Cowboys can't afford to miss in draft

IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys' first-round pick must be a starter. The same goes for the second-round pick. Maybe even the third-round pick.

The salary cap demands it.

The Cowboys are snug under the NFL-mandated salary cap that hasn't moved all that much the past three or four seasons.

The reality is the Cowboys don't have the cash under the salary cap to sign the kind of veterans -- Bill Parcells called them "hold the fort guys" -- who earn $1 million or so and keep the team competitive until the youngsters are ready to play.

"If you're going to max out like we have with the quarterback, the pass-rusher, the corners and pay the big contracts that we paid," director of pro personnel Stephen Jones said Monday, "then you can't continue to go to the well and pay the veteran players.

"We have to do a better job going forward and taking our lumps early, developing these guys and putting them in your lineup."

That approach comes with an obvious price. Rookies make mistakes veterans don't. A coach such as Jason Garrett, who has essentially been told he needs to make the playoffs to keep his job, prefers the stability of a veteran to the unknown of a rookie.

"When you start the season, that veteran is a little more ready to play," Jones said. "But with the cap where it is you have to plug the young guys, regardless of whether they're a third-round pick or a fourth-round pick."

To be clear, the Cowboys need their rookies to play, if for no other reason than they provide the cheapest possible labor force. So they won't be drafting guys -- no matter how talented -- who need a year to recover from an injury. They need guys on the field as soon as possible.

"We want drafted players to play as quickly as they can play," Garrett said. "I don't care what school you played at -- you can play in the SEC, you can play in the Big Ten -- it is a jump from college football to playing in the National Football League.

"You can have all of the measurables you want. You can have the greatest history, the pedigree and the level of competition and all of the measurables, but it is a jump, regardless of what position you play."

We should keep all of that in mind as we see how the Cowboys philosophically approach this year's draft. Whether we blame injury or inexperience, last year's draft produced just two draft picks with regular roles on last season's team.

That's not good enough.

In 2011, Tyron Smith and DeMarco Murray forged roles as rookies. A season later, Bruce Carter and Dwayne Harris added their names to the list.

If the Cowboys can get four players in this draft to be big-time players, they will have a chance to change their narrative and post a winning record for the first time since 2009.

Publicly and privately, folks at Valley Ranch will tell you this is a draft devoid of guaranteed Hall of Fame players. Some of the guys to be taken in the top 10 would be lucky to be selected at the end of the first round in another draft, and those who will be taken late in the first round would be second-round picks in another draft.

All of that is why the Cowboys, like a bunch of teams, will be looking to move down in this draft since they can basically get the same player with the 18th pick that they can get with the 28th. Or 38th. Or 48th. Or 58th.

"We'd love to get some guys who start for our football team in this draft; again, we have to be realistic about that," Garrett said. "In the first couple of rounds, we anticipate starting players.

"In the middle and later rounds, hopefully you draft well and pick some guys who can find a role and a starting role as soon as possible."

They better. Or another coach will be running the draft next season.