There's a lot of uncertainty residing at the top of this year's NFL draft, which makes the maneuverings surrounding the top few picks fascinating. The Titans pick first, and as I wrote about last month, they seem to be deciding between trading down and having the most expensive offensive line in modern NFL history. The Browns, picking second, have their seemingly annual quarterback conundrum amid the backdrop of yet another new regime and yet another rebuilding project. The Chargers, at No. 3, are awash in the turmoil of their still-pending attempted to move to Los Angeles.
And then, picking fourth, the Dallas Cowboys might have the most fascinating range of possibilities of any team in the league. As a team that went 12-4 in 2014 and was a blown call away from advancing to the NFC Championship Game, you can make the case that the Cowboys are a healthy (or healthier) Tony Romo away from being the favorites to win the NFC East, which would encourage them to draft immediate help for their veteran roster.
Simultaneously, you can go 180 degrees with the Cowboys and see them as a team built around a nearly 36-year-old quarterback with a history of serious injuries. This is a franchise that has made the playoffs or even posted a winning record exactly once in their five-plus years under coach Jason Garrett. While the likes of Jason Witten and Sean Lee aren't exactly spring chickens, the Cowboys could use this top-five pick as a chance to grab a key asset for their next great team alongside the building blocks who will still be around then, Dez Bryant and Tyron Smith. An "asset," quite obviously, is code for a quarterback.
The 2016 Cowboys are one of the highest-variance teams in football, and that leaves them with the widest variety of options in terms of what they might do with the fourth overall selection in this month's draft. It's impossible to say how the 2016 team will perform -- it's safe to say that very few saw the breakout of 2014 or the disaster of 2015 coming -- so let's work through the different options to see how the Cowboys should approach their first top-five selection since 2003. And while that begins with the sexiest choice, it's not clear whether a quarterback would be the right option for America's Team:
Option 1: Draft a quarterback as a long-term replacement for Romo
You could make a slim case that a quarterback might even be a useful short-term pick if the Cowboys are going to be competitive in 2016, given Romo's injury history and the staggering drop-off Dallas suffered in going from Romo to Brandon Weeden and then Matt Cassel and Kellen Moore. The Broncos and Brock Osweiler might be a useful comparison. At the same time, though, the opportunity cost of using a top-five draft pick on a player who might play only a few games per year is very high given Dallas' needs elsewhere. Given that the fourth pick will have a cap hit in excess of $5 million per year over the next four seasons, if the Cowboys really wanted a viable backup that badly, they could have signed somebody like Colt McCoy to a similar deal in free agency.
No, if the Cowboys are going to draft a quarterback fourth, it's for the purpose of replacing Romo in the long term. You can see the logic: The best place to find a franchise quarterback is in the top of the draft, and given that the Cowboys don't pick this high very frequently, they should use this rare foray to come away with an asset they might otherwise be unable to procure in the years to come. One accepted best practice for any rookie quarterback is letting them develop behind a talented veteran for a year or two before stepping into the starting role. The Cowboys haven't used a draft pick on a quarterback since taking Stephen McGee in the fourth round seven years ago, with 2007 fourth-rounder Isaiah Stanback (who converted to receiver) the only other quarterback Dallas has selected since Quincy Carter in 2001. It feels as if it's time.
Using the No. 4 pick on a quarterback, though? The more you look at the idea, the more it falls apart at the seams. Romo's an incredible quarterback, but his style is so improvisational and unique that it's hard to imagine Carson Wentz or Jared Goff taking much away. Neither of those passers are Romo clones -- outside of Russell Wilson, there's nobody really like Romo in the league. Having longtime backup Garrett around as head coach would be helpful, but we still have no idea whether Garrett is effective at developing quarterbacks; Romo was a Pro Bowler by the time Garrett arrived on staff as offensive coordinator in 2007. That's not to say Garrett can't, just that he hasn't yet.
Even if the Cowboys did take a quarterback, the reality is that Romo's not going anywhere for a while: his contract is unmoveable, either via trade, release, or retirement. Thanks to past contractual missteps and desperate maneuverings to clear out cap space, the Cowboys have needed to restructure Romo's deal twice to convert his base salary into signing bonuses, pushing the cap hit for those deals into the future. That leaves Romo with massive cap hits on the Dallas roster, regardless of whether the Cowboys keep him or get rid of him:
If the Cowboys cut Romo as a post-June 1 release, they would absorb the remaining dead money on their cap the following year; in other words, if the Cowboys cut Romo as a post-June 1 release before the 2017 season, they would owe $10.7 million on their cap in 2017 and the other $8.9 million in 2018. Dallas already has $146.9 million on their cap in 2017, the second-highest figure in football behind Philadelphia, so leaving even $12.7 million in dead money on their cap would be disastrous.
In reality, the earliest the Cowboys can move on from Romo -- assuming that they don't restructure his deal again -- is 2018. They could turn Romo into the most expensive backup QB in the history of pro football, but that's probably not going to happen, either. So if the Cowboys draft a passer, you have to assume that he'll spend a minimum of two seasons serving as a backup and injury replacement before stepping in as the full-time starter in 2018.
Once you get to that point, does it really make sense to take a quarterback fourth? Much of the value of drafting a rookie quarterback comes from the fact that they make a fraction of what quarterback talent costs on the free market, allowing teams to spend elsewhere. Marcus Mariota, Blake Bortles, and Jameis Winston will each have cap hits between $5.5 million and $6 million this year, just slightly ahead of Josh McCown and Chase Daniel, each of whom will make in the $5 million range.
If your rookie quarterback is sitting behind Romo for two years, you're losing the first two years of that valuable market inefficiency while paying the $5.5 million market value for a backup quarterback. Instead, the Cowboys would really get only two years of below-market salaries and a fifth-year option for 2020, which will be in excess of $20 million by the time we get there.
A successful top-five rookie quarterback who enters the lineup from day one and produces at the league average generates something like $56 million in marginal value over his rookie contract, given that he makes an average of $6 million or so over his first four years and would probably be worth something like $20 million per year for those same deals on the free market. When you consider that years 1, 2, and 5 of a potential rookie deal for Wentz or Goff with the Cowboys probably would be at about market value, the Cowboys could only really expect to get about $28 million of marginal value by taking a quarterback fourth. The numbers here oversimplify the story, but the concept is the same -- Dallas just isn't going to get what a typical team would get out of taking a QB high in the first round.
In addition, it's hard to imagine that the Cowboys actually see the high-profile option of drafting a quarterback as the logical move. As much as they developed a well-deserved reputation for ignoring the future and trying to make the biggest splash possible under owner and general manager Jerry Jones, they've been a smarter, more rational organization over the past three years as Stephen Jones' role has expanded. The Cowboys didn't overpay for DeMarco Murray and have mostly sat out free agency over the past few years. They took a risk on defensive end Greg Hardy, but it was a one-year deal with little in the way of long-lasting repercussions for the team. Dallas has rebuilt around their offensive line, taking Zack Martin over Johnny Manziel despite the senior Jones' reported desire to take the former Texas A&M quarterback. The Cowboys have had to restructure big deals like those of Romo and Smith to create cap space, but otherwise, they have quietly been much more efficient about running their cap and building their roster.
Does that seem like the sort of team that would grab a quarterback No. 4 with Romo at the helm? Put it this way: we're not having these same discussions about the Chargers taking a quarterback behind Philip Rivers at No. 3, and that's (in part) because people don't see Tom Telesco and the San Diego front office as the same sort of wild cards that the Cowboys are viewed to be. And that's likely an antiquated notion of how the Cowboys do business.
Option 2: Grab a defensive lineman
Defensive line coach Rod Marinelli is widely regarded as one of the best positional coaches in all of football, but even he met his match with the limited resources left for him at defensive tackle last season. While Marinelli was able to piece together a competent pass rush from the combination of Hardy (now departed and thankfully still unsigned) and DeMarcus Lawrence on the outside, the Cowboys ranked a lowly 29th in DVOA against the run. The Cowboys were 28th in the league against runs up the middle and 30th in power situations, which sure makes it seem as if they were getting gashed up the middle by bigger, stronger lines.
That would seem to suggest that the Cowboys should add a defensive tackle with the fourth pick, but it's not a great fit. They made a high-upside addition by signing away Cedric Thornton from the Eagles this spring, and Thornton profiles as a starter next to penetrating tackle Tyrone Crawford on the interior. Oregon's DeForest Buckner is probably too similar to Crawford, and 307-pound Alabama tackle A'Shawn Robinson would be a stretch at four. The Cowboys could stand to add depth at defensive tackle, but they should do it later in a draft that is incredibly deep along the defensive line.
Instead, it makes more sense for the Cowboys to target a pass-rusher. Hardy's a free agent, and while Dallas used a second-round pick on Randy Gregory after he fell there last year, the Nebraska product has already been suspended for the first four games of 2016 and is one strike away from missing an entire season. He can't be counted on. There is a far more plausible prospect on the edge for the Cowboys at No. 4 in Ohio State product Joey Bosa, who had 26 sacks despite seeing steady double- and even triple-teams during his time in school. Even if Bosa's ceiling isn't quite as high as you might hope for with the fourth pick, he should be an immediate contributor to a defensive line, which would suddenly look very stout with his arrival. That's why Mel Kiper has the Cowboys taking Bosa fourth in his latest mock draft.
Option 3: Draft a No. 1 cornerback
While the Cowboys have invested heavily at cornerback, the returns haven't met expectations in a while. Big-ticket free agent Brandon Carr has been a massive disappointment in Dallas, and given his $13.8 million cap hold for 2016, it's a surprise he's still on the roster. The Cowboys were the league's third-worst defense against No. 1 wideouts last year, and Carr didn't help matters. Dallas did use its first-round pick in 2015 on UConn corner Byron Jones, who spent most of his rookie year at safety, and re-signed former top-10 pick Morris Claiborne to a one-year, $3-million deal, but there's not enough in the cupboard to prevent the Cowboys from thinking about taking a possible No. 1 cornerback if there's one on the board.
Of course, that would push the Cowboys toward Florida State's Jalen Ramsey, who continues to rise up draft boards amid rumors that he could be taken with the No. 1 pick. If Ramsey was still on the board for Dallas at No. 4, it would be hard to pass up a lockdown corner in a division with Odell Beckham Jr. The Cowboys could line up Ramsey and Carr on the outside with Orlando Scandrick, returning from a torn ACL, manning the slot. With Jones contributing as a plus coverage safety, that's suddenly a secondary with a lot of upside. Ramsey might be the best choice the Cowboys could make, but it seems increasingly unlikely he'll be available at four.
Option 4: Draft a running back
Earlier suggestions implied that the Cowboys were going to be interested in drafting former Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick. It's possible, I suppose, but it doesn't seem likely given Dallas's investments along the offensive line and their comfort in letting Murray walk. The Cowboys have since signed zone-running success story Alfred Morris to a modest deal, giving them a pair of veterans with upside in Morris and Darren McFadden. It wouldn't be crazy to grab a running back later in the draft, especially given that this is a deep class for halfbacks, but taking Elliott at four would be out of character for these Cowboys.
Option 5: Find a wide receiver to play across from Bryant
The Cowboys are blessed to have a true No. 1 receiver in Bryant. And they're committed to Cole Beasley in the slot, having given the SMU product a four-year, $13-million deal before the 2015 season. Elsewhere? Things aren't so clear. Future Hall of Famer Witten is still a reliable pair of hands, but his production appears to have permanently dropped a notch. After averaging over 1,000 yards per season between 2007 and 2012, Witten has averaged only 756 yards over the ensuing three years. It'll help to get Romo back, but Witten's per-catch averages were declining even with Romo in the lineup. He's going to continue to be a meaningful part of the offense, but the days where Witten was a threat for 1,000 yards appear to be in the past.
The jury is also out on second wideout Terrance Williams, who failed to do much as the top target in the offense while Bryant was out injured. As he enters the final year of his deal, it's unclear that Williams has done enough to deserve a long-term extension from the Cowboys, who have made mistakes in aggressively re-signing marginal players from their own roster in the past. Given that Bryant's surgically-repaired foot remains a long-term concern, you could see a wide receiver making sense for the Cowboys.
The problem, again, is that No. 4 is probably too early for a wide receiver. There's no obvious candidate lurking worth a top-five selection, with TCU's Josh Doctson and Ole Miss star Laquon Treadwell competing to be the first wideout selected, probably somewhere in the 10-15 range. That leaves the Cowboys either drafting a wide receiver too early or waiting until the later rounds, where they are less likely to find a wide receiver who will contribute in 2016. The better alternative might be to ...
Option 6: Trade down and acquire additional picks
Trading down is generally the right thing to do, but it makes even more sense for the Cowboys, given their needs and the nature of this draft. If Ramsey falls to them at four, it would make sense to grab a possible franchise cornerback and try to build a great secondary with consecutive first-round picks, much as the Cowboys did in constructing their impressive offensive line.
Otherwise, though, it behooves the Cowboys to try and refill the depth on their roster by adding additional picks. Cap woes have led them to lose meaningful rotation contributors and valuable reserves in years past like Jason Hatcher and Jermey Parnell, let alone the massive loss of DeMarcus Ware. Dallas's top-heavy roster is always going to make it difficult to shop in free agency, so the primary way for the Cowboys to acquire below-cost talent with upside is going to be through the draft. And the more draft picks Dallas has, the better.
To create interest in their draft pick, the Cowboys have to at least act as if they're going to take a player other teams want with the fourth pick and dare them to call their bluff by trading up. And while there will certainly be teams interested in talents like Bosa or Buckner, the fact that this is a deep draft for defensive linemen suggests that teams won't be desperate to trade up into Dallas's pick to grab a lineman this year. The best sort of player with which to publicly fall in love to try and induce a trade is obviously a quarterback. And hey, guess which position the rumor mill has the Cowboys targeting?
Dallas is already down a couple of draft picks after trading a fifth-rounder for wide receiver Brice Butler, and sending their sixth-rounder to the 49ers for a seventh-rounder (tight end Geoff Swaim) last year, plus they're already missing their 2017 fifth-rounder after sending it to the Bills in the Cassel trade. (They do have an extra fourth-rounder as a compensatory pick.) If they can create a market for Wentz or Goff at four and pick up even an extra third-rounder to move down a few slots in the first round, it would give them a valuable asset to apply to the holes mentioned above.
And really, this is a draft and a team where extra mid-round picks would make the most sense. It's a player pool teeming with running backs and defensive linemen, but not at the very top of the first round. Dallas should add a quarterback prospect with one of their picks, but it's way more logical to go after, say, Jacoby Brissett as an option in the later rounds, given Brissett's raw talent and ability to excel on the run when plays break down. If the Cowboys are going to develop a quarterback, it might as well be somebody who shares some stylistic similarities to Romo.
Quarterbacks have a way of making teams irrational, so it's hardly out of the question that the Cowboys will fall in love with one of the quarterback options available and draft one with the No. 4 pick, damn the torpedoes. Given their issues elsewhere, the nature of this year's player pool, and their cap situation, though, the Cowboys are probably better off building the best possible team around Romo in 2016 than they would be if they attempted to find his replacement.