He doesn’t play or coach, but Will McClay might be the most important man in the Dallas Cowboys organization.
Although the NFL is a winning league, you cannot build a successful team in one year. The majority of any roster is made up of players in their first four years, with a core of experienced and hopefully very good veterans to lead and play. For a long time, fans of the Dallas Cowboys were very frustrated as the team struggled to put good rosters on the field. One thing that really irked many was the refusal to invest in free agents to help the team. Instead, the team focused almost exclusively on NFL draft and grow their own with a few inexpensive outside additions.
It is not a plan that produces results immediately. It takes time. It also requires some excellent player evaluations. Not everyone is good at it. But looking at the last few years, it sure looks like Dallas has it figured out. If you go back five years, the preparation has gone very well. There are some misses, like Trysten Hill, but many more successes. CeeDee Lamb, Micah Parsons and Tyler Smith are a very impressive three-year streak of first-round picks that the team hopes to continue with Mazi Smith. It should be noted that the initial reactions from the fan base to both Parsons and Tyler Smith’s picks were underwhelming, but both turned out to be instant starters. Parsons is simply one of the best defensive players in the league, and after his rookie season, Tyler Smith is seen as a foundational piece for the offensive line for years to come.
However, you shouldn’t put too much weight on first round picks. Most teams find a goalie in the first round, although there are certainly some real failures like the Cowboys had with Taco Charlton back in 2017. One good player a year does not make for a successful roster. It is the way the rest of the draft selects that determines the quality of the guard.
By that standard, Dallas has done an excellent job recently. Last year they added Sam Williams and Jake Ferguson, both of whom are expected to play significant roles. But the real highlight of this year’s draft class was the fifth round, when the Cowboys used two picks to add DaRon Bland and Damone Clark. Due to injuries, Bland would start eight games and Clark five. All Bland did with his opportunity was lead the team in interceptions when opponents made the mistake of trying to tackle him. That’s impressive, but Clark is even more so. He had surgery after the combine because of a problem Dallas medical staff discovered at the combine. Most thought he would never see the field last season, but he battled back and is now expected to start this year, as is Bland. That’s a return on investment that doesn’t happen often with fifth-round picks.
2021 didn’t produce as many starters outside of Parsons and Osa Odighizuwa, but it’s worth noting that all 11 of the players taken that year are still on the team. Most are depth players, but this is crucial. Players like Simi Fehoko, Israel Mukuamu and Matt Farniok could be a game away from having to step into a starting role. 2020 was a normal-sized draft class with seven picks, but in addition to Lamb, it produced starters like Trevon Diggs and Tyler Biadasz. Neville Gallimore started nine games as a rookie, but injuries and a switch to a bigger 1-tech on defense have limited his contributions the past two years.
While the offered basement approach to free agency has been a source of much ire, it’s worth noting that the team recently found a pair of gems in Jayron Kearse and Malik Hooker. In addition, the staff has begun to take advantage of low-cost trades to serve much the same purpose. They got Johnathan Hankins last season and his impact was clear and immediate. This year they acquired both Stephon Gilmore and Brandin Cooks, both of whom are expected to step into starting roles.
Considering how bad things went for over a decade after the heyday of the 1990s, something has changed. That change is a Will McClay, currently vice president of player personnel. He started as a scout in 2003, focusing on professionals who could be added, and worked his way up. He assumed his current duties in 2017, which is when things really started looking up for talent acquisition. Since the Hill bug, his voice seems to have gotten stronger every year. The results are shown above.
McClay deserves a tremendous amount of credit. Many question why he isn’t a day-to-day manager elsewhere, but he seems very content in his current role, probably at least in part because of the way he’s compensated. There is no salary cap for the staff and although his actual salary is not public, he is certainly well rewarded.
But there is another part of this equation. It is a Jerry Jones who holds the title of general manager, while his son Stephen handles a large part of the day-to-day functions, including cap management and contracts. A little personal history is relevant here. When I was first offered the position of staff writer for Blogging the Boys, I wrote some things defending Jerry. There was a perception back in the early 2000s that he was an autocratic leader, his ego driving too many decisions. But back in 2010 I discovered something else. That was when Jason Garrett became the full-time head coach, and it was clear to me that Jerry was much more cooperative in his management of the team, sharing power with Garrett and Stephen, and honestly speaking to them on many decisions. That is perhaps even more true now, with McClay the third leg of Jerry’s key advisers, along with Stephen and Mike McCarthy. McClay finds the talent, McCarthy and his coaches hire them on the field, and Stephen figures out who and how much to pay.
While the image for this article refers to McClay as the secret sauce, it really refers to how it shows Jerry listening. Because he does that with all his key employees. You might add Dan Quinn to that, who McCarthy has fully entrusted to run the defense.
Just like when I started, I’m very encouraged by how the Cowboys are actually run. It takes several years to build a list, with the four-year window being the most important time frame. Our hope is that it all comes to fruition this year. There are always many ways things can derail, but quality starters and reliable depth are always key. While still on paper as we count down the days to training camp, this looks to be the best team Dallas has had in a long time.
That is the work of McClay and the rest of the management, and they deserve the credit.