If you find yourself questioning the Dallas Cowboys draft, mouth these three words: Trust Will McClay
No draft is perfect and no team hits on all of its picks.
But since McClay took over the personnel department in 2014, first as the chief scout before being promoted all the way up to vice president of player personnel, the Cowboys batting average is unquestionably one of the best in the NFL, especially in the first round.
Think Zack Martin, Leighton Vander Esch, CeeDee Lamb, Micah Parsons and Tyler Smith.
Yes, Taco Charlton is on his ledger. But that was more of a Rod Marinelli-influenced decision.
Again nobody is perfect.
So rewind to when it came time for the Cowboys make their pick in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft last Thursday, chaos was afoot in the draft room.
Video footage showed coach Mike McCarthy making a joke and chatter ensued.
The Cowboys were contemplating taking an offensive lineman to fill their need at left guard or Michigan defensive tackle Mazi Smith to shore up the run defense.
Owner Jerry Jones cut through the noise and asked McClay what he would do.
Will McClay has the power and influence in Cowboys personnel decisions. The Jones family trusts him. They listen to him. McClay was the brains behind the pick of Mazi Smith. Trust Will McClay.
He is the calm to the Jones family circus pic.twitter.com/Qg2KtY4lwP
— Clarence Hill Jr (@clarencehilljr) May 2, 2023
Thorough, organized and information packed as always, McClay laid out the reasons why he would take Smith.
McCarthy said he would be happy with either one of the two choices.
McClay was unwavering in his belief that Smith was the right choice.
And the Cowboys followed suit.
“It was fortunate for Jerry to ask me my opinion, because I’ve taken in all the information,” McClay said. “I listen to everybody. And I have my own opinion as well. He asked me and I talk to our scouts about what our job is. We are the lawyers, we are presenting the case. That was my opportunity to present the case based on all the things that we’ve talked about from the beginning of the offseason all the way through the draft meetings, combine all of this up until that moment. So I was asked and I wanted to say what I thought was most important and why.”
Thoroughly, organized and reasoned.
The choice of Smith was a departure from the team’s previous draft philosophy of not taking an run stuffing nose tackle in the first round.
Smith was actually the first defensive tackle taken by the Cowboys in the first round since 1992 when they took Russell Maryland.
But the recent philosophy connects back to the aforementioned Marinelli, the former defensive coordinator and the man who wanted Charlton over T.J. Watt in 2017 because he was a better fit for the scheme.
Watt has developed into perennial Pro Bowler and NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Charlton didn’t last three years with the Cowboys and is out of the league.
And it was Marinelli who was believed run stuffers can be drafted in the later rounds.
McClay said McClay was the highest ranked defensive lineman on the Cowboys draft board in years.
“It was unique to Mazi,” McClay said. “It was a product of him as a player more so than tweaking anything that we do. What we try to do is have the same grading process and evaluation all the way through. We got to stay consistent with that regardless of the coach. Our job in scouting is to say what the guy can do what he can’t do. You go through all that and and that’s how we come to the conclusion of the player because we do all the work.”
It’s the work that McClay has done since taking over the scouting department that has been the foundation of the teams draft and the approach to building a football team and ultimately the success as a perennial playoff contender.
Ironically, his rise dates back to the confusion in the 2013 draft when the Cowboys passed on a defensive tackle at the top of the draft who was ranked high on their board at the behest Marinelli and traded back to take center Travis Frederick.
The pick was sound as Frederick became a Pro Bowler and defensive tackle was a bust.
But the process was flawed.
McClay has brought a calm and systematic approach to the Jones circus ever since.
It was McClay, along with Stephen Jones, who talked Jerry Jones off the ledge when he wanted to pick former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel in 2014.
The Cowboys took an unsexy guard Zack Martin, who is now on the path towards a Hall of Fame career. Manziel was a bigger bust the Charlton.
It was the beginning of a first-round hit streak that would make Pete Rose proud.
And it’s the reason McClay is considered viable general manager candidate across the the NFL. He has preferred to stay with the Cowboys.
As the highest ranking African American in the Cowboys organization, he will continue to draw interest from other teams.
It’s a job he should have with the Cowboys but Jerry Jones has held that title since buying the team in 1989 and will never relinquish it.
But there isno denying or discounting McClay’s power and influence in the team’s personnel decisions.
“I have the utmost respect for Will, not only as a person but as a talent evaluator,” former NFL general manager Rick Spielman said Tuesday on 105.3 The Fan . “You sit there and you run into guys on the road or run into guys at meetings and things like that. To me, there’s no question that he’s one of the better evaluators in this league. You can see by some of the talent that he’s brought in.
The Cowboys not only trust him, but they swear by him. His ability to mesh with McCarthy in the draft room is critical to how they make decisions and pick players.
McClay is the glue to it all.
“Let me say this, I’m fortunate that I’ve known Will a long time,” Jerry Jones said. “I’ve always had a lot of respect for Will. In my mind, Will has evolved into something that possibly is unique to the NFL. He has people skills that are really outstanding. He has relationships with coaches. It really is a comfortable thing. It’s a real people thing and is very unique. I get to have Will, as long as he’s willing, around me because it works as well as it does. Information is it. It’s critical in making a decision. I think all of that is what Will is about.
“Needless to say, Stephen will lay in front of the train for Will relative to what he means to the organization. Obviously, that has everything that is critical for him and critical for me…”
Trust Will McClay.
He is critical to the Cowboys success.