategy going in. We did not think we could solve this problem on the defensive line with the drafting of one pass rusher. We needed to have enough numbers."
In fact, Jones said there could be as many as 16 defensive linemen on the roster after the Cowboys finalize their rookie free agent deals on Sunday and Monday.
And even though the Cowboys have parted ways with veterans such as DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher and Jay Ratliff since this time last year, head coach Jason Garrett is confident about the defensive line unit now, especially after this weekend.
"We feel much better about that. It started with free agency when we signed [Jeremy] Mincey and [Terrell] McClain," said Garrett, who later referenced the signing of Henry Melton. "We feel like that was a good start for us. We definitely felt like our front seven, finding some impact players and finding some numbers to create competition and depth was really one of our objectives this offseason. We made a concerted effort, starting with free agency, and certainly here the last couple of days, to make sure we address that. You've heard me say a lot that games are won up front. We feel really good about the development of our offensive line, and I felt like we made some strides in developing our defensive line, and hopefully we've improved there and can play better, really throughout our whole defense." [embedded_ad]
No one knows just how well these new faces will perform when the lights come on. Sometimes it can take a few years to determine how good a draft class will actually be.
But every year at this time, the same question is asked to Jerry Jones.
Are the Cowboys a better team now after this draft? Like always, Jones didn't hesitate.
"Yes, we are better," Jones said. "There's no question about that. Relative to where we played last year, we've had a very impactful draft. We actually have had an impactful offseason, relative to the way we play.
"We're better. And consequentially, when I look over at the offense, we haven't taken a step back on offense at any place and matter of fact, without being trite, we've gained on it in my opinion. For me, I feel better tonight than I did when we quit playing last year. To me that isn't just optimism for me. I do, factually, can look down here and say we're a better team than we were this time last year as reality would have it."
The proof will come in September when the regular season begins against the 49ers. But early hints of progress will begin as soon as this Friday when the newest Cowboys come to Valley Ranch for a three-day rookie mini-camp.