Sometimes, one play, one moment, one decision can change everything — or maybe only a little bit. Either way, it can be fun to imagine the various timelines if one thing had gone differently. SB Nation NFL is looking at those hypotheticals, alternate universes, and made-up scenarios in our second annual “What If?” week. You can follow along with every story here.
Dallas entered that year’s offseason with an aging Tony Romo behind center and no sure plan for succession behind him. That threw the Cowboys — once home to Don Meredith, Roger Staubach, and Troy Aikman — into an earnest search for their next quarterback. And with prime position in a draft filled with passing talent, they had a solid opportunity to find Romo’s heir apparent.
Jones passed up the opportunity to trade up from No. 4 to select either Jared Goff or Carson Wentz, deciding instead to settle for running back Ezekiel Elliott rather than pay a premium for the duo who went one-two in the draft. This was fine for the longtime owner and de facto shot caller. The quarterback he wanted was a flawed but fast-rising prospect from the University of Memphis who didn’t make sense at the fourth overall pick but could be available for Dallas’ second-round pick.
Paxton Lynch, who’d emerged from relative obscurity to throw 50 touchdown passes in his final two seasons with the Tigers, was Jones’ guy. The problem was he was Broncos general manager John Elway’s guy, too. And when Denver snapped him up with the 26th pick that Thursday evening, he set off a chain reaction that changed the Cowboys’ trajectory considerably.
For the better.
Not overpaying for Lynch was amazing dumb luck for Jones
The 2015 season was a bad scene for America’s team. A 35-year-old Romo won 75 percent of his starts, which was good. He also played in only four games due to a broken collarbone, ceding snaps to Matt Cassel, Kellen Moore, and Brandon Weeden in his stead. That was bad.
Dallas went 1-11 in the games without its starting quarterback, falling to the bottom of the the NFC East and near the top of the draft order. With Romo entering the twilight of his career, the Cowboys had the breathing room to select a high-upside project quarterback who could learn from the veteran early in his career before presumably taking over later, much like the Packers did with Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers.
After Jones bucked recent trends and selected a running back at No. 4 overall, he set his sights on his quarterback of the future: Lynch.
Lynch declared for the 2016 NFL Draft on a heater. The former two-star recruit had presided over one of the most prosperous eras of Memphis football, rising from overwhelmed starter as a freshman to one of college football’s top quarterbacks two years later. With the 6’7 signal caller at the helm, the Tigers worked their way into the AP Top 25 in consecutive years for the first time in program history. The combination of Lynch’s statuesque build and his 28:4 TD:INT ratio as a junior had pushed him into consideration in the first round.
Few teams admired him more than the Cowboys, and when Lynch lingered until the second half of Day 1’s festivities, Jones sprang into action. He tried repeatedly to move from the 36th pick and back into the first round in order to swoop in and grab the man he’d deemed the future of his franchise. And when those negotiations failed, he suffered from a sturdy case of non-buyer’s remorse.
“When I look back on my life, I overpaid for my big successes every time,” Jones told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram immediately following the draft. “And when I tried to get a bargain, get it a little cheaper or get a better deal on it, I ended up usually either getting it and not happy I got it. Or missing it.
”And I probably should have overpaid here.”
Time would prove this an incorrect assumption.
Dallas’ Plan B was light years better than its Plan A
The Cowboys weren’t the only team with their eye on Lynch that evening. The Broncos were also in the market for a fresh heir to a veteran’s throne. Peyton Manning’s final season in the league ended in triumph with a Super Bowl win over the Panthers, but it also led Denver to the last pick of the draft and with no easy way to find a franchise quarterback.
Rather than settle for Brock Osweiler, who’d sign a $72 million contract with the Texans that March, Elway was willing to pay big for another young beanstalk.
In came Seattle, who was auctioning off the 26th pick to the highest bidder. When Dallas balked at the Seahawks’ request for its 34th and 67th overall picks, Elway’s Broncos pounced and traded the 31st and 94th picks for the chance to draft Lynch.
This worked out so, so well for the Cowboys. With their second- and third-round picks intact, Jones looked to rebuild his team elsewhere.
At No. 34 came Jaylon Smith, a Notre Dame linebacker with top-end talent but also a severe knee injury that cost him the 2016 NFL season. That prevented him from making a high-level impact until 2018 — when he played well enough to become Pro Football Focus’ breakout player of the year. The team’s 67th pick was spent on Nebraska defensive tackle Maliek Collins, who moved into the starting lineup and has remained there for each of his three seasons as a pro.
Assuming the club wouldn’t have selected Dak Prescott in the fourth round after a theoretical trade for Lynch, here’s how this deal worked out for Dallas:
What Dallas would have received in the Paxton Lynch trade vs. the actual result
|What Dallas would have received via trade||Seasons as a starter||What Dallas received instead||Seasons as a starter|
|What Dallas would have received via trade||Seasons as a starter||What Dallas received instead||Seasons as a starter|
|QB Paxton Lynch (26th pick)||0||LB Jaylon Smith (34th pick)||1|
|DT Maliek Collins (67th pick)||3|
|QB Dak Prescott (135th pick)||3|
Lynch, on the other hand, was rushed into Denver’s starting lineup earlier than anticipated. He was a Group of 5 passer who lit up AAC defenses at Memphis but needed serious seasoning and practice time to handle the speed of the pro game.
Despite coming into the league as a project, he made his NFL debut in Week 4. The rookie played in relief of injured starter Trevor Siemian in a solid performance to beat a respectable Tampa Bay team, but that success proved fleeting.
Lynch would go on to make four starts over his first two years as a pro. His 76.7 passer rating was nearly five points lower than Brock Osweiler’s as a Bronco, and he was released in 2018 after losing his backup spot on the roster to Chad Kelly — who would go on to be cut in October after a trespassing arrest. Lynch is now working to claim a second-string role with the team who traded away its opportunity to draft him in 2016, the Seahawks.
This all pales in comparison to the impact made by the quarterback the Cowboys eventually drafted. Prescott lingered on draft boards until Day 3, when Dallas made the 37th pick of the fourth round — but only because its efforts to trade up for Connor Cook were also thwarted. Injuries to Romo and backup Moore pushed Prescott into a starting role to start his rookie campaign, but unlike Lynch he was able to seize the opportunity and emerge as one of the league’s top passers. He’s had a python grip on the position ever since.
In three years as Jones’ quarterback, Prescott has gone 32-16 as a starter. His 96.0 passer rating over that span is better than veterans like Ben Roethlisberger, Alex Smith, Matthew Stafford, and the man taken with the No. 1 pick of the 2016 draft, Jared Goff.
So what would the three teams involved look like if the Cowboys took Seattle’s offer?
Here’s where things get interesting. By making one trade, the Cowboys strip three starters from their roster and lose the player who led them to two playoff appearances in the past two years. They would also send Elway back to the drawing board in his quest to find the 6’5 or taller gunslinger of his dreams and give the Seahawks a jumpstart on their rolling rebuild.
With the 26th pick, Jones gets Lynch and loses Prescott, Smith, and Collins. And with Romo and Moore both injured, he’s the only man left to start Week 1. While Elliott’s presence helps the team do better than the 1-11 mark it posted without its veteran QB the year prior, nine games without its star quarterback mean Dallas is doomed to another non-playoff season.
Romo would have returned around Week 11 to provide the offense with a jolt, but his rust and a rough schedule would make it too difficult to overcome the 4-5 hole dug by a third-string rookie QB.
That leaves the Cowboys with the 15th pick of the 2017 draft and plenty of defensive holes to fill. Fortunately, safety Malik Hooker is available. Hooker and Byron Jones are tagged as the future of the team’s secondary, but a 37-year-old Romo — who eschewed retirement without a ready-made replacement waiting in the wings — can’t wring enough out of his team to top last year’s record. The Cowboys go 8-8 and earn a spot in the middle of the 2018 draft order.
Romo retires during the 2018 offseason, and Jones — having Lynch on the roster as both a potential starter and a cautionary tale — resists the temptation to trade up in the first round to take a crack at Joshes Allen or Rosen. Dallas still manages to snag Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch on Day 1. Then, with Lynch not looking like their future, the Cowboys take Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph in the second round instead of offensive lineman Connor Williams.
In the end, drafting Lynch would end up looking like this:
The hypothetical Cowboys lose:
- Dak Prescott (2016)
- Jaylon Smith (2016)
- Maliek Collins (2016)
- Taco Charlton (2017)
- Connor Williams (2018)
- Their 2016 and 2018 playoff appearances
The hypothetical Cowboys gain:
- Paxton Lynch (2016)
- Malik Hooker (2017)
- Mason Rudolph (2018)
Without Lynch available, Elway hangs on to the 31st pick and jumps headfirst into a run of defensive tackle selections by bringing Mississippi State’s Chris Jones into the fold — keeping him out of AFC West rival Kansas City’s lineup in the process. Jones brings an interior pass-rushing presence who ups Von Miller’s exterior quarterback-chasing game, though he takes some time to make a sustained impact.
He isn’t the only major addition in the early stages of the 2016 draft, however. Elway, feeling the pressure of heading into the season with only Siemian in the mix as his top quarterback, trades up in the second round to select another player who absolutely looks like he should be an NFL pocket passer ... Christian Hackenberg.
The Broncos remain bad, but at least their defense is good enough to ruin other AFC West teams’ seasons.
The hypothetical Broncos lose:
- Paxton Lynch
The hypothetical Broncos gain:
- Chris Jones
- Christian Hackenberg
Not great, but hey, it’s better.
The Seahawks get some extra draft capital by swinging a deal with the Cowboys rather than the Broncos. But Germain Ifedi would probably still have been around at Dallas’ now-traded 34th overall pick — some analysts pegged the mercurial Aggie as a third-round talent — so he winds up in Seattle anyway. And the club’s decision to pick Jarran Reed with the 49th overall pick means Collins would likely be off its radar.
So who do the Seahawks take with the second pick acquired from Dallas? While tight end help like Austin Hooper and Nick Vannett — the latter of whom was drafted in the final pick acquired in the actual Lynch trade — would be tempting, there’s another player who makes more sense. With Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett each in their 30s, Carroll would further bulk up his defensive line by adding Yannick Ngakoue to his depth chart.
Ngakoue, one of the biggest steals of 2016, would be a cornerstone piece for a Seattle team working to rebuild its fearsome defense.
The hypothetical Seahawks lose:
- Nick Vannett
The hypothetical Seahawks gain:
- Yannick Ngakoue
Well, it looks like the Seahawks might have been the biggest loser in the actual Lynch trade.
In 2016, Jones didn’t make the right decision for his franchise as much as he had it foisted upon him. Efforts to trade up to select Lynch and, later, Cook, failed and left him to pick up an accomplished but overlooked Mississippi State quarterback late in the fourth round.
In turn, Prescott stepped into a starting role from his first game as a pro and has led the Cowboys to two playoff appearances in three seasons as a pro. He’s earned just $2.7 million in that span while playing like a quarterback worth $75 million.
As Dallas has risen, the Broncos have sunk into mediocrity without a stable quarterback to counterbalance their punishing defense. Lynch’s release came in the middle of the first losing season streak the team has suffered since 1972. And it’s all possible this funk can be traced directly back to Jones’ son Stephen being able to talk him out of overpaying mightily and letting Denver trade its way into someone who, if nothing else, certainly looks like the kind of quarterback Elway would love.