‘Necessity is the mother of all invention’: How Cowboys attacked virtual NFL draft in Mike McCarthy’s first year

The conversation topics vary.

Mike McCarthy and Will McClay talk about fishing and their kids; about individual players’ skill sets and personnel philosophy more broadly.

But in countless conversations across the three-plus months since McCarthy was appointed Cowboys head coach, one of McCarthy’s early comments piqued McClay’s interest immediately.

“When he joined the organization and we started talking about players, one of the first things out of his mouth was ‘Players over system,’” McClay, the Cowboys’ vice president of player personnel, said in a conference call Tuesday. “Well, that rung a bell with me right away.”

So ensued the Cowboys’ attack of an all-virtual draft that produced results team management is celebrating.

The socially distant draft created new challenges. But the Cowboys believe that they also identified distinct advantages this year.

No travel to Pro Days where scouts could analyze prospects in person? No problem.

“When you’re all together, there’s more of an us-think board compared to what everybody else does,” McClay said. “Sometimes when you go on the road, there is paralysis of overanalysis. We honed in on the things that mattered most to us at a higher level because I think we had the time and ability to do that.”

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Take the Cowboys’ cornerback selections in the second and fourth rounds, for example. The Cowboys had snatched Oklahoma receiver CeeDee Lamb on Thursday night with the 17th overall pick. They knew they wanted to upgrade their secondary in the wake of Byron Jones and Jeff Heath’s departures. Members within the organization wondered when a run on cornerbacks would ensue. Instead, Round 2 opened receiver-receiver-running back. Four safeties were selected before the Cowboys returned to the board at 51. But only one second-round corner, Utah’s Jaylon Johnson immediately prior to Dallas’ pick, departed. The Cowboys snatched versatile Alabama defensive back Trevon Diggs at 51.

“We needed some guys to be press corners, No. 1, then the other thing, guys that could affect the ball,” McClays aid. “Diggs, his ability to go get the ball No. 1 is an extremely difficult deal to get interceptions when you’re playing press coverage like he did in college. There’s a unique skill set you have to have. And you have to see that repeatedly to feel like that’s something normal a guy could do out of habit instead of a surprise thing.”

Diggs showcased that on film, Cowboys evaluators felt. So, too, did Tulsa cornerback Reggie Robinson II. The Cowboys watched on tape as his size and strength flashed in repeated disruptive plays, including four interceptions, three fumble recoveries, 34 pass breakups and four blocked kicks.

“You can’t imagine how obvious that Robinson decision was for us when we got down to it,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said.

McClay emphasized how extra meeting time contributed to those “obvious” decisions. McClay, director of college scouting Lionel Vital, college scouting coordinator Chris Hall and their staff could more thoroughly present their findings as each worked from home. On top of that meeting flexibility, personnel members questioned coaching staffs more adamantly than they had with familiar coaches like Jason Garrett. New colleagues were intent on ensuring each side understood scheme goals and how to weigh filling needs with selecting the best players available.

McClay cited former Cowboys coach Bill Parcells’ maxim that “if they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries.” Scheme would be flexible to talent, as McCarthy has reiterated. Still: With shelter-at-home restrictions, everyone could work together in the kitchen.

“They articulate what they’re looking for,” McClay said. “It was a less ‘I want this, I want that, I want that’ approach than ‘OK, what can this guy do? What’s the value for him?’ And if we get him, we’ll have a way to use him.”

The Cowboys’ selections at defensive line illustrate that macro approach. Dallas drafted Oklahoma defensive tackle Neville Gallimore in the third round, 82nd overall. In the fifth round, at Pick 179 overall, the Cowboys selected Utah defensive end Bradlee Anae.

The Cowboys believed Gallimore’s motor and ability to penetrate outweighed technique that could be further refined. Anae followed a 30-sack career at Utah with a 4.93-second 40-yard dash at the combine, but the Cowboys scouts didn’t end their questions there. They asked themselves: Does he play as fast or faster than his 40 time? Faster, they decided.

“It’s the reactive athleticism of the people you get on defense,” McClay said. “You can run fast, you can jump high and do all that stuff—but how does that athleticism apply when you have to react? I think with both of those guys, they’re instinctive enough football players with enough athletic ability that their reactive athleticism fits the skill set you need in the NFL at this point in time.”

Reactive speed was a fitting trait to emphasize in a draft that required quick proactive and reactive measures from coaches and personnel people alike in an unprecedented virtual format. But from the reallocated travel time to partnership between coaching and personnel staff, the Cowboys emerged with a class they consider their best in at least 15 years. Drafting among family members was a bonus for members like McClay, whose 13-year-old son Gabe sat beside him for Rounds 4-7 after firing off calls and texts to dad during Rounds 1-3.

McClay eschewed the “MVP” praise heaped upon him by Jerry and Stephen Jones, insisting his scouts who catalyzed preparation deserve that praise. But even McClay acknowledged how fulfilling Dallas’ virtual draft turned out to be.

“They say necessity is the mother of all invention,” McClay said. “We have a job to do, whatever the case may be. If I am a guard and I got to do go dig that guy out, I got to figure out a way to get it done. And that is the way we, as an organization, approached this draft.

“Very, very excited to get what we feel like are good players that fit us.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.

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