Yesterday, the Cowboys wrapped up their final OTA sessions, which places us one small step closer to actual football. As we anticipate the coming season with increasing eagerness, we look forward to many things, not the least of which is the emergence of several of the team's good, young players, from Dez Bryant (who will officially be shifting into Beast Mode) to Mo Claiborne. In short, the players from the 2010-'12 drafts will be one year older, stronger and, we hope, significantly better. We would be wise, however, not to include this year's promising batch of rookies in this category, at least not unless we want to succumb to unrealistic expectations.
From draft pundits and coaches alike, we hear that a given player - especially if he is a high-round pick - should be able to "step in right away" or that he is an impact player." Not too long ago, Alex Koenig, one of the brilliant Crimson fellows at the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective decided to investigate this claim further. What he found was that this is for the most part a fallacy; even the best rookies (Tyron Smith is a good recent example) struggle in their rookie years, and often in their second or third seasons as well.
To arrive at this conclusion, the study used the standard modes of inquiry: recipients of AP Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year awards; first-year players who have made Pro Bowl appearances; and Approximate Value (AV), Pro Football Reference's useful tool that allows us to compare players across positions and eras. As might be expected, the first two of these categories produced uneven results. For example, no O-lineman has received an Offensive Rookie of the Year Award (it's hard to imagine that none has been deserving, especially given that four rookie linemen have been named to the Pro Bowl).
With AV, as is often the case, the numbers offer what seems to be a more reasonable assessment. Looking at all first and second rounders drafted since 1970, the HSAC came up with the top 100 seasons in terms of AV, with a distribution as follows:
An even 40% of the top 100 rookie seasons were had by running backs, with linebackers and wide receiver a fairly closely distributed second and third. All three of these position groups play in space (linebackers less so, obviously, and rely on natural instincts, speed, and reaction time to succeed. On the other hand, the interiors of both lines are under-represented; there are no centers or guards and only one defensive tackle. This suggests that even the strongest college players must get stronger before they are ready to compete.
Perhaps the most interesting test case is cornerback, a "space" position whose players, like running backs or receivers, rely on natural instincts to do their best work. Indeed, the rookie season that measured best in terms of AV was cornerback/ return man Patrick Peterson of the Arizona Cardinals in 2011. Thanks to four punt return touchdowns and two interceptions, Peterson notched an impressive 21 AV (to put this in context, the highest AV total Peyton Manning ever accumulated was 21, in 2004). Yet this thesis is belied by the facts: only five corners appear on the list.
What does this mean for the Cowboys? If we accept this research, then Joseph Randle is more likely to have an impactful season than is Travis Frederick (of course, it might be that, due to the positions they play, Fredbeard has a terrific rookie campaign and still scores a lower AV than Randle who, we hope, will be rushing, receiving and scoring touchdowns). If we were to rank the Cowboys rooks using the above table, then the expected contributions would play out along these lines:
But wait. The above list is derived only from first and second round choices, as guys picked in the third round and later have historically taken longer to develop and been less productive in year one. About this time last year, I wrote a post that pointed out how rare it is for a team to find a starter on the third day of the draft; less than one quarter (24.4%) of NFL starters come from rounds 4-7, and almost 70% of players chosen at the beginning of the fourth round - well before the draft's halfway point - never become even below average starters or regularly-contributing backups. The odds of finding a starter in the 7th round are worse than a one-in-twenty proposition.
With this in mind, we must re-weight our list, considering both draft round and positional expectation. Doing so, we come up with something like this:
Even weighted thusly, it's highly unlikely that any of these players approach Peterson's phenomenal rookie season. The larger conclusion therefore is that we must temper our enthusiasm and expectations. The NFL draft, as our Harvard man proposes, is an exercise in patience:
Unlike the NBA, it is rare for highly touted NFL rookies to make significant impacts at key positions. Sure, a player like Cam Newton will come around every now and then, but by and large draft picks are made under the reasonable assumption that the transition from the college to the pro game takes a while.
So, while I think Dallas' 2013 Draft may well prove to be their best since 2005 (yes, better than 2011's increasingly productive crop), it's important that we don't get too caught up in "plug-and-play" narratives. History shows that, unless they are running backs, even the very best rookies take a year or two to make any significant contributions.