The lead-up to the 2020 NFL Draft demanded unfavorable circumstances. It took place during uncertain times. And the draft itself was unprecedented in terms of its execution. And yet the Dallas Cowboys managed to come away with what is considered by many to be the most impressive haul of draft selections in recent memory.
Jerry Jones appeared on television throughout the draft, personally calling up young players from his yacht to tell them their dreams were coming true. It was Mike McCarthy's first draft with the Cowboys to begin to construct a roster for his offensive and defensive schemes. Stephen Jones was heavily involved in drafting decisions. But when the draft was completed it was President of Player Personnel Will McClay who was given the credit.
"He'd be the MVP at the end of the day," Stephen Jones said. "He really embraced this [process]."
McClay's role as an expert player evaluator required walking so many difficult tight ropes. Jones has always been heavily involved in player acquisitions and needs to be kept abreast of evolving thought processes. McClay also needed to make sure that he was on the same page with the first new Cowboys' coaching regime in a decade. Travel restrictions limited his entire staff's ability to see players in person as the draft neared. The hurdles were obvious.
True to his typical demeanor, McClay deflected the notion that he deserved the credit for a successful draft and instead heaped praise on the people working under him. "The MVP of the draft was the scouts, to me," McClay said. "We rely on the scouts. That's how we build the [draft] board."
Scouts are sometimes imagined to be older, stuck-in-their-ways football purists, but a combination of technology, game tape, intuition, and nontraditional communication was crucial to being prepared for such an unorthodox draft. The DallasCowboys.com digital team chronicled the pre-draft process of the Cowboys scouts going back to February in the video series "Building a Team."
Luck is always involved when talented players fall to a team in the draft, but McClay said that when other teams passed on players that the Cowboys were high on they chose to believe it was because those teams hadn't gone to the lengths in scouting that the Dallas staff had. He admitted that, at times during the draft, he'd think to himself, "'Maybe we didn't get this right,' but then you go back and you trust it. Everybody [else] doesn't have all the information and the extra road talk and all these other things."
Fifth-round pick Bradlee Anae was a perfect example of this. A fairly dominant defensive end at Utah, Anae likely fell in the draft because of a disappointing 40-yard-dash time at the NFL Combine. McClay said his staff had seen too much tape of Anae to be steered against him. "There's timed speed and there's play speed," he said. "We felt like he played faster than his 40 time."
McClay's focus on his staff might seem like typical deflection of praise, but during a time when people in every industry have either been directly affected by COVID-19 or simply fatigued by uncertainty, his point is prescient: The scouting staff managed to come together and be flexible enough to complete a very difficult task.
"That's what I was most proud of," McClay said. "With everything our country is going through and all the other things going on, our guys' ability to focus in and do the job was an incredible thing."