In 2016, the Dallas Cowboys looked at the draft as a way to reset the franchise after going through the second-worst season in Jerry Jones' tenure as owner and general manager. At 5-11, the Jacksonville Jaguars were one game better in 2015 than the Cowboys, but still fighting to find a level of respectability nearly a decade removed from their last playoff appearance.
Holding the fourth and fifth picks in the first round, respectively, both organizations found game-changing players: Ezekiel Elliott and Jalen Ramsey. The Cowboys' fortunes flipped immediately by going 13-3 in Elliott's rookie season. Jacksonville finished 3-13 that year, but has now become one of the AFC's best teams after an organization overhaul.
It wasn't just the first-round success stories. Both teams took second-round chances on injured linebackers. The Cowboys took Jaylon Smith with the 34th pick and the Jaguars took Myles Jack two spots later.
On Sunday at 4:25 p.m. ET these two teams meet at AT&T Stadium believing they have strong futures -- even if the Cowboys' present is a little more muddled -- based on what happened in the first two rounds in 2016.
What if the Cowboys had picked Ramsey?
The Cowboys didn't feel like they could go wrong with their first pick in the 2016 draft. They knew Jared Goff and Carson Wentz would be off the board in the top two picks. That left them with a choice between Joey Bosa, Elliott and Ramsey, but a few days before the draft they knew which direction they were headed.
"We became very convicted that Zeke was our guy," executive vice president Stephen Jones said. "We liked Bosa. We loved Ramsey. We loved all those guys, but we just decided with Zeke, what he could do behind our offensive line, how he'd help Tony [Romo] and ultimately how he helped Dak [Prescott], he was a game-changer. Our staff was convicted about it. Our scouting staff was convicted that he was rare in that you don't see many like him come along."
What if the Cowboys had picked Ramsey? They would have a cornerback considered by many to be the best in the game, but would he have affected the 2016 season the way Elliott did when he led the NFL in rushing with 1,631 yards and scored 16 touchdowns?
The running back position had been devalued before the Los Angeles Rams took Todd Gurley with the No. 10 pick in the 2015 draft. In 2013-14, no running backs had been picked in the first round. Since then, eight have been picked in the first round.
"I wouldn't take all the credit, but I think it's just a new age of backs," Elliott said. "We've got a lot of great backs in the league right now. A lot of younger guys in the NCAA right now. Just think it's been a lot of better backs coming out."
In 2017, the Jaguars followed the running back change by taking Leonard Fournette with the fourth overall pick.
If the Cowboys had Ramsey, then they would not have found it completely necessary to move Byron Jones to cornerback this season. They likely would not have picked Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis in the second and third rounds of the 2017 draft.
Without Elliott, they would have needed a running back. At the time of the 2016 draft, the Cowboys had Darren McFadden coming off a 1,000-yard season and signed Alfred Morris as a free agent. McFadden broke his elbow in the 2016 offseason, limiting him to three games that season. Would the Cowboys have looked in the second round at Alabama's Derrick Henry?
The Cowboys saw what their offense would look like without Elliott in 2017 because of a six-game suspension. He changes the game in so many ways that other running backs, while productive, just don't. -- Todd Archer
No Ramsey, no Sacksonville?
For Jacksonville general manager Dave Caldwell, there were a few anxious moments as he waited to see what the Chargers and Cowboys were going to do before it was his turn to make the No. 5 overall selection in 2016. With Goff and Wentz gone, the Chargers picked Bosa at No. 3, which left only the Cowboys to potentially screw up what Caldwell believed would turn out to be one of the best draft picks in franchise history.
The Jaguars were relieved when Dallas took Elliott and Caldwell got Ramsey -- the No. 1 player on his draft board.
If the Cowboys had taken Ramsey, the long-term impact on the Jaguars would have been pretty significant.
The Jaguars were concentrating on building the defense in Caldwell's fourth draft, so even with Elliott (whom the Jaguars liked, by the way) available, the team still would have taken a defensive player: defensive end DeForest Buckner, who ended up in San Francisco with the sixth overall pick.
Buckner has been pretty good: 12.5 sacks (third most of all the players drafted in 2016), 155 tackles, two fumble recoveries, and five batted passes. He hasn't yet made a Pro Bowl, but he has been durable: He has missed just one game in his career.
Taking Buckner likely would have changed part of the Jaguars' approach to free agency in 2017, too. Buckner would have played the "big end" in the Jaguars defense, which is also the same position as Calais Campbell. So Jacksonville might not have pursued Campbell in free agency with Buckner on the roster, meaning they would have missed out on Campbell's 17.5 sacks in the 21 games he has played for the Jaguars, including a single-season franchise record 14.5 last season.
It was a 10-sack performance against Houston in the 2017 season opener, including a single-game franchise record four by Campbell, which generated the Sacksonville nickname. That might not have happened without Campbell.
No Ramsey also means that A.J. Bouye, whom the Jaguars signed as a free agent in 2017, would be the team's premier cornerback. Instead of Ramsey drawing the opponent's top receiver, it would be Bouye -- who definitely would be much quieter about it.
As for the Jaguars' second- and third-round picks that year, it's unlikely they would have changed.
Defense was the priority in that draft and Caldwell wanted linebacker Myles Jack -- who was regarded as one of the best prospects in the draft -- and defensive end Yannick Ngakoue. The Jaguars moved up two spots to get Jack in the second round and then sweated out 32 picks before nabbing Ngakoue, whom defensive coordinator Todd Wash craved.
Still, not having Ramsey and likely not having Campbell certainly would have weakened the Jaguars' defense. Ramsey was a first-team All Pro and a Pro Bowler in 2017 after breaking up 17 passes and intercepting four. And Campbell has been the defense's best pass-rusher, a leader, and finalist for Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Would that have kept the Jaguars from winning the AFC South and reaching the AFC title game last season? We'll never know for sure, but that outcome seems likely, because it was the defense that carried the Jaguars and they are two of its best players. -- Michael DiRocco
First-round snub still motivates Jack
The Jaguars and Cowboys are also linked in the 2016 draft because of their second-round gambles on Smith and Jack -- linebackers coming off major injuries -- within three picks of each other.
The Cowboys took Smith, who was recovering from injuries to his ACL and LCL in his left knee and damage to the peroneal nerve in his left leg, at No. 34. There was some doubt that Smith, a two-time All-American and winner of the Dick Butkus Award at Notre Dame, would ever play again.
The Jaguars took Jack two picks later. He was considered a top-10 pick but teams were reportedly scared off by concerns about his right knee. Jack suffered a season-ending torn lateral meniscus during a UCLA practice in September 2015, and he told the New York Post one day before the draft began that his knee might eventually require microfracture surgery and noted that degenerative issues are there, "but it's nothing extreme."
The Jaguars twice examined the knee during the pre-draft process and then-coach Gus Bradley put Jack through an on-field workout to test it. They were confident that Jack's knee would not be a problem and gambled they would be able to trade back into the first round to draft him.
That never worked out, but after Jack fell into the second round, the Jaguars traded their fifth-round pick to Baltimore to move up two spots for the player who was the Pac-12 offensive and defensive rookie of the year.
Jack is still angry about how he ended up in the second round.
"That's forever going to be a part of me," Jack said. "I feel like that was taken away from me. I just play with that chip [on his shoulder] and I feel like it was kind of one of the best things that ever happened to me, because I feel like if I would have went first round as expected ... Who knows, I probably would have done my thing, but it kind of adds that extra little motivation.
"It's like now I've got this whole new motivation where people thought my knee was going to explode, you know what I mean? I was seeing tweets where I was just all f---ed up and I'm over here dunking and playing basketball."
Jack has played in all 40 games (including playoffs) since he was drafted and learned all three linebacker spots before settling in as the full-time middle linebacker this season. He has not had any issue with his right knee.
He has not missed a practice. He has not even had to ice it.
"That's the crazy thing," Jack said. "I played in all games. I did everything. There was other guys in that draft that had real injuries that somehow didn't get out, but I guess that was just my story and that's just my journey. I'm always going to be angry about it, but it is what it is.
"The easiest way to [get back at those who doubted he'd play] is to go out there and have an 8- to 10-year career and be the best linebacker I can for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Then afterward be like, 'OK, look, for anybody else that has what I had or in my situation, look, there's a guy that went through everything and still made it.'" -- Michael DiRocco
Did inside info make Smith a Cowboy?
If the Cowboys don't take Elliott, perhaps the Cowboys don't take Smith.
The Cowboys knew Smith would not play his rookie year because of the knee injury suffered in his final game at Notre Dame, but he was a "top-five pick," if he was healthy. They viewed Jack highly as a top talent before his knee injury, but Dallas' team physician, Dr. Daniel Cooper, performed Smith's surgery.
"I'm sure that had a lot to do with why they drafted me," Smith said. "I'm sure Jerry can answer that better than me, but my theory is they had a little more inside scoop that the nerve was going to regenerate."
Smith played every game last season and the Cowboys' coaches credited him with 99 tackles. He has started every game so far this season and had his best game in last week's loss to the Houston Texans with 12 tackles, one sack, two tackles for loss, one quarterback pressure and one pass breakup.
"You don't take him if you didn't think he could do this," Jones said.
Smith said of Jack, "That’s my brother. Looking forward to swapping jerseys with him."
Their status as elite college linebackers initially tied them together. Their knee injuries and draft stories brought them even closer.
"We always chopped it up, keeping each other afloat," Smith said.
And on Sunday, they will compete against each other in a way.
"We're going to go out and outperform each other," Smith said. "That's just the nature of the game. When you're trying to be an elite linebacker, you pay attention to who are the other linebackers on the other team. Just competition." -- Todd Archer