When you are looking at NFL rookies, and what you as a fan expect of them, there is one question that should always be in the back of your mind: How much is too much?
Dallas Cowboys fans are feeling pretty good about the rookies the team has this year. And it is not just the fans. I have been looking at some of the early 53 man projections (and even been playing with one of my own, to compare with the one KD has done), and I noticed one thing: Everyone, even the media types (OK, two guys from ESPN Dallas) are projecting all seven of the Dallas draftees to make the team. And several UDFAs are seen as having a very good chance at making the roster as well. Meanwhile, the seemingly omnipresent OCC is running a poll on which rookie not picked 6th overall will make the biggest impact this year.
Yes, it's all exciting. But are we getting too excited, expecting too much from a bunch of rookies, especially given that all but one of the draftees were selected in the third round or later? And we have not seen them do anything but practice a bit in shorts and shirts, except for when they were standing around on the sidelines, or waiting for the school year to wrap up so they could join the team.
There is a rampant optimism around here (well, for many of us, anyway) which can have us with our Kool Aid goggles on. So I thought I would take a look back over the past couple of seasons, and see if there is any reason to think that this might be an overachieving bunch of rookies, or if we may be falling prey to offseason giddiness.
My research into things - well, surely you know what to do by now.
I looked back at the two prior draft classes for the Cowboys. There were two reasons for this, one based on Jason Garrett's approach to evaluating draft talent.
Garrett remembers hearing Tom Landry talk about the importance of the third season of an NFL player's career. Garrett says that timeline has been sped up in the modern NFL due to contracts and free agency.
You can criticize a lot of the Cowboys' recent decisions on draft day, but give them credit for being willing to admit mistakes without wasting much time.
The other reason is that when I tried to look at the draft before the 2010 season, I was struck blind with horror and was only able to recover after hours huddled in a corner, hugging my Moose Johnston vintage jersey while self-administering large quantities of aged scotch, for medicinal purposes, of course. However, the barren, blasted nature of that draft-year-that-will-not-be-named does serve as an interesting starting point, since it can be seen as about as absolute a failure as the Cowboys have ever had.
So let's move up from total wipeout to 2010. With a little wheeling and dealing, the Cowboys wound up taking six players (listed by round):
1. Dez Bryant.
2. Sean Lee
6. Sam Young
6. Jamar Wall
A lot of people, including me, have talked about this last of the Wade-era drafts as the beginning of Dallas doing a better job - but hold on a moment. Outside of the first and second round picks, which you would expect to make the team and contribute, the rest of the list was not so great. AOA is getting essentially his last chance, and is not seen by most as having much chance this year. Sam Young was on the game day roster for two games in Dallas and then went to the Buffalo Bills, where he was on the roster for four games in 2011. Jamar saw one game with the Houston Texans and one with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2010, and was last seen playing in the Arena Football League. Only Sean Lissemore saves the lower part of the draft with his somewhat unexpected rise as a very effective player who is seen as making a much bigger contribution this year. This draft looks good to many of us because Sean Lee is turning out to be an absolute butt-kicking, name-taking stud, and Dez Bryant is flirting with becoming a truly outstanding receiver, especially with the early returns on him from the offseason.
Now on to 2011:
1. Tyron Smith
2. Bruce Carter
4. David Arkin
5. Josh Thomas
7. Shaun Chapas
7. Bill Nagy
This is the first draft of the Garrett years. It starts to look a little better. Tyron Smith has been everything we could have hoped for, and a little more. DeMarco Murray impressed last year. Bruce Carter may have the same kind of career as Sean Lee, who missed a lot of his first campaign with injury and then broke out in his second season. Of the rest, Dwayne Harris spent most of last year on the practice squad, never caught a pass in the games after he was promoted to the active roster, and is in the middle of the battle for 3/4/5 and maybe 6 wide receiver. Josh Thomas didn't make it onto the practice squad and was signed by the Carolina Panthers, where he didn't see a lot of action, but is still with the team right now. Shaun Chapas looks to be on very shaky ground with the signing of Lawrence Vickers, after getting pushed aside last year by Tony Fiammetta, and may be the first one of this class to be out of the league. Bill Nagy, if you recall, was a starter last year before he broke his leg, and is seen as being in the mix at center this year. David Arkin is a big question mark at this time. Like all offensive linemen, he cannot really be evaluated until the pads go on and the team gets into some preseason games.
The trend seems to positive. 2010 has provided two starters and either a key backup or a starter. 2011 has produced three starters and it looks like at least one backup, plus one player who may continue his career elsewhere.
But this would still make it seem highly unlikely that all seven of the current draftees would make the team. It does offer some encouragement, albeit not exactly scientific, as the success rate seems to be extending deeper into the draft. It is likely illusory, of course, but if this year's draft could produce starter or key backup players through the fourth round, it would make it a pretty solid performance. But again, it is very hard to make any educated guesses, since all of the draftees but sixth round pick James Hanna and seventh rounder Caleb McSurdy missed all or most of the OTA/minicamp. History would suggest that one or two of this year's picks would not make the final 53, leaving the team to try and sneak them onto the practice squad.
There are a couple of things working in favor of the draft picks, however. First, there are some marked similarities between them. As rabblerousr pointed out during the latest KD Crunchtime podcast, they all seem to be lunchpail (his term) or blue collar (mine) guys. Tyron Smith is the same way. They don't seem to exhibit a bunch of ego, they take nothing for granted, and all are working their butts off, as far as the training staff will allow. When they were held out of the practices, they still were doing "mental reps" and whatever conditioning they could. Matt Johnson, while waiting for his school to finish up, was getting DVDs of practice and other materials, and impressed people with how comfortable he looked in his one day of minicamp.
This, to springboard off something else rabble said, is the long term plan and underlying philosophy of the team under Garrett. He is using a very consistent approach to things, and trying to get players that are not only talented, but very compatible in their approach to the game. I think that the model for Dallas drafting now is that the team is looking for players like Jason Witten. The Senator has a rep for being just as competitive in practice as he was when he first broke into the league, and his work ethic is unquestioned. Plus he is very talented. I think he is the model for the kinds of players Jason Garrett wants.
Another thing for the rookies is that the needs of the team may work in their favor. Safety did not get the attention that cornerback did, partly because it was seen as a weak year for them, and Johnson is looking like a real gem that the scouting staff ferreted out (and, according to some, pounced on before other teams could grab him). And James Hanna may be a bit protected by the fact the team did not pick up a TE in free agency. He received about the only negative comments directed at any draftee due to excessive drops, but with the salary cap restrictions the Cowboys face, he may be the best option to replace Martellus Bennett (hope the Giants are having fun with him).
Still, I personally expect to see at least one, and maybe two of the draftees not make the final 53. If I were to rank then in order from most likely to make the team to least it would be this:
1. Morris Claiborne - I think he is what we think he is.
2. Matt Johnson - OK, maybe I am putting too much emphasis on the 17 career picks in college. Or maybe not.
3. Danny Coale - I think he is going to impress when he finally gets back on the field - and he is my pet cat.
4. Tyrone Crawford - A good solid backup who starts to get some more work as the season progresses.
5. Kyle Wilber - I am expecting the team to keep five OLBs, which will just about assure him a spot.
6. Caleb McSurdy - Looks like a special teams ace, may be the fourth best ILB if he beats out Orie Lemon, and did you know he could be the backup fullback?
7. James Hanna - Like I said, a few too many drops, but that hole left by Bennett isn't getting any smaller (and neither is he, I hear).
So where should the line be drawn? Could all these guys make it? Remember, there are some good looking UDFAs competing for the same jobs.
But that is a topic for another post.