Cowboys seemed to be drafting for next year

NEW YORK -- There is a time to trade down in the draft. There is a time not to trade down in the draft.

Many examples of both could be found in the first round of the NFL draft. The 49ers gambled and won, to a small degree. They traded down twice from the 16th pick and gained second- and fourth-round choices along with geting a much needed receiver, Rashaun Woods. Okay, they got a little greedy because the second trade with the Panthers almost cost them the chance to get the seventh receiver in the first round when the Falcons moved in and took Michael Jenkins from Ohio State.

49ers general manager Terry Donahue breathed a sigh of relief when the Chiefs, who are in need of young receivers, traded to let the Lions take halfback Kevin Jones. Sometimes, you get lucky, and the 49ers are in a rebuilding mode in need of young players.

But there is a time not to trade down, and the Cowboys had the worst timing off all. They entered the draft with only five draft choices, including the 22nd pick in the first round. They need a running back. Luck came to them when 21 selections passed and no running back was taken. The Cowboys had their choice of Steven Jackson, Kevin Jones or Chris Perry. Owner Jerry Jones found an offer he couldn't refuse, a blockbuster trade from the Buffalo Bills that netted them a second-rounder, a fifth-rounder and a first-rounder next year.

If the timing were better, it would be a good trade. The timing was bad. The Cowboys aren't supposed to be building for the future. They made the playoffs last year under Bill Parcells. The Cowboys are in the midst of the one of the league's best talent arms races in the NFC East. Redskins owner Dan Snyder spent more than $50 million in signing bonus and lured Joe Gibbs out of retirement. The Eagles traded for Terrell Owens and signed defensive end Jevon Kearse. They traded up for the second consecutive draft and got a big offensive lineman, Arkansas tackle Shawn Andrews. The Giants were aggressive in free agency, adding 10 players, and traded up for Eli Manning.

The Cowboys retreated. Despite a need for a big-time halfback in Parcells' offense, they backpeddled and grabbed Julius Jones out of Notre Dame. Jones might be good, but Jackson would have been a better fit.

And it's not as though the Cowboys needed to bulk up on draft choices. They drafted off 5-11 teams for three years and did a decent job because they didn't get cute. This isn't like the old days when the Cowboys didn't have the cap room for first-round picks because they had so much money tied up in Pro Bowl starters. The Cowboys have $11 million of cap room and have been relatively quiet in an active division. They traded for the quarterback of future, Drew Henson. But their only acquisitions for this year were trade-offs -- Keyshawn Johnson for Joey Galloway and Marcellus Wiley for Ebenezer Ekuban.

Everyone else in the NFC East got better. The Cowboys seemed to be more concerned about the 2005 team than the 2004. Are they forgetting that Parcells came out of retirement to win Super Bowls now?

Decisions by teams are always telling. Trading back for a lower-rated halfback for the sake of getting assets for the future can be a great thing to do for an organization. That is, unless the team is looking to win now.

Some of the best strategies came from a division that was considered a little light in competition last season -- the NFC North. The Lions may have been losers during the first three years of the Matt Millen regime, but they showed a "Go For It" aggressiveness that should be applauded. Taking receiver Roy Williams over tight end Kellen Winslow for the gain of a second-round pick from the Browns was smart business. Moving up from the second round to take Kevin Jones in the first was a stroke of genius.

Overnight, the Lions offense gave Joey Harrington what he needs to be good -- Williams and Charles Rogers at receiver and a running back who has runs faster than his 40 time.

The Bears got it right. They had five offers to trade down so that they could take a pass rusher, Jason Babin, at a lower spot in the first round. Instead of trading down, they took good players, grabbing defensive tackle Tommie Harris in the first round and defensive tackle Tank Johnson in second round. Suddenly, new head coach Lovie Smith has the young interior of a defensive line. Next year, maybe they can find their double-digit sack defensive end.

The NFL is a Not For Long League. Teams that have a chance to go for a championship should give it a try. The Panthers outwitted everyone last year with two moves -- quarterback Jake Delhomme and halfback Stephen Davis. They rode those players along with a good defense to the Super Bowl.

Teams that aren't ready should add as much talent as possible. That's why the Bengals did good work. They traded down weeks before the draft from the 17th spot to the 24th and got a veteran cornerback, Deltha O'Neal. They also locked up a contract with June 1 salary cap casualty Daryl Gardener at defensive tackle. After that, they drafted young talent -- halfback Perry, cornerback Keiwan Ratliff, safety Madieu Williams, linebackers Calib Miller and Landon Johnson.

With a first-year starter at quarterback, Carson Palmer, the Bengals will be an exciting team, but they are loading up for a big run in 2005. They know where they are as a team.

The Buffalo Bills, meanwhile, are sending mixed vibes. The Lee Evans selection at the 13th pick was a great one. They balanced the value of the defensive linemen available in the first and second rounds versus the receivers of the top two rounds and grabbed a No. 2 receiver to go with Eric Moulds. But the J.P. Losman move was baffling.

Losman might have not gone in the first round. Giving away a first-rounder next year along with three other choices was too much. Sure, that's an aggressive mentality, but those moves are only setting the stage for replacing players at already good positions. Willis McGahee was taken last year to eventually knock out Travis Henry. Losman may knock out Drew Bledsoe after this year.

Are the Bills a contender this year or are they looking toward next year? General manager Tom Donahue has done such a great job of bringing athletes to the defense that the Bills should be a fringe playoff team this year. In 2005, they may be going with Losman over Bledsoe. But will they actually be any better?

Saturday's draft was a swap meet. Some of the benefactors were the one-time have nots -- Detroit, Cincinnati and Jacksonville. On the other side, it's hard to figure out where teams such as the Cowboys and Bills are heading.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.