Revisiting the draft that landed the Cowboys two rookie stars

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The Cowboys being the most interesting story in football right now, I thought I’d go back to draft weekend—I was in Dallas for the draft—and revisit exactly what happened with Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott, and how those picks have transformed the team for the short- and long-term.

First, remember why the Cowboys picked Elliott. They loved the running back from Ohio State, and they didn’t love a single defensive player in the draft. They didn’t think their needy front seven could get refurbished with any single player in this draft. Owner Jerry Jones told me two hours before the draft that the reason Elliott made sense is that he would be able to take pressure off the defense by making sure it stayed on the field for less time in 2016.

Let’s see if Jones was right, as it looks today.

Dallas, last season, held the ball for 30:59, on average, in games. That was 11th in the league in time of possession. This season, with Elliott, the Cowboys are first in time of possession, at 33:27 per game … a full two-and-a-half minutes more than last year. Foes averaged 10.9 possessions per game last year. They are averaging 9.9 possessions this year.

So Elliott has helped keep Dallas’s defense off the field for a full possession per game and for 2.5 per game. We don’t say this often in the football media business about the football decisions of Jerral Wayne Jones, but it should be said now: Through 10 games of the 2016 season, Jerry Jones made a smart move by picking Ezekiel Elliott—who leads the NFL with an average of 139.4 scrimmage yards per game—over any defensive player on the board.

Looking back on each pick:

Ezekiel Elliott, No. 4, Round 1

In his office before the draft, Jones ruminated about picking Elliott, which he was pretty sure the Cowboys were going to do. “I’ve had my finest hours in business going against the grain,” he said. “In the oil business, I’m drilling between dry holes trying to make a strike, and everybody around us is laying off geologists. Business is bad. I jump in. Why? The opportunity’s good. Buying the Cowboys when I did? Bad business—they were down. Again, opportunity. This decision, this draft, is a little bit contrary, but it’s in step with how I think.”

That’s what it came down to: a belief in a sure thing versus a player who was not a sure thing at a needier position. Around the country, Jones knew the pick would be panned. It would panned in his home market too. He cares very much about perception, but he also was sure, after his scouting staff and his head coach and his trusted son all were fervently pro-Elliott. When the pick was finally made an hour into the draft, Jerry Jones got Elliott on the phone and practically yelled to him: “Let’s go win the Super Bowl!”

Sort of prescient now.

Dak Prescott, No. 135, Round 4

For 69 minutes and at least 19 phone calls, COO Stephen Jones, who’d been all-in on the Elliott pick, worked to try to move from high in the second round to somewhere in the first round. He wanted to enable Dallas to choose the quarterback they loved in this draft: Paxton Lynch of Memphis. At one point around pick No. 20 in the first round, Jerry Jones debated with Garrett the wisdom of trading second- and third-round picks instead of the current second- and fourth-rounders they currently had on the table with several teams to try to trade up in order to get a choice to use for Lynch. “The question is, can we really afford to lose two good players—good players—and take a guy as a hedge for the future? I think I’d rather give this two and three and have Lynch … or have [Mississippi State quarterback] Dak [Prescott] in the fourth.”

That was classic Jones hedging his bets. But they decided as a group to not give the three, and they lost Lynch to Denver. There was a pall over the room when the Denver trade-up to get Lynch was announced. But here’s what lots of people don’t know: On day three of the draft, at the start of the fourth round, Cleveland had the first two—99 and 100 overall. Dallas had 101. The Cowboys favored Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook marginally over Prescott. Cleveland wasn’t going to take a quarterback, having just picked USC passer Cody Kessler near the end of round three. So the Cowboys offered Cleveland next year’s sixth-round pick to move up from 101 to 100. The Browns said no. Then the Cowboys offered this year’s sixth-round pick. The Browns said no. Cleveland took picks 114 and 154 from Oakland, and the Raiders jumped Dallas and picked Cook. Dallas people were shocked. Why Oakland? Oakland had a star quarterback of the future, Derek Carr; this made no sense. But there was nothing they could do.

About a month before the draft, Roger Staubach told Jones and Garrett something: Leadership, belief in self, and a grinding work ethic were paramount in a starting quarterback. Well, Dallas people in the draft room thought to themselves, how can we do better right now than Prescott? He’s only an insurance policy for this year anyway, and he’s got those things Staubach described.

Talk about hitting two home runs. We knew Elliott had immediate star power in him. But Prescott? Even if the Cowboys backed into him, history is written by the winners. And the winning team of this draft—it’s not even close—is the Dallas Cowboys. Which you’ll see for the 11th time this season on Thanksgiving afternoon against Washington.

This article originally appeared as the introduction to Peter King’s mailbag on Sports Illustrated.com. Read the rest of that article here.