Spagnola: Don't Be Taking A Player At No. 4 In The NFL Draft Just Because

IRVING, Texas – Seriously? Seriously?

         Just mean, got to be kidding.

         Like, what were we talking about this time last week? That this darn defensive end position has been holding the Cowboys hostage for oh so long; that they've just had so many problems dealing with this one particular position, save Ed "Too Tall" Jones and DeMarcus Ware. We lamented how easy this draft could have been if not for Randy Gregory's four-game suspension to start the 2016 season for violation of the NFL's substance abuse program.

         Bad enough, right?

         And now this:

Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, the team's 2015 sack leader with eight, and figuring to be the team's defensive end cornerstone they could rely on until Gregory returned or until helped arrived in the draft, is facing a potential four-game suspension for violation of the league's drug policies.

         And the NFL Draft's first round is less than a week away, potentially tying up the Cowboys in a defensive end-needy straightjacket that could warp their good sense.

         Good gosh, there must have been some quiet times over the past couple of weeks when Jason Garrett has sat in his office thinking, "So I wanted to be a head coach, did I?"

         OK, look, first of all, this Lawrence deal just didn't fall in the Cowboys laps the other day. They've known this to be brewing. Secondly, be careful spewing disparaging remarks about Lawrence's character or the Cowboys' inability to control their youngin's until you find out all the facts about why he's in such a predicament. Remember, he and his agent are appealing the suspension, the reason this process has been on-going.

         Heck, even I caught myself the other day saying, "Ah, kids these days."

         But that's what happens when so many cavalierly report infractions without knowing the whole story, because if you have been paying attention, reports have stated Lawrence has violated the league's "substance abuse policy," which immediately raises the marijuana flag, while others have reported he has violated the league's "performance enhancing drug policy," which lets your imagination run wild.

         In either case, if the Cowboys find themselves in this pickle, missing their two projected starting defensive ends for the first four games of the season, here is the transgression they simply can't make:

         Turning these four-game mistakes into a four-year mistake.

         Meaning, desperately drafting a defensive end out of sheer need.

         They should have learned that lesson in 1994 when they desperately selected Shante Carver with the 23rd pick in the first round. Probably should have just traded out if you look at the rest of the first round. They repeated the mistake in 1996, at least trading out of the first round this time (last pick, mostly for cap reasons), but still reaching for McNeese State defensive end Kavika Pittman with the 37th selection, though by then the pickin's were pretty slim if you see what they passed on. Geesh, they've missed on more defensive ends than you can shake a stick at since the beginning of their time.

         Here is the point: The player taken with the fourth pick in the draft – or wherever that fourth-pick value leads in a possible trade down – is yours for four years. You darn well are hoping for five by using the fifth-year option, as they likely will soon on center Travis Frederick. It's not as if you can take out an eraser if you're wrong. This would be an expensive mistake, especially since they own their highest first-round pick since trading up for the first choice in the 1991 draft.

You hope to never be this high again, thus popular logic, but not mine, for taking a quarterback of the future at No. 4 even if others in this draft – so far the Rams and Eagles – value this year's crop of quarterbacks that much, as if these guys are The Last Picture Show of quarterbacks? A breed dying out? Or will there be another Jared Goff or Carson Wentz emerging over next year's horizon like they did this year? Or even a Paxton Lynch or Dak Prescott?[embeddedad0]

As stated last Friday about trust factor, to me, a fourth pick in the draft is a terrible thing to waste just because …

So here is the deal: If the Cowboys all along were dead set on selecting Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa or Oregon defensive end DeForest Buckner or Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson if available with the fourth pick or in a potential trade down, then do it. Fine. Just take the guy if there is a confluence of talent, need and availability.

But do not – do not! – pay a king's ransom for something you're really not convinced of just because these two four-game suspensions are loaded in that gun pointed at your head. If that's the case, then the Cowboys have got to grit their teeth, act as if these two guys are injured and employ the next-man-up theory. That No. 4 pick is too important, needs to be everlasting not four-game duct tape.

Now, I'll be the first to tell you that Dallas, no matter the suspension(s), needs help at defensive end. The Cowboys sack totals the past two seasons, 28 and then 31 this past year, are their lowest since 24 in both 2001 and 2002. And the two-year total of 59 is three less than the team's single-season high of 62 in 1985 (sacks did not become an official NFL stat until 1982).

Cowboys COO Stephen Jones does not mince words about the importance of improving their defensive front, saying this week when asked what position most worries him, "The defensive front is a position we'll keep our eye on," along with "find a dominant pass rusher."

You've probably heard that. But here is what else he included in that worrywart category: Backup quarterback and impact player.

Hmmm, can a cornerback/safety/great athlete (Jalen Ramsey) be an impact player at No. 4? Can a running back (Zeke Elliott) be an impact player at No. 4?

And when asked if he thought a running back could have top-five draft value, Jones' answer was unequivocally "yes."

Remember, Jones already was well aware of Lawrence's predicament when he answered those questions earlier this week.

There probably was no need to ask Jones about the possibility of selecting another offensive lineman in the first round, notably Ole Miss offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, meaning a fourth offensive lineman in six years since that would qualify as serious overkill. But to me, at No. 4, no matter the draft grade, an offensive lineman in excess does not define an impact player.

Check out some of these lost impacts when teams selected an offensive linemen in the top five of some recent drafts: In 2008, Miami takes offensive tackle Jake Long No. 1, passing on the likes of defensive end Chris Long and quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco. In 2007, Cleveland selects offensive tackle Joe Thomas, great tackle, but has his impact on the Browns over the past nine seasons been as great as possibly those they passed on, like running backs Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch or linebacker Patrick Willis? In 2004, the Raiders selected offensive tackle Robert Gallery No. 2, thus passing on wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, safety Sean Taylor and quarterbacks Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger. In 2001, the Cardinals make offensive tackle Leonard Davis the No. 2 pick, passing on the likes of defensive lineman Justin Smith, running back LaDainian Tomlison and defensive end Richard Seymour. And in 2000, Washington went with offensive tackle Chris Samuels No.3, passing on running back Jamal Lewis (5) and linebacker Brian Urlacher (9).

 And if you want food for thought, as good as Tyron Smith has been, the ninth pick in 2011 when the Cowboys were in desperate need to finally start upgrading their offensive line, two picks later went J.J. Watt. But remember at the time, the Cowboys did have some guy named DeMarcus Ware coming off consecutive sack seasons of 14, 20, 11 and 15.5.

Point is, to those who blindly say always pick the highest player left on your board, I say, within reason. All I know is the Cowboys won two of their last three Super Bowls with no offensive lineman higher than a third-round pick (Mark Stepnoski and Erik Williams) and the other with none higher than Larry Allen in the second.

Somewhere along the way in these drafts, logic must prevail, not just numbers and grades, especially in the top 5, where – and I'll use this word until I've used up all I'm allowed – catalytic must be found. That's what you want this high in the draft, a catalytic player.

Plus, going back to this desperate need, just because you select a defensive end doesn't mean you immediately solve your problems. Rookie defensive ends, unless named Ware or Ziggy Ansah, for the most part don't usually light it up with sacks immediately. Look at last year's draft. Washington defensive end Preston Smith (38th overall) led all rookies with eight sacks. Five of those came in the final three games – three in the final game. The top selected defensive end, Leonard Williams of the Jets, sixth pick in the draft, finished with 3.5 sacks, while the only other defensive end selected in the first round, Shane Ray by Denver at 23, finished with four.

Gives you pause, doesn't it, if your motivation when selecting a guy with the fourth pick in the draft comes down to simply covering yourself just because … 

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