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This is an important draft for the Dallas Cowboys. It’s no secret that the team lost several key players in free agency without doing much to replenish those losses. Additionally, last year’s draft class was one of the worst-producing groups since the infamous “special teams draft” back in 2009. Our own Dave Halprin wrote about how terrible that draft was if you want to re-live that nightmare. Fortunately, last year’s draft class still has an opportunity to develop and overall, they remain a “to be determined,” but needless to say, they’re not off to a good start.

That’s why all the pressure is on the Cowboys to hit in next week’s draft. That pressure increased for the team’s first three draft picks because of trades they made last year. As a result, they don’t have their own fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-round picks and will have no draft capital within a 90-pick window (almost three rounds worth of players!) between picks 87 and 174. The odds of players taken after the first 150 picks turning into viable roster contributors aren’t great so most of this draft is riding on those first three picks.

If you have looked over mock drafts for the Cowboys this year, you’ll likely see three positions come up quite frequently in those early rounds. Those positions are offensive line, running back, and linebacker. If you’ve done a mock, there’s a good chance you have assembled some combination of those three positions over the first three rounds.

Since there are no top running backs or linebackers worthy of a Day 1 pick, most mocks have the Cowboys taking an offensive lineman in round one. Considering offensive line talent is abundant early, this isn’t an unrealistic expectation. What happens on Day 2 is more of a mystery. Sticking with these position arrangements, they could go RB-then-LB, or the other way around with LB-then-RB. If you created a flowchart of the Cowboys’ first three draft picks, it might look like this…

Most fans can probably find some arrangement from this path that they would be happy about, including myself which goes a little something like this…

A couple of months ago, we did a study of how well the Cowboys have drafted in each round over the last 10 years. The Cowboys have drafted exceptionally well early. Here is their starter hit rate for each round:

Followed by their Pro Bowl talent hit rate for each round:

The point of that study was to look at how well they drafted in each round, but there was something else interesting from this data. In terms of hit rate by positions, the most success the Cowboys have had over the last ten drafts came from three positions – interior offensive line, linebacker, and running back.

Now, it should be noted that the running back data is actually a datum, one single data point, and that point is Ezekiel Elliott. People can quibble whether he was worth the fourth overall pick (most say no), but he was productive for several years in Dallas. Even DeMarco Murray (2011) was a third-round pick that hit and Tony Pollard was drafted just outside Round 3 and hit. When the Cowboys draft a running back early, they get some miles out of him while running backs they’ve drafted later like Darius Jackson, Mike Weber, Bo Scarbrough, and so far Deuce Vaughn, have scurried off into irrelevance.

Another position that needs some clarification is the Cowboys’ offensive tackle/interior offensive line position. While the Cowboys haven’t had recent success in drafting a new tackle in early rounds (whiff on Chaz Green), they’ve been very successful drafting college tackles who they’ve turned into guards.

The linebacker hit rate is pretty respectable, but it too comes with an asterisk. Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith had good seasons for the Cowboys, but both endured injuries in college that continued to hinder them at the Pro level. DeMarvion Overshown is listed as a “miss” right now, but that’s only because his rookie season ended before it began as he suffered a knee injury in preseason. The Cowboys draft talented linebackers. They just cannot get the full benefit because they can’t stay healthy.

If the Cowboys go RB/OL/LB in some fashion over the first three rounds, they have a solid résumé suggesting they might do well in their choices. A college tackle who could move inside (cough, cough, Graham Barton), a linebacker with a better health history (sorry, Peyton Wilson), and one of the better college running backs could be a nice haul for the Cowboys after the first two days of the draft.

If the Cowboys draft these positions with their first three picks, which arrangement of players would you like to see?

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