Compensatory picks aren't sexy, but Cowboys could benefit in 2018

FRISCO, Texas -- As the news about the Dallas Cowboys' involvement in free agency goes from a trickle to a drip, there is something to look forward to with the team’s approach to the open market.

Unfortunately for fans, they might not see the real benefit until 2018.

The departures of Ronald Leary to the Denver Broncos, Barry Church to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Terrell McClain to the Washington Redskins and Brandon Carr to the Baltimore Ravens should net the Cowboys up to four compensatory picks next season, with Leary potentially bringing a fourth-rounder and the others looking at fifth-round or later projections.

The Cowboys actually could trade one of their projected 2018 compensatory picks in next month’s draft, but the gnashing of teeth over the team’s low-key approach to free agency this year could bring a return in the form of a low-cost starter from 2018-21 from the draft’s third day.

That’s not exactly a motto Jason Garrett will put on a sweatshirt: “2018: The year of compensatory picks.”

It’s too wordy. It doesn’t roll off the tongue like, “Fight,” or “Hah,” or something as convoluted as last year’s theme: “17.”

The Cowboys should not be overly praised for how they have worked free agency so far. Getting Terrance Williams back on a lower-than-expected deal was a plus. Nolan Carroll II projects to replace Carr at cornerback. Stephen Paea, who signed a one-year deal worth $2 million, could fill in for McClain.

There is a balance between paying top money to OK players and always looking to “win the deal,” as opposed to improving the team.

But the additional compensatory picks would be nice even if relying on the ability to find talent in the later rounds is risky business.

Over the past three years, however, Will McClay, the Cowboys' senior director of college and pro personnel, has been able to pluck five starting-type players from the draft's third day. That is what turns a good team into a really good team.

In 2014, the Cowboys selected linebacker Anthony Hitchens in the fourth round, and he has developed into a solid player.

In 2015, the Cowboys landed Damien Wilson, who started at strongside linebacker last season, in the fourth round and tight end Geoff Swaim in the seventh round. Mark Nzeocha, another seventh-round pick in 2015, remains on the roster as well.

Last year, they hit bigger than anyone could have imagined with quarterback Dak Prescott -- on a compensatory pick by the way -- in the fourth round and cornerback Anthony Brown in the sixth round. They also have hopes for defensive end Charles Tapper, a fourth-round pick who did not play a snap as a rookie because of a back injury, and tight end Rico Gathers, a sixth-round pick.

They had running back Darius Jackson on the active roster for most of the year before opting to release him late in the season to make room for Darren McFadden. Is it an egregious mistake? Not really, but it means the Cowboys could look to find another runner like Jackson this year.

There is a huge element of luck in every draft, but especially in Rounds 4-7. If the Cowboys knew Prescott was going to be so good, they would not have passed him up four times and had him ranked as the seventh-best quarterback in the draft.

Former New England Patriots scouting chief Scott Pioli used to keep a picture of Dave Stachelski on his desk because it reminded him he took Stachelski, a tight end, before he selected Tom Brady.

Under McClay, the Cowboys have become a better drafting team. Their goal is to draft and develop and use free agency to supplement their roster.

It might not bring the immediate gratification everybody wants in 2017, but if the Cowboys play it the right way they can help their long-term success.