IRVING, Texas – This time next week, the Cowboys' coaching staff will conduct their first day of Senior Bowl practice with the North team in Mobile, Ala. They'll learn the roster when it's announced this Friday.
The Senior Bowl is the first major benchmark in the league's pre-draft-palooza, followed by the NFL Scouting Combine in February. Each year, Cowboys scouts and officials head to Mobile for a closer look at many of the top senior prospects in the upcoming draft.
This year presents a unique opportunity for head coach Jason Garrett. Instead of watching from the Ladd-Peebles Stadium bleachers, he and his staff will spend the week directing practices and meetings and coaching the Jan. 30 invitational all-star game.
Underclassmen have begun to dominate the early rounds of the draft in recent years. Eighteen were selected in the first round last year -- the record is 19 in 2012. This year, the unofficial early entries list has swelled past 100, which would break the 2013 record of 98. (The league will announce the official list on Friday.)
Yet the Senior Bowl – as its name indicates, a game featuring solely upperclassmen – has remained a valuable evaluation tool for the Cowboys in the early, middle and late rounds.
Some of the most impactful players in Jerry Jones' ownership tenure played in Mobile. The most recent pick was guard Zack Martin, the 16th overall pick in 2014 who has since made two Pro Bowls and two All-Pro teams. The Cowboys also drafted DeMarco Murray, now with the Eagles, in the 2011 third round after an impressive Senior Bowl week. They took Dwayne Harris, now with the Giants, in the sixth round the same year. Both of their 2005 first-round picks, DeMarcus Ware (now with the Broncos) and Marcus Spears, played on the South team.
Here are 15 notable Cowboys draft picks since '89, all Senior Bowl alumni. The list includes Pro Bowlers and All-Pros and key contributors and one Hall of Famer, Larry Allen, out of tiny Sonoma State.
2014 – Zack Martin (1st round)
2013 – Terrance Williams (3rd round)
2011 – DeMarco Murray (3rd round)
2007 – Anthony Spencer (1st round)
2005– DeMarcus Ware, Marcus Spears (1st round)
2011 – Dwayne Harris (6th round)
2003 – Bradie James (4th round)
2002 – Andre Gurode (2nd round)
1999– Dat Nguyen (3rd round)
1998 – Greg Ellis (1st round), Flozell Adams (2nd round)
1994– Larry Allen (2nd round)
1991 – Alvin Harper (1st round)
1989 – Daryl Johnston (2nd round)
There is also a Cowboys coaching precedent in Mobile that dates back 50 years. The legendary Tom Landry coached the Senior Bowl from 1962-65 as he and his staff began the gradual transition from expansion team to contender. On his 1964 South team roster was Bob Hayes, the Olympic champion and college running back selected by Dallas in the seventh round a couple months earlier, who would go on to revolutionize the wide receiver position. In 1963, first-round pick Lee Roy Jordan played on the opposing South team as Landry and the Cowboys coached the North.
Pretty good list, right?
This is not to say the Cowboys will wind up drafting a future all-time great from the North or South squad in three months. They might not draft a Senior Bowl participant, period.
The point is, this event has always featured good talent, and there's plenty this year, as Bryan Broaddus is detailing through his prospect breakdowns this week on DallasCowboys.com.
It's a great chance for Garrett and his staff to see how half the players respond to their coaching on the field in practice; how they carry themselves in meetings; and ultimately how they perform in the game.
Even if it doesn't result in a draft selection in late April, it's a deeper evaluation the team normally doesn't get from their allotment of official pre-draft visits each spring.
And, as we all know following a highly disappointing 4-12 season, this draft is critical to the team's hopeful turnaround in 2016.
Mobile will be an important step in the pre-draft process.