As part of an occasional series, Fanspeak will offer tips and best practices for its wildly popular and first-of-its-kind On The Clock draft simulator.
Today’s topic: It’s easy to develop tunnel vision when your team has particular draft needs, which makes “surprise” picks so cringe-worthy. But those players often wind up being smart picks.
The Dallas Cowboys have what most experts consider one of the top offensive lines in football.
Even with the loss of center Travis Frederick to retirement, All Pro Tyron Smith mans the left side at tackle, Zack Martin is an All Pro player at right guard, and right tackle is occupied by a player, La’el Collins, who likely would have been drafted in the first round had it not been for a pre-draft controversy.
And if that’s not enough, former second-rounder Connor Williams is slated to start at left guard, while Frederick is expected to be replaced by last year’s third-rounder Connor McGovern.
So there’s no way, under any circumstances, that Dallas would draft an offensive lineman in the first or second round, right?
However, all is not as it seems in Dallas.
Smith and Collins have combined to miss 26 games since 2016 due to injuries. Injuries have also been an issue for Williams his first two years in the league, including last year when he tore his ACL, forcing him to miss the final five games. As for McGovern? He missed his entire rookie season last year after suffering a partially torn pectoral muscle in training camp.
That leaves Martin as the lone iron man in the group, as he’s only missed two games in six seasons.
So you can make the argument that offensive line is a greater need for Dallas than media reports suggest. And while this is considered a relatively weak interior line class with no first-round prospects, it’s considered top-heavy at offensive tackle. Analysts say as many as six OTs could be drafted in the first round.
Still, even without a swing tackle and uncertainty at left guard and center, there’s no way Dallas takes an offensive lineman early, right?
What if this scenario plays out:
Iowa offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs is the clear top-ranked player available in the above scenario, but LSU pass rusher K’Lavon Chaisson and Alabama receiver Henry Ruggs III would fill more pressing needs.
Chaisson comes with a well-documented injury history, and his career-high 6.5 sacks last season as a redshirt sophomore could drop him down draft boards.
Ruggs III would likely slide right into the vacant slot receiver position for Dallas, but the draft is much deeper at receiver than it is at OT once you get past the first round. Furthermore, Dallas already has a pair of young, 1,000-yard receivers on the team.
So why wouldn’t Wirfs – or any of the highest remaining OTs – make sense for Dallas at No. 17?
The team could slide Collins over to left guard (the position he played his first two years in the league), make Williams the swing tackle (LT is the position Williams played at Texas) and plug Wirfs (or another highly ranked OT prospect) into the starting lineup at right tackle.
After all, Dallas likely needs to address its offensive line at some point during the draft – why not address it in the first round with one of the best players at a premium position?
Nonetheless, it would still serve as a major Day 1 surprise. You could probably say the same if Dallas drafted a player like Georgia’s Isaiah Wilson in the second round.
Of course, as unlikely as it is for Dallas to take an OT in the first round, that scenario probably becomes a moot point if a player like Florida CB C.J. Henderson is available.
But don’t assume Dallas would take either Ruggs, Jerry Jeudy or CeeDee Lamb over one of the top offensive tackles. Is Dallas better off with one to two Pro Bowl receivers or three to four Pro Bowl offensive linemen? And which position is more likely to keep the quarterback healthy and the run-game effective?
Combined with the depth at receiver vs. the dropoff in talent at OT after the first round, and tackle no longer sounds like such a crazy pick for Dallas.
There are surprise picks every year.
Daniel Jones of Duke was a bit of a surprise last season when the Giants drafted the quarterback with the sixth overall pick. Virginia Tech safety Terrell Edmunds was somewhat of a head-scratcher when Pittsburgh drafted him with the No. 28 pick in 2018. In 2017, one of the biggest surprises came when Ohio State CB Gareon Conley overcame legal issues to become the No. 24 overall pick by the Raiders.
So you can bet your next paycheck that there will be a few surprises this year, too.
Some potential scenarios include:
Would the 49ers be tempted to take Utah State QB Jordan Love at pick No. 13 overall after the shaky late-season performance of Jimmy Garoppolo?
What happens to Baltimore’s offense if QB Lamar Jackson goes down for any length of time due to injury? Maybe the team considers Oklahoma QB Jalen Hurts with one of its two second-round picks, as the team wouldn’t have to change its offense much with Hurts under center.
Already armed with former undrafted rookie free agent Phillip Lindsay and the recently signed 2015 first-rounder Melvin Gordon, the thought of Denver taking a running back in rounds 1 or 2 seems ludicrous. Lindsay and Gordon have combined for 3,545 yards, 34 rushing TDs the past two years. However, Lindsay has yet to sign a contract extension and becomes a restricted free agent next season, while the cash-strapped Broncos could save $2.5 million by cutting Gordon next year. So, if any of the top running backs become available (Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins, Georgia’s D’Andre Swift or Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor), Denver might be tempted to draft one as high as the first round. And that would be the definition of a “surprise” pick — but such a move might pay off next season.
Unless it trades out of the third-overall pick, Detroit will likely consider Ohio State CB Jeffrey Okudah, as he’s not only one of the top athletes in the draft, he also fills a position of need for the Lions. However, there’s a reason Detroit has the No. 3 pick, as QB Matthew Stafford missed half the season with a back injury. Therefore, it would seem prudent to protect that asset, and Detroit got off to a good start with the signing of Vaitai Halapoulivaati to replace recently-departed Ricky Wagner at offensive tackle. But Halapoulivaati is a career backup, with only 20 starts in four years. Therefore, a player like OT Jedrick Wills of Alabama, Andrew Thomas of Georgia or Wirfs might be the smarter pick.
Carson Wentz is a recent former No. 2 overall pick and league MVP candidate. And Philadelphia desperately needs upgrades at receiver and its secondary. But, in a draft in which face-to-face contact and medical checks are limited, what would the Eagles do if Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa slides all the way to pick No. 21? You’d have to think the Eagles would at least be tempted to draft Tagovailoa, who would only slide that far if teams are concerned about his injury history. Then again, Wentz has had his own issues with injuries, and the team knows the value of having a solid No. 2 QB on the roster.
Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray is one of the best players in the draft, regardless of position. But he’s ranked relatively low because of the value of that position. Dallas, meanwhile, boasts a LB trifecta of Sean Lee, Jaylon Johnson and recent first-rounder Leighton Vander Esch. However, Lee is nearing retirement age, Johnson had a down year and Vander Esch missed most of his sophomore year after undergoing non-invasive neck surgery. Translation: Dallas is likely going to need a fourth LB anyway and might need a starter there sooner than expected. Murray would put up big numbers in Dallas.
Surprise picks are a fun exercise with the On The Clock simulator when all other options have fallen through. More often than not, these types of players are a way to strengthen a position that’s already strong – and there’s wisdom behind that strategy.
And while there are salary cap implications behind those types of moves, they often pay off in the end.
But there are risks behind that strategy, too. A surprise pick in the fourth who winds up having little to no impact doesn’t hurt your team’s future much, but a first-round bust can be disastrous. Furthermore, the more “fun” picks you make, the more you need to hone in on filling your team’s greatest needs in the other rounds.
Jake Rigdon (email@example.com) covers the NFL draft for Fanspeak and the On The Clock, which is the only NFL draft simulator that allows you to customize and use your own big board while giving you control over trades.