It seems to be a debate that gets discussed every spring as we get closer to the NFL Draft.
Should teams go after the most pressing need, or simply take the best player available?
For Will McClay, the Cowboys vice president of player personnel, it's never been a debate. In fact, his view is a much more simplistic approach – one that has never changed in his 21 seasons with the Cowboys' personnel department.
"We want good football players. That's always been the plan," McClay said last week at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., where his scouting staff spent most of the week trying to scout the next crop of players. "You go through this process – the more good football players you have, the more depth you have on your team and the more competitive you can be in a 17-20 game season."
With over 20 unrestricted free agents, the Cowboys will have to make some tough decisions, probably unable to keep them all. And while just last week Cowboys chief operating officer Stephen Jones said the team isn't against making a move in free agency or entertaining a trade offer that makes sense, it still seems as if the main focus of talent-acquisition will once again point towards the draft.
And that's where McClay and his scouting staff will be counted on to deliver a star-studded group that can contribute right away.
Look no further than last season, when the Cowboys had several key contributors among their nine draft picks. It wasn't just Tyler Smith who shined as a first-round pick that exceeded expectations from the start, but a group of role players such as Sam Williams, DaRon Bland, Damone Clark and Jake Ferguson who could develop into starters this season.
Ironically enough, six of the nine draft picks last year were players the Cowboys watched and scouted at the Senior Bowl. The Cowboys have drafted a player from the Senior Bowl in each of the last seven years. Getting six in one class is not the norm, but is something McClay said can happen based on the added exposure the Senior Bowl provides.
"It's just part of the process. The (scouting) work that's done – and now you get a chance to see it and get a chance to confirm it when you get to visit with them," McClay said. "You really get a good feel for the players because now you get those exposures to them in the Senior Bowl conversations, Pro Day conversations, combine … stack all those together. The Senior Bowl gives you great exposure to them competing against the better players in the (nation)."
One element McClay talked about that always helps the scouting department is continuity, something that happened on the defensive side of the ball with Dan Quinn returning again as the defensive coordinator.
"It's huge because we know what we're trying to get. The guys, college (scouts), go out (to scout) – and they know what we're doing defensively, offensively – with an opportunity. And the way we communicate with the coaches, it's a big part of it," McClay said. "I just think the continuity, the longer you're together, the more you know each other, the more you should know what they're looking for. The little variants and nuances that they're looking for."
At the time of McClay's interview, the Cowboys had yet to announce Brian Schottenheimer as the new offensive coordinator. And while the Cowboys will have some new offensive coaches at the offensive line and running backs spots, McClay said the fact that head coach Mike McCarthy is going to oversee the offense as the play-caller will provide that same kind of continuity to help his staff in the draft and free-agent process.