FRISCO, Texas – Finally, the road map to the Cowboys' draft strategy is starting to take shape.
Across the NFL, Monday marks the beginning of the oft-discussed visits period. For the next month, teams can begin using their 30 allotted visits from national draft prospects, allowing them to bring players to their facility and get to know them more personally.
If you've followed the Cowboys at all in recent years, you know the importance of these visits. Starting in 2013, their last six first-round draft picks have been pre-draft visitors. And the emphasis doesn't start at the top of the draft. This scouting department routinely brings in mid-round and late-round prospects, and many of them inevitably wind up on the roster when all is said and done.
To be clear: you aren't going to find a full list of the Cowboys' national visitors in this article. This team prefers not to bring in its visitors until April, so their list likely isn't finalized yet. Even if it is, they're probably not too keen on sharing it with the masses as of yet.
Instead, the purpose of this story is to look back at their past history and see where they might be going with this year's draft. This year is obviously a bit more complicated, because it's their first year without a first-round pick in recent memory.
How will that affect their strategy in the coming months, and what can previous years tell us about who they'll target in 2019? Let's try to figure that out.
Targeting The Talent
In going back to 2014 and examining the Cowboys' visitors, it's easy to get an idea of who they want to bring into their building. In prior years, the focus on the first round has been glaringly obvious.
In those five years, the Cowboys brought in a whopping 45 players that went on to become first-round picks. That's an average of nine per years, highlighted by 2016 when they held the No. 4 overall pick and brought in 14 first-round prospects.
It's hard to argue with the thought process. Four of the Cowboys' last five first-round picks have been named All-Pro at some point in their career. But it does beg the question: will the focus stay the same when the team doesn't pick until late in the second round?
Fortunately, you can also find trend down the line. In the same time span, the Cowboys have brought in 61 visitors who went on to become Day 2 picks – that is, guys drafted in the second or third round. They're averaging roughly 12 Day 2 visitors per year. In 2017, when they picked 27th and 60th overall, they brought in 17 players who were drafted on Day 2.
There's a smaller focus on Day 3, but it still exists. Since 2014, the Cowboys have brought in 21 players that went on to become Day 3 draft picks and 10 players that went undrafted. The later the round, the less of an emphasis – but this team obviously identifies late-round prospects it has interest in.
Shifting That Target
It's fascinating to think how the focus will change without a first-round pick in 2019. Of course, the Cowboys will tell you that due diligence is still important. It would be foolish to simply ignore the first round of the draft, because there's no telling how things might shake out.
Still, it's impressive to see the Cowboys' precision when it comes to these evaluations. Over the last five years, here are their first-round visitors, followed by their eventual draft position. The Cowboys' pick is in bold.
2014: Anthony Barr (9th), Aaron Donald (13th), Ryan Shazier (15th), Zack Martin (16th), Dominique Easley (29th), Jimmie Ward (30th)
2015: Todd Gurley (10th), Melvin Gordon (15th), Kevin Johnson (16th), Marcus Peters (18th), Bud Dupree (22nd), Shaq Thompson (25th), **Byron Jones (27th)
2016: Jared Goff (1st), Carson Wentz (2nd), Joey Bosa (3rd), Ezekiel Elliott (4th)**, Jalen Ramsey (5th), DeForest Buckner (7th), Vernon Hargreaves (11th), Sheldon Rankins (12th), Karl Joseph (14th), Shaq Lawson (19th), Will Fuller (21st), Laquon Treadwell (23rd), Paxton Lynch (26th), Kenny Clark (27th)
2017: Derek Barnett (14th), Marlon Humphrey (16th), Adoree Jackson (18th), Charles Harris (22nd), Gareon Conley (24th), Takkarist McKinley (26th), Tre'Davious White (27th), Taco Charlton (28th), T.J. Watt (30th)
2018: Mike McGlinchey (9th), Vita Vea (12th), Da'Ron Payne (13th), Kolton Miller (15th), Leighton Vander Esch (19th), Rashaan Evans (22nd), D.J. Moore (24th), Calvin Ridley (26th), Terrell Edmunds (28th), Taven Bryan (29th)
Looking over the list, you should be able to spot a theme. With a handful of exceptions – Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, Derek Barnett and Mike McGlinchey, namely – the Cowboys didn't bring in very many players that were outside their draft range. For the most part, they've been able to reliably target talented players – and more importantly, guys that are within their range.
Purely a guess, but this strategy will likely play out again in 2019. Undoubtedly, the Cowboys are going to bring in some first-round players this year. But it sounds reasonable to think they'll adjust their expectations. It would make sense if this year's A-List visitors are mainly guys at the back end of the first round, with a heavy focus on second round prospects.
In 2017, when the Cowboys picked No. 60 overall in the second round, they brought in 10 second-round prospects. Of those 10 players, six were drafted within 10 spots of their pick.
It's always smart to cast a wide net, but here's guessing this year's net will focus on players in the range of the 40th to 60th pick.
Spot The Need
Invariably, the list of pre-draft visitors will point you toward the positions the Cowboys want to target, as well.
There's no better example of this than 2017, when the Cowboys famously focused exclusively on their pass rush and their secondary.
In the weeks leading up to that draft, the front office brought in 18 defensive backs and 10 pass rushers. The only two national visitors who didn't play those positions were Juju Smith-Schuster and Curtis Samuel – both of whom played receiver.
What was the result? The Cowboys drafted Taco Charlton in the first round and spent the rest of that draft rebuilding their secondary, taking Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Xavier Woods and Marqueze White in the subsequent rounds.
The focus isn't always as obvious – but it's always there. They didn't make a secret of their desire for a linebacker last spring, as Leighton Vander Esch, Rashaan Evans and Darius Leonard all came to The Star. In 2016, the entire NFL knew they needed a quarterback, and they spent the entire spring looking at them. The Cowboys brought seven quarterbacks to the facility that year, including eventual fourth-round pick Dak Prescott.
This year figures to be no different. Visits won't start for awhile, but some of them have already been made public. From the sounds of it, Washington safety Taylor Rapp and Louisiana Tech defensive end Jaylon Ferguson will make visits here in the coming weeks.
Given this team's current needs, a focus on defensive end and safety wouldn't be surprise. It'll be interesting to see just how deep that focus goes.
Don't Forget The Locals
The Cowboys are blessed with a startling advantage that makes it tougher to identify their draft targets. NFL rules stipulate that clubs can bring local visitors to their facility without it counting toward their total of 30. The official league wording says there are "exceptions for players who attend nearby colleges or grew up within the same metropolitan area."
If you know anything about the talent-rich Dallas-Fort Worth area, this advantage should be obvious. The city is an absolute hotbed for football talent, with several major college football programs – not to mention a ton of homegrown talent.
Just last year the Cowboys benefited from this rule. Connor Williams, a native of Coppell, Texas, was widely considered one of the best offensive linemen in the 2018 draft class. After making him the 60th overall pick, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett gushed about how impressive Williams' work ethic was at the team's annual Dallas Day – an event that allowed Williams into the building without counting toward the 30 national visits. Terrance Williams, a third-round pick back in 2013, was a Dallas Day visit, as well.
With the amount of talent on hand in this area, it's a good bet some big names will come to The Star as local, not national visitors. In an industry that's built on finding an edge, that's a big one to remember.
Trust The Process
Why is this worth writing – and reading – 1,500 words about? Because it's clearly a crucial component of the Cowboys' draft evaluations.
We already know the Cowboys prefer to bring their eventual first-round pick to their facility. It's been well-established. But this preference extends throughout the three-day draft.
Go back through the lists of visitors and you can see the trends. Throughout the last five years, 17 national visitors have made the roster, one way or another. That includes all five of their first-round picks, but also several others.
Second-round picks have included DeMarcus Lawrence and Chidobe Awuzie. Mid-round picks have included Dak Prescott, Xavier Woods and Chaz Green. Even Mark Nzeocha, drafted at the very end of the 2015 NFL Draft, made his way to the Cowboys' facility during the pre-draft process.
Without fail, this front office always winds up signing several of its visitors as undrafted free agents, as well. Through the years, guys like Davon Coleman, George Farmer, Deon King and Malik Earl have been signed in the days after the draft. They might not always go on to become contributors, but it's clear this front office has priorities mapped out at all levels of the draft.
So as the names of their visitors begin to emerge, keep an eye on who the Cowboys have their eye on. Odds are some of them will turn those visits into long-term stays.