There is no truth to the rumor that Will McClay lived at the Dallas Cowboys’ headquarters during the months leading up to the NFL Draft.
But the old adage of “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” is not far off base.
In preparing for his first draft as the team’s new scouting chief, McClay, who was promoted to assistant director of player personnel last summer, spent a lot of the time at the Cowboys’ Valley Ranch headquarters.
“I would come here early,” McClay said. “I would go home and put my son to bed and come back up here till 2 or 3 in the morning. It wasn’t just me. It was a lot of guys. We watched more tape. We had more discussion. Let’s grind it out. Let’s grind it out.”
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But he is the man in charge and the one to whose reputation the Cowboys’ draft is linked.
If it turns out well, McClay, the man with the most power in personnel not named Jones, could be on the short list for general manager openings across the league. He is highest ranking African-American in the Cowboys’ organization and has already been targeted by the Fritz Pollard alliance as a man to push for advancement when teams look for candidates to comply with the Rooney Rule.
“I’m playing it as I go,” McClay said. “My career goal right now is to help the Cowboys get back to winning championships.”
As far as the 2014 draft is concerned, it will be a couple of years before it’s determined how well McClay and the Cowboys did with their nine picks, led by guard Zack Martin and defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence in the first and second rounds.
But regarding how McClay did in directing the team’s strategy, focus and plan going into the draft and in the war room, owner Jerry Jones has already given him an “A” for the way he organized things and got the coaches and the scouts on the same page.
Vice president Stephen Jones said he thought McClay was outstanding.
“It’s another voice,” Stephen Jones said. “He’s obviously getting a global view of our team, in terms of his role, throughout, in terms of player acquisitions. It’s trades, it’s pro, it’s college, it’s the whole nine yards. Of course, he delved into the college side as well and really put even more work into that. I think he’ll be a big plus for us.”
McClay said he definitely felt the pressure of getting everybody on the same page.
“You’re dealing with a lot more personalities,” McClay said. “Not only are you trying to find out information about players, but you’re also trying to figure out scouts and how they grade, coaches, how they value players and what positions are important to them. There’s a lot more of the detail stuff. There’s a lot more of the putting A, B and C together. The coaches know what they are looking for specifically and what they want a guy to do. They [the scouts] don’t know what’s happening with this team because they are out on the road.”
The first thing McClay did was have the coaches come in and explain, position by position, the traits they are looking for, the things that are most important, certain little things they have done throughout their coaching career to help.
He had the scouts detail their jobs to the coaches and explain what they are there to do and then blend the two.
“We are not always going to agree,” McClay said. “The coaches are looking sometimes for that guy that’s ready-made because they have to win right now. The scouts are looking for the future, the future of this organization, and you got to marry those two.”
So what is McClay’s philosophy on players and what does he look for?
“I think it’s the Cowboys philosophy,” McClay said. “First of all, you’ve got to have the talent. We want guys who have football character. Then we want to build. The NFL is space. We want players that can move around in space and play hard.”
It will be a couple years before the 2014 draft can truly be judged.
However, there were decisions that critics are already poking at: passing on Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel for Martin in the first round, the decision to swap their second- and third-round picks to trade up for Lawrence in the second round and the selection of linebacker Anthony Hitchens in the fourth round.
“Johnny is a great football player,” McClay said. “Within our situation, we’re talking about winning now and for the future. Did the offensive line make more sense? Yes.”
Regarding Lawrence, he said simply: “We really feel Lawrence has the tools to rush the passer. Right ends are very hard to find, and when you only have three or four in the draft, especially at that level, sometimes you have to pay the cost to live in a nice house.”
And there was no give back on Hitchens, whom he said the Cowboys had the right grade on but whom many experts rated as a sixth-round talent.
“When everybody grades him on our staff and we go through the things that are important to play the position, the guy hits all the check marks we have in the fourth round as far as our grades. We feel comfortable where we are getting him at,” McClay said. “Those people outside our organization don’t know what we are putting him into and what we are doing.”
Also, few are pointing out the value the Cowboys got in the seventh round with guys such as cornerback Terrance Mitchell and defensive end Ben Gardner, who were graded much higher.
“We had grades of Terrance Mitchell in the third and fourth round,” McClay said.
McClay’s first draft with the Cowboys also had the unique characteristic of every pick being from a major school. There were no small-school reaches.
“You look at the big school, small school and you weigh those things and look at the history that’s been throughout the league, if 82 percent comes from major schools, well, there is some reason for that,” McClay said. “If they got the same physical traits, I’m going to go with the guy whose been there before, than the guy who you got to wait to come up. So you err on the side of percentages if the guy has the same ability and those types of things.”
McClay understands his name is attached to the2014 draft.
“What made me ready was the work that everybody did. It wasn’t just me,” McClay said.
“The coaches bought in to spend that time with the scouts. The scouts ... they put the work in. I think we had a good draft. ”