As the 2023 NFL Combine gets underway, the Cowboys front office and scouting department approaches it with a proven game plan that's more than a decade in the making
INDIANAPOLIS — There was a point in time when the Dallas Cowboys could not find the right formula for stacking wins in the annual NFL Draft, but that's no longer the case, nor has it been since the addition of Will McClay to the organization in a move that has changed, and ultimately defined, the culture of scouting in North Texas.
McClay originally signed on as Pro Scouting Director in 2009 and, 14 years later, has climbed the ranks to his current role as Vice President of Player Personnel, and it's well-earned, to say the very least.
In dissecting the Cowboys batting average in the draft over the past several seasons, it's clear they hit far more often than they miss and it's largely because they've finally discovered and perfected a working formula for scouting prospects.
And that's why it's unlikely the Cowboys will see their draft ship hit an iceberg anytime soon.
"We're hoping it continues to go that way because we have a system we can believe in," McClay to "The Draft Show" on Thursday, speaking from the 2023 NFL Combine. "I love the way that our scouts go out on the road and they're the GMs of their areas. They feel their importance and their value to the organization by approaching their job that way. We have a way that we do things: you follow that way and come to your [draft] conclusions."
It's a plan of attack that has the Cowboys running like a well-oiled machine every Spring, and McClay gives not only a lot of autonomy to his scouts, a.k.a. Regional GMs, but there's also a ton of trust in their analysis and grades.
The latter two items empower them that much more, along with full inclusion from beginning to end — seeing their work matter to what the organization opts to do in April and early May (undrafted free agency).
"[We're about] not having an ego," McClay explained. "Because part of our process is everyone is involved. It goes from September, when they go out, to the draft meetings — so they have that input. Nobody's an expert and if we were batting 60%, we'd be doing pretty good, kinda like baseball players. It's a collective process.
"Everybody has a grade. They put their grade and we don't talk about their grade and if there's variance, you average it out and that's probably where that player is. We value the input of everybody."
That input will yet again play a massive part in what the Cowboys put together in this year's draft, their most recent two hauls being nothing short of awe-inspiring when assessing the sheer number of rookies and second-year talents who have flown out of the gate and become instant impact guys in Dallas — including a player like Tyler Smith, an initially maligned pick that went on to deserve a seat in the 2023 NFL Rookie of the Year conversation (though snubbed).
But with free agency first to arrive, it'll be interesting to see how the Cowboys build their big board for the draft without knowing, just yet, what positions will carry a higher need in the event they can or can not retain some of their higher-profile in-house free agents.
Then again, for McClay's money, one thing doesn't impact the other.
"We set our board irregardless of free agency," he said. " … Once we put up the draft board, we want to value the players the same every year. We're not going to change based on needs, or whatever else. Let's set our board based off of our historical value[s] and the way we value positions and players.
"It's not [tied to] who we sign or who we don't sign."
That's as interesting to note as it is refreshing to hear, because it means the Cowboys are not a team who puts too much weight on needs, which might cause them to reach where they probably shouldn't, and instead allows them to take advantage of opportunities like, for example, CeeDee Lamb falling to 17th-overall in the 2020 draft — in a situation where Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and Cedrick Wilson were already in the building.
McClay's strategy involves acknowledging need without letting it devour the board, and using BPA (best player available) to keep the Cowboys as a counterweight to maintain balance.
"Everybody's got needs," said McClay. "And everybody will say, 'Oh, you have to draft the best player available or the position of need.' It's a combination of the two. It's how you navigate [that] and how you truly value the player.
"That way you don't push guys up the board because of a need. You want to keep it consistent so that you can consistently draft well."
When this year's draft gets underway on April 27 in Kansas City, the Cowboys look to keep the good times rolling.