The NFL draft begins next week, and in keeping with an annual tradition, the Dallas Cowboys are symbolically lighting what we’ll call the Candle of the Eternal Optimist while repeating a mantra that goes something like: “Jerry is going to get it right this year. Oh yes, Jerry is going to get it right this year …”
Don’t you love it? What kind of naysayer is going to let a little thing like three playoff victories in 24 mostly lousy seasons cast a shadow on their devotion to America’s Team? Anyone can have a bad decade, or even three or four of them. Through it all, the Cowboys—who finished the 2020 season with a 6–10 record—remain as resilient as ever in the hearts and minds of their faithful. The franchise remains the NFL’s gold standard for revenues, television ratings, merchandise, and headlines—you know, the stuff that truly separates winners and losers.
With that popularity comes optimism. Who needs winning when you’re, well, #winning? Jerry Jones’s helicopter ain’t paying for itself, so Cowboys fans light that candle while telling themselves they really don’t care as much as they once did. They mean it, too. That is, until team owner and general manager (such job security!) Jerry J. grabs a speedy defensive back out of the Big Ten and talks up a late-round kid from Appalachian State, and before anyone knows it, the fans are pulled right back in.
Go ahead and admit you love it. Besides, would you rather root for the Houston Texans? They’re not any good, either, and until the franchise was engulfed by a bonfire of scandal and incompetence this offseason, they weren’t nearly as interesting. At least the Cowboys have five Lombardi Trophies on display and a spectacular history to build on. The Texans have four postseason victories in nineteen years of existence, and their most notable accomplishment was blowing a 24–0 lead against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Playoffs in January 2020.
The Texans were 4–12 in 2020, but, unlike the Cowboys, they might not be able to count on immediate help in the draft. Their highest draft choice this year is number 67 overall, thanks to a string of bad trades by former coach Bill O’Brien. O’Brien somehow kept his job after that meltdown in Kansas City, but he was axed last fall after starting the season with four straight losses. He was both general manager and head coach, so the Texans must start over again, now with Nick Caserio as general manager and David Culley as head coach.
Both seem imminently competent, and even without draft picks in the first two rounds, Caserio has taken a sledgehammer to the roster. Houston Chronicle columnist John McClain predicts 70 percent roster turnover before the 2021 opener. Wouldn’t it be something if this were the start of something great? Isn’t optimism swell?
At least the Cowboys have a chance to get better in this draft. Roll your eyes if you must, but the Cowboys have been busy in free agency. Jones has signed ten free agents from other teams this offseason, including the former Atlanta first-round pick Keanu Neal, penciled in at outside linebacker. Nine of Dallas’s new signees took one-year deals from the team, with only pass-rusher Tarell Basham, a part-time starter for the New York Jets last season, receiving a two-year contract.
Those short-term contracts offer the Cowboys some built-in protection from themselves, given the franchise’s history of free agency blunders. As the Dallas Morning News detailed, of the 29 free agents signed in the past eight years, eight never played a game and five started fewer than ten games. The one-year deals also give Jones and head coach Mike McCarthy flexibility to implement new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s vision, as the recent hire assesses what the roster has and what it still needs to improve a defense that allowed a franchise-record 473 points and—wait for it—57 touchdowns last season.
That’s where the NFL draft figures in. The Cowboys have four of the top 100 picks, including number 10 overall (also 44, 75, and 99). Dallas hasn’t had that many top 100 picks since 2013, when it used them on center Travis Frederick, tight end Gavin Escobar, receiver Terrance Williams, and safety J.J. Wilcox. All four contributed immediately, and the Cowboys won the NFC East in two of the next three seasons.
To preach the gospel of former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, those top one hundred choices are critical for a franchise seeking both immediate and sustained success. Let’s say the Cowboys land two immediate starters and a couple of contributors with their picks, then quarterback Dak Prescott bounces back from last season’s gruesome ankle injury and Quinn works a bit of magic with the defense.
See where we’re going with this? You’re hooked again. This is just the ninth time in his 32 years as team owner that Jones has had a top ten pick. The last one came in 2016, when the Cowboys selected Ohio State running back Zeke Elliott at number four. Let’s pause to consider Elliott. He could be crucial to the Cowboys’ chances in 2021. He’s only 25, but he’s coming off a season in which he averaged just 4.0 yards per carry and looked worn down. That happens to every NFL running back eventually, but it shouldn’t be happening to Elliott this early in his career—even despite the massive workload he shouldered in his first four seasons. Elliott’s lack of production in 2020 may have been a byproduct of Prescott’s injury, which allowed defenses to key on the Dallas running game.
The Cowboys are also in desperate need of help on the defensive line, but cornerback appears to be a deeper position in this draft. Early speculation has Dallas trading the number ten pick to the New England Patriots for both a cornerback they like and an extra pick or two. (ESPN’s Mel Kiper has penciled in the Cowboys for South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn at number fifteen, which is New England’s draft spot.)
Okay, so the Cowboys were terrible in 2020. Cleveland rushed for 307 yards against them in week four. In a season when Dallas opponents averaged a tire-tracks-on-your-back 5.0 yards per carry—the franchise’s worst mark in 59 years—those 307 yards speak volumes about personnel, scheme, and perhaps even desire. Or at least the stat reflects ousted defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s inability to connect with his players.
But the Cowboys were unlucky last year in ways that are unlikely to repeat themselves in 2021. They started four different quarterbacks over the course of the season, and their offensive line was in triage from week one. If the team can just avoid another catastrophic spate of injuries and have something better than one of the NFL’s worst defenses, then the expected improvement can be repackaged and spun as cause for ever more optimism!
It’s not just Dallas. Just about every NFL franchise uses the draft to gin up hope—even the hopeless ones. That, along with the league’s and ESPN’s efforts to market the draft with weeks of overheated opinions and mock draft projections, make the NFL draft a big deal. If the Super Bowl has become an unofficial national holiday, then the NFL draft has turned into something of a multiday festival. This year, the rounds will unfold from April 29 through May 1 on a giant stage built next to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
That should restore some of the pomp and circumstance lacking in last year’s Zoom draft, which was held at the height of many states’ COVID-19 lockdowns. The league was applauded for managing to stage the draft at all under difficult circumstances, and perhaps this year the spectacle of the NFL overdoing it as only the NFL can will convince Americans that the country is finally nearing the end of the pandemic. Kings of Leon will play beforehand, and Ann Wilson of Heart will perform “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Then commissioner Roger Goodell will begin calling the names, and Cowboys fans will start talking themselves into whatever decisions the team makes. Go get ’em, Jerry.