Late Round Draft Picks Survival Rate: It's Good To Be Drafted By The Cowboys

As we head into OTA's, many late round draft picks are wondering what their chances are of making the roster. Some have already gotten a first taste in rookie mini-camp of what NFL life will be like, and with that experience under their belt already figure that they will have to battle to even make the practice squad.

Making the team is especially tough for this year's 6th or 7th round picks. They are sandwiched between last year's returning players and this year's higher round draft picks, plus a plethora of UDFAs who have nothing to lose. Some will make the team, some will not, and a select few may end up with a Pro Bowl nomination down the line, though neither they nor their teams know this yet.

The internet is littered with thousands of lists of late round steals/jewels/diamonds, which invariably feature the likes of Tom Brady (2000 6th round, #199), T.J. Houshmandzadeh, (2001 7th Round, #204), Adalius Thomas (2000 6th round, #186) and the Cowboys' very own Jay Ratliff (2005 7th round, #224) and many others who have made some kind of recognized impact in the NFL. You get the idea.

This post will be a little different. The Cowboys drafted three players in the 6th and 7th rounds this year, Sam Young, Jamar Wall and Sean Lissemore. Based on historical draft data, what are their chances of making the team? And are they better off as a late round pick with the Cowboys than another NFL team?

To understand the survival rate of late round draft picks, I looked at ten years worth of 6th and 7th rounders from the draft classes of 1999 through 2008.

Here's a rundown of the top-line numbers: 857 players were drafted in the 6th and 7th rounds between '99-'08. A surprisingly high 73% (625) started at least one game in the NFL. 22% (190) were starters for at least one season. 2% (17) eventually earned a Pro Bowl nomination. If you think of these numbers as successive 'cuts', then the first cut is certainly not the deepest. Now for a look at how the Cowboys' draftees fared.

Survival Rate

The Cowboys drafted 29 players in the 6th and 7th rounds from '99-'08. 84%, or 24, of those players played at least one regular season game in the NFL. 84% is the fourth best survival rate in the NFL behind the Bills, Cardinals and Colts.

Teams like the Lions and the Buccaneers, where you would expect any halfway decent college kid to make the team due to the low talent level on the roster, have the second worst survival rate in the league with 65%. Go figure.

More established teams like the Eagles, Steelers and Vikings also have some of the worst survival rates in the league. Some people might argue that the talent on those teams is already quite high, making it harder for rookies to make the team, others might argue that these teams simply aren't good at spotting and then developing late round talent. It is a conundrum.

Note that I counted 'games played in the NFL' as games played for any NFL team, not just games played for the team that drafted the player, as I felt this was a better indicator of a teams' ability to draft NFL-grade talent. 

Starting Grade

As a rookie, you've taken the first hurdle, you made the team, and actually got onto an NFL field at some point. What's next? You want to become a starter.

Dallas drafted nine players in those late rounds that eventually started at least one season in the NFL (Patrick Crayton, Jay Ratliff, Nick Folk, Deon Anderson, Jacques Reeves, Kelvin Garmon, Mario Edwards, Tyson Walter, Rob Petitti - and Alan Ball looks likely to be the next one). This may not exactly be a who is who of the Dallas Cowboys, but nine starters out of the late rounds ranks tied for third in the NFL with the Colts and Titans, and behind the Packers with 11 and the 49ers with 14.

Approximate Value

In a two-part post leading up to the draft ("NFL Draft by Numbers", Part I and Part II) I used 'Approximate Value', a metric developed by Pro-football-reference.com, to measure the 'Draft Success' of a draft class.

Approximate Value assigns a value to any player at any position for any given year, by weighting position specific metrics (i.e. yards or points scored/allowed) with an indicator for durability (total games played and seasons as their team's primary starter) and quality (Pro Bowl and All Pro nominations) and then normalizing all this at a team level. Read up on it at PFR if you need to know more.

Using the AV of the last 30 years, I calculated an Expected AV for each draft pick. Dividing the actual AV by the Expected AV gives you a 'Draft Success' number. A positive figure means you got more value out of the draft picks than could have been historically expected, a negative number means you got below average value out of the picks.

The Cowboys late round draft picks generated an over-proportional amount of value, good enough for 11th in the NFL. The Packers, Titans and 49ers top the list, which could mean that they are very good at identifying talent in later rounds, or that they are simply luckier than other teams. Take your pick.

A note about the AV calculation: The original team drafting a player gets the credit for that players' full AV, regardless if that player ever played a snap for the team, was released or was traded to another team. Eli Manning for example was drafted by the Chargers, and although he played every NFL snap for the Giants, the Chargers get the AV credit for drafting him.

And the winner is:

In the table below I've summarized how each NFL teams ranks against the three criteria outlined above, and calculated an average. The Cowboys rank a respectable 6th in the NFL with their 6th and 7th round picks. This is good news for our three late rounders. At the same time, this year might be more difficult than most for those late rounders to make the roster. Todd Archer quotes Wade Phillips on why this is the case:

"I told all of them they have to beat somebody out on our football team. It's not like going into college where you wait your turn in some cases or there aren't that many good players. We've got a lot of good players. Even to make the 53, you've got to beat out a guy who was on our team last year."

Late Round success by NFL team (click column header to sort)

Team 6th & 7th
rd picks
Played
min 1 game
Survival
Rate
Rank Starter
min 1 season
Rank Draft
Success
Rank Avg.
Rank
GNB 31 25 81% 5 11 2 71% 1 2.7
SFO 31 25 81% 6 14 1 55% 3 3.3
IND 26 22 85% 3 9 3 50% 5 3.7
TEN 27 21 78% 7 9 3 63% 2 4.0
DAL 29 24 83% 4 9 3 27% 11 6.0
DEN 25 19 76% 9 7 7 32% 9 8.3
BUF 32 29 91% 1 8 6 -25% 22 9.7
NYG 26 20 77% 8 6 11 21% 12 10.3
CHI 26 18 69% 21 6 11 50% 4 12.0
CIN 27 19 70% 19 6 11 47% 6 12.0
BAL 27 20 74% 12 5 16 33% 8 12.0
HOU 22 16 073% 16 7 7 -3% 16 13.0
NYJ 24 18 75% 10 5 16 6% 14 13.3
ARI 20 17 85% 2 3 28 7% 13 14.3
STL 25 18 72% 17 7 7 -24% 21 15.0
JAX 32 24 75% 11 5 16 -14% 20 15.7
MIA 30 22 73% 14 6 11 -30% 23 16.0
NWE 32 21 65% 26 5 16 30% 10 17.3
OAK 27 19 70% 20 7 7 -40% 26 17.7
NOR 21 14 67% 24 4 25 36% 7 18.7
CAR 23 17 74% 13 4 25 -12% 19 19.0
SDG 24 16 67% 25 5 16 -9% 17 19.3
PHI 26 17 65% 27 5 16 -12% 18 20.3
KAN 25 17 68% 23 5 16 -37% 24 21.0
SEA 26 19 73% 15 5 16 -58% 32 21.0
ATL 32 22 69% 22 3 28 3% 15 21.7
TAM 37 24 65% 31 6 11 -54% 30 24.0
CLE 28 20 71% 18 4 25 -57% 31 24.7
MIN 23 15 65% 30 5 16 -46% 29 25.0
DET 23 15 65% 29 3 28 -38% 25 27.3
WAS 26 17 65% 28 3 28 -42% 27 27.7
PIT 24 15 63% 32 3 28 -45% 28 29.3
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