Whom the Dallas Cowboys select in the first round of the NFL Draft tonight remains anybody’s guess.
With the 16th pick, the Cowboys are at the mercy of those picking before them.
UCLA linebacker/defensive end Anthony Barr, Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald and Notre Dame offensive tackle Zack Martin are the most logical options. Keep an eye on LSU receiver Odell Beckham.
There is also the intriguing possibility of a trade up to select one of those coveted players or moving back to add value and gain extra picks, especially if a popular target such as Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel falls to 16th.
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Whatever the Cowboys do, look for it be well thought out, managed and researched with assistant director of player personnel Will McClay in charge of Cowboys’ draft war room for the first time.
McClay was not made available to speak to the media.
But in talking to those that who know him best, they believe McClay will make a huge difference because of his smarts, passion, work ethic, and a unique ability to communicate between coaches and the scouts.
“Will is one of the brightest and best people in the NFL,” said Cleveland Browns president Alec Scheiner, who was the general counsel for the Cowboys from 2004 to 2012. “He went to Rice. He is super smart. He cares. He knows football. He can communicate with a lot of different people. But again, he is so smart and intellectually curious. He will look at things in many ways.”
McClay, 47, known to most Cowboys fans as the former coach of the now defunct Dallas Desperados of the Arena Football League, has been a star on the rise and a valued voice in the organization for some time. He’s had success in pro personnel by finding off-the-street potential in receiver LaRon Byrd and defensive end George Selvie.
It was McClay who kept the Cowboys’ defense somewhat afloat with the signing of players seemingly weekly to overcome a rash of injuries.
The move to make him the biggest personnel voice in the organization without the Jones surname was also part of the fallout from the debacle in the draft war room last season.
The Cowboys had defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd rated as fifth on their draft board, but passed on him with the 18th overall pick because the coaches didn’t see him as a fit for their scheme.
The Cowboys blame the disconnect on the arrival of a new coaching staff last season and having different needs in a new system from the previous staff rather than any failings of former assistant personnel director Tom Ciskowski, who had been in charge of the draft board since 2008.
Ciskowski remains heavily involved in the draft and is the head of scouting with a primary focus on college players.
The Cowboys see McClay as uniquely qualified to bridge the communication gap.
“I think Will’s been outstanding,” vice president Stephen Jones said. “I think anytime you can add somebody there in a leadership role, that has a feel, one, for our team, obviously we put Will in that position as assistant personnel director to be involved in the talent acquisition from a free agent standpoint.
“I think what he brings to the table, the communication skills not only with his staff, our staff in terms of the scouting staff, but also with the coaching staff, has been nothing but a big plus.”
Coach Jason Garrett added, “He has a coaching background, which is very positive for us. We really feel like we’re on the same page. He’s certainly done a great job in his new role.”
McClay has called his job with the Cowboys a dream come true. Texas is home for the Houston native who played in high school at Marion Christian and in college at Rice.
Mike Treybig, his high school defensive coordinator at Marion Christian, says its surreal to see McClay in the position he is in now.
"The kid was a leader and a winner in high school," Treybig said. "He was special and everybody loved him. You wanted to do anything you could for him, because he busted his butt and went out of his way to do extra stuff."
Some of that extra stuff included watching extra film with the coaches on those old 16 mm projectors.
"Will would watch the tape to find out ways to make himself better," Treybig said. "He was a student of the game way back when."
It came together for him after a four-year professional career in the Arena Football League, going from player to coach before getting a unique opportunity in 2000. He was named the director of personnel for the Orlando Rage of the newly formed, but now defunct XFL, and he was in charge of building a team from the ground up under general manager Tom Veit and coach Galen Hall.
“That was a pressure cooker of a time,” Veit recalls. “We had to put together a team in six months. He was smart, hardworking and had an eye for talent. We were 8-3 and had the best record in the league. We lost our quarterback right before the playoffs or we would have probably won the championship.
“He was a star back then. I knew he would do well. That he is where he is doesn’t surprise me at all.”
Veit has continued to follow McClay’s career since he left the Rage, first as a member of the scouting department with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2001 before coming to Dallas in 2002 as a member of the scouting department, as well as an assistant coach for the Desperados. And even when he was the Desperados coach from 2004-08, he continued to work as a full-time member of the scouting department.
Veit took a renewed personal interest in McClay’s work last season when the Cowboys signed Selvie to the roster. Veit is a former associate athletic director at South Florida, Selvie’s alma mater.
Selvie had a disappointing first three years in the NFL and was sitting at home when McClay found him during training camp last season. He blossomed in 2013 with a seven sacks and now has a legitimate NFL future again.
"Will could look at the roster and really figure out if he can help," Veit said. "Guys from Arena league are a different entity than outdoor guys. He could do that. He could look at talent and see beyond what they are doing then and see if they can play in a different system. It's kind of what he has done with the Cowboys. Look at George Selvie. Will gets him and then boom."
That's what the Cowboys hope McClay brings to the draft war room on Thursday night.