Spagnola: Old-Time Gamble Rains On What Should've Been A Draft Day Parade

IRVING, Texas – And in the 31st and final NFL draft from the war room TV made famous at The Ranch, here were the Cowboys' intentions:

With the fourth pick in the draft, select the top-rated player on their board.

Meet Ezekiel Elliott, so special and so unique the Cowboys had only drafted one other running back higher in 56 years, that being some guy named Tony Dorsett at No. 2 in 1977.

With the third pick in the second round, package that with the fourth pick in the third round to trade up into Seattle's 26th pick in the first round to select quarterback Paxton Lynch.

No dice, Denver trumped their bid.

Somehow or way, find help on a defensive line left in a sling with one projected starting defensive end suspended for the first four games of the season and the other likely being suspended for the first four games of the season.

Meet defensive tackle Maliek Collins, a former Missouri state high school wrestling champion who will give defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli the flexibility to move Tyrone Crawford to defensive end if need be for those first four games.

Then meet defensive end Charles Tapper of Oklahoma, looking like a defensive tackle but a defensive end moving like a linebacker, the newest of the Marinelli Rushmen, a name originally coined by George Allen when he was in charge of Chicago's Monsters of the Midway back in the day that he reinstituted during his time with the Bears.

With the third pick in the fourth round, package that in a trade up one spot to grab quarterback Connor Cook, only to have Oakland bid more for the Browns pick to take their guy.

Still at some point in this draft select a developmental quarterback.

Remaining stubborn, meet Dak Prescott, the guy who drove Mississippi State to No. 1 in the country for three weeks in 2014, the Cowboys using a fourth-round compensatory pick to claim his rights.

No matter all that, the likely perceived success or failure of this draft will come down to what the Dallas Cowboys ultimately did with that third pick in the second round, something maybe only the Cowboys have the constitution to do – only have the stomach for such a risky roll of the dice resulting in either a grand slam or a mighty whiff.

Probably no two ways about it, the Cowboys subscribing to the ol' risk-reward axiom – high risk, high reward – when swinging for the fences on Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith, the 2015 Butkus Award winner as the nation's top linebacker who might . . . .

Not play a down this 2016 season.

Or might not ever play another down of football.

Or the guy, who would have been the top-rated player in this draft if not for his devastating knee injury, might become the best linebacker in Cowboys history, certainly a mouthful.

That radically divergent.

"You know, we aren't buying bonds here," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones would say of the conjecture surrounding Smith's selection.

Nope. In their draft portfolio, this stock is classified highest risk possible, and they are well aware.

But aren't the Cowboys sort of known for this, dating all the way back to the beginning of their time?

Wonder what folks said back in 1964 when the Cowboys used a 10th-round pick on Navy's Roger Staubach, the Heisman Trophy winner owing our country five years of military service before he could play football? Wonder what they said when the Cowboys signed Utah State basketball star Cornell Green? Or when they drafted Olympic gold medalist Bob Hayes? Or when they still drafted WFL-bound Danny White? Or USFL star Herschel Walker, who previously played for the Donald Trump-owned New Jersey Generals? Or drafted Air Force-committed Chad Hennings? Or USA track sensation Carl Lewis (oops)? You realize the Cowboys had the nerve to also draft "Sweet" Lou Hudson, Minnesota Gophers star basketball player, and Kentucky's Pat Riley, infinitely better at basketball than football?

Probably laughed, as they just might have Saturday when selecting Baylor 6-8, 275-pound power forward Rico Gathers with their last of four sixth-round picks. The projected tight end hasn't played football since eighth grade.

That was back then. These days this NFL Draft stuff is no laughing matter, especially with a second-round pick.

"Jaylon Smith just overcame with his abilities and how he really could ultimately impact for years and years and years this franchise," Jones said of qualifying gambling on the rehabilitation of his knee. "He overcame the fact that I would have 2016 totally and completely burned into my forehead and on my mind. You have to give that some consideration for the future.

"I don't want to make anything up, no one knows if he can make a contribution this year or not, but we do feel good though about his future."

Smith, as most are well aware of by now, suffered a most serious knee injury during Notre Dame's Fiesta Bowl game versus Ohio State. He suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament and lateral collateral ligament in his left knee, a devastating double. He also, and here is the critical part, suffered damage to the peroneal nerve on the lateral side of the knee.

The repaired ligaments are progressing nicely, given thumbs up at the combine's medical re-check two weeks ago. The nerve is the concern. Nerves aren't repaired. They can't be rehabbed. They must heal, or regenerate on their own, and at Mother Nature's own sweet time. Normal healing estimates are like an inch a month for regaining feeling.

Eventually this should take place. Again, how long is anyone's guess.

Smith says he's starting to feel "different sensations." That's good.

Sources tell me he will probably need a redshirt year. He'll definitely start training camp on non-football-injury, which means the same as physically-unable-to-perform, which likely will transition to the season-opening reserve list, buying as much as the first 12 weeks of this season before a definitive IR or 53-man roster move must be made for 2016.

Now the Cowboys know as much about this injury as anyone. Anyone! Their team orthopedic physician, Dr. Dan Cooper, performed Smith's surgery. But understand, Dr. Cooper and team trainers give the front office the information, black and white. Give them their best prognosis, in percentages for success or failure. And since Dr. Cooper was not doing the surgery for the Cowboys, his medical obligation is to his patient, not the team.

Then it's up to the Cowboys front office to decide their level of risk, if they should or if they shouldn't.

Certainly there are many out there wondering if Smith is so iffy why didn't the Cowboys instead take the chance on UCLA linebacker Myles Jack, still recovering from surgery to repair torn lateral meniscus in his knee. He still hasn't run a 40 for anyone, and there is fear he will suffer from osteochondral defect (OCD), and in due time might require the dreaded microfracture surgery. (See Anthony Spencer.)

Longevity is the concern because the potential of knee degeneration.

Now Jack, another potential top pick in the draft if not for the injury suffered back in September, was selected two picks later by Jacksonville. The Jaguars, too, are rolling the dice. While the Cowboys are betting on regeneration of a nerve, the Jaguars are betting against degeneration of the knee.

This is as simple as I can put it: The Cowboys evidently are convinced Smith's nerve has a better chance of regenerating in due time than Jack's cartilage has of not degenerating over time.

Oh, I guess the Cowboys also could have gambled on defensive end Noah Spence's character, the way Tampa Bay did five picks later. His Ecstasy habit got him kicked out of Ohio State, going to Eastern Kentucky to rehab his image and his habits.

"I'm ready to take the pain for the upside on Smith," said Jones, understanding the risk and patience needed to potentially cash in big on this stock but also dousing that persistent narrative that everything Jerry Jones does is geared toward winning now instead of having an eye toward the future.[embeddedad0]

Am I right? Isn't that the reason so many of the uniformed said Jones would not draft a quarterback high for the future? That he had no foresight? And now he's criticized gambling for the future.

Groom a quarterback for a year or two or convalesce a linebacker for a year?

Same difference. Same consequences. Boom or bust.

So all this has basically canceled what should have been a parade down Cowboys Parkway Sunday afternoon, hailing the acquisition of Zeke. And by the way, when I introduced myself to him on Friday, he politely responded with, "Ezekiel Elliott," so until his teammates do the shortening thing, it will be Ezekiel until further notice.

Ah the fickleness of this draft. One day you're a genius and the next round you've lost your mind.

But the one thing we can say around here without equivocation is . . . .

The Cowboys certainly haven't lost their nerve.

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