Come draft time, Cowboys turn to pod to settle disputes

FRISCO, Texas -- In 2013, the Dallas Cowboys were poised to snag the fifth-ranked player on their draft board, Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd.

In their switch to the 4-3 scheme from a 3-4 alignment, the Cowboys were in the market for an under-tackle, the most important spot on the defensive line, and Floyd had all the necessary attributes. At least that's what everybody thought.

Holding the 18th pick in the first round, owner and general manager Jerry Jones was in position to get the value he so craves in Floyd. Then the Cowboys traded down to No. 31 in a deal with the San Francisco 49ers, picking up a third-round pick. Floyd eventually went No. 23 overall to the Minnesota Vikings, and the Cowboys drafted center Travis Frederick.

Come to find out, then-defensive line coach Rod Marinelli wasn't a big Floyd fan, and "quick-twitch" became part of the local lexicon.

That Frederick became an All-Pro center and Floyd's career looks to be in peril because of a knee injury means the Cowboys chose correctly, but their process was flawed.

Since 2013, the Cowboys have altered how they work their process in the pre-draft lead-up so another Floyd situation does not arise.

They have become pod people.

Senior director of college and pro personnel Will McClay came up with a pod system that puts scouts and coaches in the same room when there is a disagreement regarding a player's grade. If there is a difference of opinion on a receiver, for example, then position coach Derek Dooley, coach Jason Garrett, McClay, director of college scouting Lionel Vital, and one or two area scouts will watch a handful of games and come to a consensus.

"You just say, 'Here's why I like a guy,' and Dooley will say, 'Well, he can't do this,' and then you work through it," executive vice president Stephen Jones said. "Then there's a back-and-forth: 'Look, here he is doing this,' and then Will's in there [saying], 'I think I agree with Dools here. I just don't think he quite gets it done the way we want to get it done. Don't we all think probably Derek's a little more right?' You just keep working it. If it gets real tight, you work and you work and try to get a final place for the player."

The grade does not become an average where a coach will see the player as a third-rounder and the scout sees him as a fifth-rounder and they settle on the fourth round.

"We don't ever say, 'Let's split the difference," Jones said. "That's just settling."

On every team, there is a natural chasm between the scouting department and the coaching staff. Scouts spend more time evaluating players throughout the course of the season. They get passionate about who they like and who they don't. Coaches don't have the time to study players during the season and often are playing catch-up in the process, but that doesn't lessen their opinion in the evaluation.

The Cowboys want the discussions to be heated but not personal, because that will lead to a better process in determining the correct value of each player. A year ago, the Cowboys worked hard on cornerback Anthony Brown and finally settled on him as a fifth-round pick on their board. They eventually selected him in the sixth round, and he proved to be a valuable contributor last year with an eye on a bigger role in 2017.

A year ago, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan had the highest grade among Cowboys staff for quarterback Dak Prescott. Prescott remained the seventh-ranked quarterback on the Cowboys' draft board, but Linehan's assessment was the biggest reason the Cowboys took him in the fourth round. They felt they would not be able to grab a worthy quarterback after the 135th pick and stood by Linehan.

The Cowboys' draft board won't be finalized until the early part of next week, but once it is set, it is set. Over the past 10 days or so, they have been setting it up, position by position, player by player.

"Sometimes you don't want to give up the ghost, so to speak, and a coach will say, 'I'm sticking with my grade. He's a 1.35,' and then we'll all say, 'It's pod drill time. Let's get out the tape, watch some more games and see if we can get closer to what we think the guy is.'"

The pods allow a scout to see a player the way a coach sees him, and allow a coach to see a player the way a scout sees him.

The biggest benefit is the process. The Cowboys got lucky in 2013 in passing on Floyd and selecting Frederick, who has played in the last three Pro Bowls and signed a lucrative extension last summer.

Luck is a big element in the draft, but the Cowboys' pod system is aimed at making decisions more on skill.