FRISCO, Texas – The work has not stopped for Will McClay. It never does.
“We’re still looking at if we can improve the areas that need to be improved,” said McClay, the Dallas Cowboys' senior director of college and pro personnel. “If there’s an opportunity for us to do that, we will. We’ll look at all the rosters out there. There’s always movement, so you’re always trying to find improvement.”
The 2017 draft isn’t even a week old, but by the end of the month McClay and members of his staff will begin the 2018 process of finding players.
But there is a glow around every rookie draft class with 32 teams. For the Cowboys, the additions of Taco Charlton, Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Ryan Switzer, Xavier Woods, Marquez White, Joey Ivie, Noah Brown and Jordan Carrell offer hope that they can do what Ezekiel Elliott, Dak Prescott, Maliek Collins and Anthony Brown did last year as rookies.
“The biggest thing to me is they’re all instinctive football players,” McClay said. “Sometimes we’re looking those big guys, runners, jumpers, combine guys. They have all that stuff and they don’t have the instincts. These guys are instinctive players. They love football, so you’re going to get the best of them because they have those traits.”
McClay first started to get an itch for Charlton, the Cowboys’ first-round pick, last November when he shifted his focus from the pro scouting side of the business to the college side.
“He stuck out to me as a guy that had the ability to be a player that I was banging the drum for to be interested in because he had the measurable. He had the production,” McClay said. “You saw his athletic ability. To be 6-5, spin off a tackle and gain ground, there was something different about him than the other guys that were his size, height, weight and speed.”
McClay was intrigued by Awuzie in the same way, but he needed the combine to confirm just how much he liked him.
“He measured at 5-11 [and 7/8],” McClay said. “On tape you couldn’t get a good feel about that.”
As McClay looked more at the tape, combined with the player's size, Awuzie became a favorite. When the Cowboys opted for Charlton in the first round, Awuzie was their target in Round 2 but they had to wait until the 60th pick.
“He’s an instinctive, versatile football player,” McClay said. “To me, the way that the NFL is played now is you’re not lining up against 2-1 personnel [two backs, one tight end]. You get people coming out with three wides, four wides, athletic tight ends, maybe a [running] back out there. All these different things, so you have to have pieces to combat that defensively. I think he can play outside. He’s got enough to play inside. He’s very smart, very aware ball reactions, he can tackle.”
Given that explanation and the losses of Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox in free agency, it should not be surprising the Cowboys drafted three more defensive backs: Lewis (third round), Woods (sixth) and White (sixth).
Lewis had the attitude McClay likes in a defensive back.
“It doesn’t matter who he’s guarding, big or small,” he said, “he has some feet burst movement and the tenacity you look for in a corner.”
The Cowboys traded up for Woods, giving them five of the top 68 players on their draft board by pick No. 191. White “is a guy who might surprise people,” according to McClay.
“When Rod came in he had quality press corners because that’s what we’d done before, so he adapted and changed to be able to use the skill sets of those guys,” McClay said. “We’ve got the players to do that, but they can also do other things, so we get the mastery of Rod Marinelli and the defensive coaches to use all of those things and all of those strengths.”
The Cowboys won’t get to see the rookie class on the field until next week at minicamp. As good as he feels about the selections now, McClay knows nothing is finished.
“You’ve got to have patience because now they’re coming into a new situation,” he said. “We’re grading them off somewhere they’ve been and they’re familiar with it over three, four years. It took them some time to get that. You go through the process and you’re hopeful we’ll see flashes of those things that made us attracted to them, and the longer they’re around, the more they get used to the voices and understand the system and the better they’ll get.”