Helman: Finding The "Best Player Available"


FRISCO, Texas – In a league that's built on clichés, there's one that stands above the rest – especially when draft season rolls around.

Yes, the Rams and Patriots have yet to play Super Bowl LIII, but there's where I'm at right now: the 2019 NFL Draft, and determining the Cowboys' best path toward improving for next season.

So, what's the cliché in question? The dreaded search for the "best player available."

Over the course of the next three months, we're going to hear that phrase about 10,000 times, from Cowboys officials as well as front office executives from all over the league.

For the most part, it's a myth. Of course, the objective is to draft the best football player available – but it always comes available with the caveat of need. In a league that's designed to limit roster depth and push everyone toward the middle, NFL teams can't afford to ignore their needs when it comes time to use their precious few draft picks. It's basic economics. It's basic common sense.

Look no further than the Cowboys' 2017 draft, when running back Dalvin Cook was one of the highest-rated players remaining when they picked at No. 28 overall. Clearly, they weren't about to draft a running back with a 21-year-old All-Pro named Ezekiel Elliott sitting on their roster. So they drafted their highest-rated player at a position of need and wound up with Taco Charlton.

Now, we can debate the merits of the Charlton pick another time. It's beside the current point.

That point being: as much as I just rolled my eyes at the phrase "best player available," it really might ring true for the Cowboys in 2019.

Hanging around the Senior Bowl last week, sizing up as many draft prospects as I could, that was my primary takeaway. This current Cowboys roster has needs, because the NFL is designed that way. But in my six years covering the team, this might be the fewest number of needs I can remember.

Let's walk through it: amazingly, defense is not the gigantic concern it has typically been. The Cowboys are returning 10 of 11 usual starters from a defense that finished seventh in yards per game and sixth in scoring. The one exception is a big one, DeMarcus Lawrence, but it's hard to imagine he won't receive a large contract extension sometime this year.

Other than that, the losses are manageable. Damien Wilson carved out a solid role for himself on the strong side, but it's safe to say he doesn't qualify as a make-or-break free agent. David Irving is talented, but the Cowboys managed well without him for most of the season, anyway.

In an unfamiliar twist, most of the uncertainty for this team centers around its offense.

The Cowboys struggled to produce from the tight end position, and their preferred starter Geoff Swaim is about to hit free agency. The same can be said for slot receiver, where Cole Beasley is likely to test the open market after a 65-catch season.

There's also reason to eye the running back depth. The Cowboys leaned heavily on Elliott this past season, giving him, 433 total touches – and they didn't get much in the way of help spelling him from their backups.

Other than that, though, the meat of this thing is totally intact. The Cowboys' offensive line returns all of its 2018 starters, and they're even expecting a boost with the return of All-Pro Travis Frederick. Dak Prescott and Zeke are back. Leading tight end Blake Jarwin will be back, and the duo of Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup is a nice place to start at wide receiver.

This is where I'll reiterate: I'm not saying there aren't needs.

The Cowboys could stand to improve their production at safety, which is something I think we've been saying since about 2007. After watching their defensive tackles get blown off the ball in the playoffs, they could stand to beef up the interior of their defensive line.

Tight end and slot receiver are obvious gaps in the roster. The long-term outlook at offensive tackle is concerning, given Tyron Smith's injury history and the fact that La'el Collins is entering a contract year.

All of that said, these are all minor problems compared to previous year. The vast majority of a team that went 10-6 and won a playoff game is expected back in a Cowboys uniform this year.

Which brings me back to my point: if the roster looks this complete, then now is the time to truly get the most bang for your proverbial buck.

The Cowboys' first draft pick this year is No. 58, and I'm guessing they'll have either six or seven total picks when the compensatory picks are done being handed out.

This represents a rare occasion to make the most of it. If the best possible player at No. 58 is a backup for Elliott, why not? Dynamic talents like Alvin Kamara and Tarik Cohen have been found with lesser picks. If the third round yields an opportunity as a talented pass rusher, what's stopping you? The Patriots' best pass rusher, Trey Flowers, was a fourth-round talent.

It's a new dilemma to deal with, because recent Cowboys drafts have been highlighted by desperate needs. From 2011 until 2014, they were obsessed with fixing their offensive line. In 2017, they completely overhauled an aging secondary in one draft. For what feels like a decade, they have needed to fix their pass rush.

Sitting here in 2019, I don't think that's true. The Cowboys have things they can improve, but nothing that needs to be "fixed," if you follow my line of thinking.

That puts them in a rare position to truly draft the best player available -- and that's an exciting thought.