Jerry Jones will earn enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August. He is the only current NFL owner with that distinction.
While Jones’ contributions to the league were cited when he joined the Class of 2017, his role with the Dallas Cowboys also played a part. He serves as the owner, general manager, salesman and No. 1 decision maker.
Five of the rookies from the Cowboys’ 2016 draft class combined to start 54 games and play in 72. They found a quarterback (Dak Prescott), a running back (Ezekiel Elliott), a defensive tackle (Maliek Collins) and a cornerback (Anthony Brown). Safety Kavon Frazier played in nine games. The Cowboys still have high hopes for linebacker Jaylon Smith and defensive end Charles Tapper, both of whom spent the season on injured reserve, as well as tight end Rico Gathers, who spent the season on the practice squad transitioning from a career as a standout college basketball player.
Athlon Sports sat down with Jones earlier this year for a wide-ranging draft discussion.
In your first draft as Cowboys GM in 1989, you drafted a Hall of Fame QB (Troy Aikman) and four other Pro Bowlers (Steve Wisniewski, Daryl Johnston, Mark Stepnoski, Tony Tolbert). What made you so good so fast?
We had the location — where we were in the draft. We had the first pick. Coach [Tom] Landry’s team won three ball games the year before, and so we had that first pick. We were very fortunate that Aikman was there. So often teams get the very first pick in the draft, but yet a Hall of Fame, franchise-potential quarterback is not sitting there. He was there. That enabled us to have that cornerstone decision, and it was not a hard decision. Aikman was the consensus pick by everybody in the National Football League. Now, the other players that we drafted in that draft were, of course, ultimately cornerstone players for the franchise. Those were solid, solid players from big programs, and of course, that held true to taking top players from big programs.
Do you have a good idea which teams value which players on draft day?
Yes, we do. We’ve studied it. We’ve talked about it. We’ve had a lot of communication around the league. We generally know. We have our draft board, of course, that is a reflection of where we think it is. For instance, we knew that Aikman was our choice. We weren’t going to trade down three or four spots. But the answer is yes. We do generally know where teams are going to take players above us.
What player has had the best reaction over the phone after being drafted?
This year, Zeke was very excitable. He was really fun. Dez [Bryant], of course, being from Texas and living in the North Texas area in DeSoto, he and his family were very excited when we called.
What was the deciding factor in the Cowboys drafting Ezekiel Elliott over Jalen Ramsey (or another top prospect) last year?
I was visiting with John Robinson, the great former Los Angeles Rams and Southern Cal coach. He said, “You have a great offensive line, and Zeke will reward them. He has all the attributes — speed, strength, quickness — and you will receive a huge bonus that is not tangible just on how it fires up your offensive line.” I think that did happen. Not only did Zeke benefit from the offensive line, but the offensive line elevated themselves because they knew they had a player back there who could maximize their work.
Dak Prescott was the eighth QB and fifth Cowboy drafted last year. What did teams miss when they were doing their homework on Dak?
Our staff had a chance to communicate with him. He was on the opposing team at the Senior Bowl. Then, we had him in for [one of] our 30 player visits. What they missed was maybe what I had a lot of Arkansas fans tell me, and that is he single-handedly won the games. That word was common. He single-handedly won games in a game that we know is a team sport. He was so impactful with leadership, with just his aura in the SEC. I think that everyone did not give enough credit to the level of his competition and how excellent he was and how he made Mississippi State able to really, if you will, win against great teams in the SEC. He was the difference maker. You add that combination — the fact that he lifted his team and he lifted it against that kind of competition. The other thing is he was outstanding on the road in very trying situations. He played in huge stadiums on the road in the SEC.
How much influence did Dr. Dan Cooper have in the Cowboys’ selection of Jaylon Smith?
He, of course, was able to say after the injury itself and the repair of the injury that he had a lot of confidence that Jaylon will return to his previous form, his before-injury form. Of course, it helped the fact that it was Dr. Cooper who did the surgery — the surgeon who we get reports from on five to 10 of our players a year. The track record he’s got with us was a difference maker. I don’t know if we could have made that decision without it being Dr. Cooper that had done the work.
Is Randy Moss “the one who got away” or is there another player you regret not drafting more over the years?
One that actually impacted the game that we didn’t draft was Drew Brees [in 2001]. We weren’t going to draft a quarterback in the first round. We used the second-round pick [on a quarterback, Quincy Carter]. Brees was drafted at the top of the second. I would say that at a time when we were zeroing in on a quarterback, not having taken Drew Brees was one [I regret]. But I would say the guy that proved to be beyond his position at impacting the game was Randy Moss.
How close were you to drafting Johnny Manziel over Zack Martin in 2014?
Candidly, I’ve used this word: It was “lonesome” as far as do we take Manziel. He certainly was at the level on our draft board to pick him, and we had the issues spotted. At the end of the day, frankly I would have picked him had I not agreed at the end that we ought to pick Martin. … Martin, frankly, had very high football character — very high — and of course it’s been borne out many times over. The facts are that the three picks that we wanted [have all made] the Pro Bowl — [Anthony] Barr, [Ryan] Shazier as well as [Aaron] Donald. Those were the three ahead of Martin on our board, and then right behind him was Johnny Manziel.
Have you ever had a player you wanted get selected one pick before the Cowboys’ pick?
Probably 15, 20 times. Very common. First of all, let’s assume that boards are pretty close. They certainly are close at the top of the draft. I mean, relatively speaking, they would have a lot of similarity. So it’s very likely who you’re interested in that’s remaining on the board, you’ve got two or three other teams interested too. You’ve got a double whammy. You’ve got the team ahead of you right now picking, and you’ve got the team that’s going to trade up to get him. That dynamic, the last one, does create a lot of guys coming right from under your nose.
How do you weigh college game tape vs. NFL Combine results?
I put much more credence on their competitive game tape and competitiveness in college games. The next thing I would say is the level of competition. I put much more on that than I do the Combine.
You’ve had success with small-school players such as Larry Allen (Sonoma State), Leon Lett (Emporia State) and DeMarcus Ware (Troy). How is the evaluation process different with small-school guys?
You’ve got to project more. You have to project. You have to rely more on the interviews. You have to rely more on the Combine. You rely more on that than you do on the game tape.
When you’re on the clock and it’s time to turn in a pick, do you always draft the highest-rated player remaining on your draft board?
I would say yes. The exception to that is if we’re strong in an area and we’ve already drafted a player in that draft at that position. For instance, we could have had a running back pop up there at the top of the second after drafting Zeke. The decision was dictated by the obvious. I’d say you try to [stick with your board], but it could be dictated by a player you’ve already drafted in that draft.
Do you like having the first round in prime time on Thursday night? Or do you miss the old-school, all-day marathon draft?
I like the format. I think it gives all clubs a chance to possibly make a trade. With having those players gone, it gives you more time to have dialogue and gives you more mental time to think of possible trade gyrations. I like stretching out. I think it deserves the time. There’s nothing that needs to be rushed after investing all of the time and money and effort that you have in evaluating these players. There’s nothing that says that three days is any overkill regarding time. As a matter of fact, I think it’s appropriate that you spend three days on it.
In addition, it just creates interest in the league for the three days. It maximizes the interest. I’m reminded we were the first club to ever put a camera in the draft room. Anything you can do that increases interest in the way we build teams and the way we compete is great for the NFL. But I think you do a better job by having that time to concentrate and rethink, revisit, rehash your decisions with your scouts.