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Does The Draft Process Change With No 1st?


INDIANAPOLIS – If you're ever feeling down about the Cowboys' lack of a first-round draft pick, Stephen Jones has a simple suggestion.

As the Cowboys ramp up their preparations for the 2019 NFL Draft, their chief operating officer offered the line of the week at the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine when he was asked about not owning a first-round selection this year.

"When the Raiders pick our pick, we'll be watching Amari highlight tapes," Jones said.

It's a great point, and a point that's been made often this offseason. The Cowboys might not get to pick on Thursday night this year, but it's easy to console themselves by remembering that three-time Pro Bowler Amari Cooper is now on their roster.

However many headlines the first round might grab, though, Jones and the Cowboys have been adamant this week at the Combine that it'll be business as usual in this year's draft. Not owning a first-round pick isn't going to deter Will McClay and the Cowboys' scouting staff from doing their homework.

"Will has done a great job historically of putting our board together," Jones said. "We try to get better every year, but overall our philosophy is not going to change."

But what exactly does that philosophy look like without a first-round pick? So much of the pre-draft process, from the outside perspective, at least, centers around the top of the draft.

The much-discussed 30 visits – that is, the 30 national draft prospects the Cowboys are allowed to bring to visit their facility – are mainly top-tier players. Last year, eight of the Cowboys' visitors were eventual first-round picks, and 13 of the 30 were top 60 selections.

Will that change without a first-round pick? Cowboys coach Jason Garrett didn't want to speculate, citing the importance of due diligence in the draft process.

"You have to be careful. Trades happen, there's a lot of different ways to have access to some of those players," Garrett said. "I don't think you just say 'Oh, that guy's going to be gone.' I don't think that's the right approach."

Garrett made another worthwhile point: there's no limit to the number of ways NFL teams can access draft prospects. The Cowboys benefit greatly from their Texas location, as they can bring any prospect from the talent-rich Dallas area to their facility without it counting toward their 30 visits.

They can also travel wherever they want to evaluate prospects in their hometowns or at their colleges. Back in 2016, the Cowboys' full coaching staff traveled to Ohio State to work out the Buckeyes' loaded draft class – including Ezekiel Elliott, Joey Bosa and Michael Thomas.

"A number of players, as you get closer to the draft, you would anticipate being off the board before you pick," Garrett said. "That doesn't mean you don't evaluate them — you go through the process with those guys just like you would with anybody."

Naturally, that process will whittle things down as the draft gets closer. The personnel department will do its homework on everyone, but the big candidates will start to emerge for those all-important second-round picks.

The Cowboys would likely say there's no added pressure, because the process doesn't change – but it's hard to downplay the importance of those picks, given that there's no first-rounder to buoy them. With needs on the defensive line at tight end and in the secondary, they can't afford for those picks not to make an impact.

Still, Jones said the mindset can't change. And if the Cowboys stay true to their method, there's plenty of reason to believe they can make an impact without a first-round pick.

"Everybody's got to try to, internally even, fight it – what are your needs," Jones said. "But that's not how you have good drafts. You pick the best players available."