NFL Draft: Who Should the Cowboys Take At Pick Four?
There might not be a more interesting spot in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft than the fourth overall pick held by the Dallas Cowboys.
It serves as one of the first true swerve points in the draft based on what the Cowboys do with the pick. Sure, the Cleveland Browns could alter some plans if they were to select someone other than a quarterback with the second overall pick (or if they trade the pick away), but the Dallas spot at number four potentially has the widest range of options.
It’s quite incredible, actually, for a team that views itself a contender at full health just how many positions could be easily upgraded with the fourth pick. Of course, every team would find some sort of upgrade this early in a draft, but the Cowboys could go a myriad of ways with the selection -- any position outside of offensive line and tight end is on the table for the Cowboys at pick four.
That’s a wide range of directions they could go, which starts to muddy the clear direction they should go with the pick. There might not be a true right answer with this many options, but we can go over the options to see which directions make more sense than others.
For most of the 2015 season, the Cowboys were without Tony Romo at quarterback. For most of that time without Romo, the Cowboys were also without Dez Bryant at wide receiver, who only played in nine games.
It may come as a shock -- (it won't) -- but the Dallas offense didn’t fare too well without those two on the field at full health. By our Net Expected Points metric (NEP), the Cowboys were one of the worst offenses in the league last season. NEP, for the uninitiated, measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data. Only three teams were worse than the Cowboys by schedule-adjusted NEP per play in 2015 -- the Ravens, Titans, and Rams.
It’s safe to expect the team to perform better with Romo and Bryant on the field, but last year showed the depth behind those two is not deep. The Cowboys were 30th in Adjusted NEP per play through the air last season, a concern that’s led to speculation of a quarterback being selected with the fourth pick.
Romo will be entering his age-36 season, and he's coming off two serious collarbone injuries that led him to play just four games in 2015. The logic behind a quarterback pick here is the Cowboys aren’t likely to pick this high in a draft again, so taking a talent at quarterback could keep them on pace to compete once Romo is ready to step away from the game. Dallas’s offensive futility under non-Romo quarterbacks last year shines light on the need to have a contingency plan behind the aging and injury prone starter.
But is that really true? If you’re only judging by wins, then of course! The Cowboys were 3-1 in the four games Romo started and 1-11 in the other 12. Is there a more valuable player than Tony Romo? Well, yes, if you consider how those quarterbacks actually played. 46 quarterbacks dropped back at least 100 times in 2015, and Romo ranked 40th among them in Passing NEP per drop back. Of the quarterbacks to suit up for the Cowboys last season, only Matt Cassel was worse. And the difference between Kellen Moore and Romo in Passing NEP per drop back was the second most between a backup and starter last season. Moore wasn’t outstanding by any measure, but he -- along with Brandon Weeden -- played better than a win-loss record would indicate.
It might not be crazy to say the Cowboys could stay afloat with a typical backup quarterback as long as the rest of the offense is made up of playmakers. But now outside of Bryant and a soon-to-be 34-year-old Jason Witten, those players aren’t there.
A second wide receiver to pair with Bryant might be a bit of a reach at four, depending on feelings about Laquon Treadwell, Josh Doctson or Corey Coleman. The more likely offensive position to upgrade would be running back.
The Cowboys have built up one of the best offensive lines in the league that have allowed multiple running backs to succeed behind it. DeMarco Murray had his monster year behind it in 2014 and last year Darren McFadden eclipsed 1,000 yards behind the line. That could be taken as the line is strong enough to boost the effectiveness of any back who runs behind it. Or the counterpoint would be how devastating the running game could be with a top-level talent at running back, like Ezekiel Elliot, who thrived with open running lanes at Ohio State.
Even with the success of the running game, the backs haven’t been great on a per play basis. McFadden ranked 19th among 44 running backs with at least 100 carries in Rushing NEP per attempt last year. The back the Cowboys just signed to help in the backfield, Alfred Morris, ranked 36th. Though, as a team, the Cowboys still ranked ninth in Adjusted NEP per play on the ground.
Overshadowed by the perception in lack of quarterback play was the performance of the defense last year. The Cowboys ranked 20th in Adjusted NEP per play overall, 19th against the pass and 27th against the run. Arguably with a better defense, the offense could have been put in better position when it took the field. The Cowboys’ average offensive starting field position of their own 24.5 yard line was 30th in the league. Some of that is certainly on the defense, which allowed opposing offenses the 11th most plays per drive while forcing turnovers on the lowest percentage of plays in the league.
Every level of the Dallas defense could use an upgrade heading into the season. Luckily for the Cowboys, there should be a player at each of those levels worth taking at number four. Should Jalen Ramsey still be on the board, the Cowboys could use the former Seminole at either cornerback or safety to continue the youth movement started with last year’s first-round pick Byron Jones.
To help the pass defense, the Cowboys could also try to increase the amount of pressure placed on opposing quarterbacks. Dallas tried to improve the pass rush last season with the additions of Greg Hardy and Randy Gregory, but Hardy disappointed both on and off the field while Gregory will be suspended for the first four games of the 2016 season. Ohio State’s Joey Bosa could be a fit for a defense that ranked 21st in sack rate.
Or the Cowboys could make a move to sure up one of the league’s worst run defenses. While Dallas was 27th in Adjusted NEP per play against the run they also saw the seventh most rushing attempts on defense, leaving the bad run defense to defend the run often. At linebacker, Myles Jack would be a great addition to Rolando McClain and Sean Lee to form a talented group at the second level if all three were on the field together. Along the defensive line, Oregon’s DeForest Buckner might profile as a better 3-4 end, but his ability to disrupt both run and pass plays from the interior could also make him an intriguing option as a 4-3 defensive tackle.
For a team that fancies itself as a contender, the move that brings them closer to that goal in 2016 is adding to the defense. The top-level talent in this class comes on that side of the ball and shouldn’t be passed over by the home of continuing to contend in another three seasons. If the Cowboys want to sit and develop a quarterback, there’s a few with arguably more talent expected to go in the later rounds this year than the typical mid- to late-round quarterback, like Cardale Jones, Vernon Adams, or even a player like Connor Cook. With an improved defense, that player could come into a much more quarterback friendly situation in the future, rather than a team needing to throw the ball at a high volume to keep pace with opponents.
The Cowboys have a long list of positions that could be improved early in the draft. The 2019 starting quarterback should not be on top of it.