Debunking Five Cowboys Draft Myths - With A Vengeance

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Taking down some dearly held beliefs about the Cowboys one error, one false claim, one superstition at a time.

Over the years, the misconceptions about what the Cowboys will or won't do in the draft have reached mythical proportions. Myths, just like the narratives about the Cowboys' draft behavior, are often based on some kind of historical event, but are then overelaborated to a point where they can become an ideological narrative that brooks no dissent: The narrative itself becomes the truth, regardless of any evidence to the contrary.

In sportswriting, ideological narratives have become one of the favorite vehicles of pay-per-click journalism because they require little thought and even less research on the part of the writer and hardly any thinking from an audience that likes to nod a lot more than it likes to think (not that we have any of that here!).

Here are five of those Cowboys narratives and some attendant thoughts:

Myth #1: The Cowboys love to draft skill position players.

Dez Bryant, Felix Jones: everybody knows that Jerry Jones likes to draft offensive skill position players with his top picks. Except that Dez Bryant and Felix Jones are the only skill position players drafted by the Cowboys in the first round since 1997, when the Cowboys picked TE David LaFleur with the 22nd overall pick. In fact, the entire narrative does not hold up to even the most basic scrutiny.

In the 25 drafts under Jerry Jones, from 1989-2013, the Cowboys have made 228 draft picks. 64 of those picks were used on offensive skill positions (QB, RB, TE, WR) according to the draft data at Pro-Football-Reference.com. That's a percentage of 28.1%, the lowest value of any team in the league.

Let me repeat that for the full effect it deserves: The Cowboys have drafted less offensive skill position players than any team in the league. Jerry Jones and the Cowboys may very well love skill position players, but they haven't been drafting a whole lot of them.

An enterprising defender of the Jerry-Jones-Likes-Shiny-Things School Of Thought would likely counter as follows:

"Well, there's a good example of how you can twist statistics. Who cares what happens in the later rounds? I know for a fact that the Cowboys draft a lot of skill position players in the top rounds."

In the first three rounds between 1989 and 2013, 23 of 85 players the Cowboys drafted were offensive skill position players. That's a rate of 27.1%, the fifth lowest value over that span. You can twist the shiny toy myth any way you want, it won't make it any more true.

Myth #2: The Cowboys have neglected drafting offensive linemen.

While it is true that Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick were the first lineman the Cowboys took with their first-round picks since Jerry Jones took over the Cowboys, it doesn't mean they haven't drafted linemen in the other rounds.

In fact, the Cowboys spent 41, or 18%, of their 228 draft picks between 1989 and 2013 on offensive lineman. That percentage is the sixth-highest value of any team in the league. That's another stat that does not sit well with enterprising defenders of the notion that the Cowboys have neglected drafting offensive linemen.

"Man, that's another example of how you can twist stats. Everybody knows that the vast majority of the offensive linemen the Cowboys have drafted were in the later rounds where they are less likely to stick. Don't the names David Arkin, Bill Nagy and Sam Young ring a bell?"

Again, let's limit the analysis to the top three rounds. Of the 85 picks made by the Cowboys in the top three rounds between 1989-2013, 20 were offensive linemen. No team in the league has drafted more offensive linemen in the top three rounds of the draft over that span than the Cowboys. Calculated as a percentage, the Cowboys (23.5%) narrowly rank third in the league behind Miami (23.7%) and Seattle (23.9%) in terms of offensive linemen picked in rounds 1-3.

In the 25 drafts under Jones, the Cowboys have picked at least two offensive lineman in 14 drafts, and did not pick a single lineman only four times.

The Cowboys may not have been particularly good at picking linemen, but they drafted more offensive linemen - with higher picks - than most other teams in the league.

Myth #3: The Cowboys don't hit on enough draft picks.

I caught this stat from ESPN's Mike Sando the other day, and it got me wondering.

The Minnesota Vikings have selected 61 players since Rick Spielman took over their draft room in 2006. Eight of the 61 have earned Pro Bowl honors. The Green Bay Packers have drafted 87 players since Ted Thompson became their general manager in 2005. Seven of the 87 have become Pro Bowlers. That's 13 percent for Spielman and 8 percent for Thompson.

I'm generally very cautious about using Pro Bowls as a measure for anything, but I'll play along with ESPN here. Since 2006, seven of 63 Cowboys picks have made the Pro Bowl, a rate of 11%. Going that back one more year to 2005, the Cowboys are 10 out of 71, a rate of 14%. In a like-for-like comparison, the Cowboys beat out both Spielman and Thompson. Better than the Vikings? Okay. Better than the Packers? Nice. But how does that compare across the league? Hold on to your pants, because here are the top five teams that drafted the most Pro Bowlers since 2005.

Team Draft Picks Pro Bowlers in %
New Orleans 54 8 14.8%
Kansas City 75 11 14.7%
San Francisco 78 11 14.1%
Dallas 71 10 14.1%
Denver 68 9 13.2%
NFL average 2,298 198 8.6%

If you follow ESPN's lead (something you should not undertake lightly), and use Pro Bowlers drafted as a measure of a GM's quality, then the Cowboys rank right at the top of the league. How can that be, knowing that Jerry Jones is the GM in Dallas, some would ask?

One reason is that people often confuse what Jerry does with what a GM on many other teams does. Regular GMs spend countless hours every day watching film, watching practice and evaluating their players, draft prospects and free agents. Jerry Jones doesn't do that, or at least doesn't spend nearly the amount of time on those tasks as a regular GM does. Instead, Jerry has his guys who do that work for him. And the quality of those guys has a direct impact on the quality of the players the Cowboys have drafted.

The following table illustrates that in stark numbers, as we look at the numbers over Jerry Jones' entire tenure, but split them into three distinct periods: the Jimmy Johnson years, the Larry Lacewell years, and what for a lack of a better term we'll call the Post-Lacewell years:

1989-1993
Jimmy Johnson
1994-2002
(Switzer/Gailey/Campo)
2003-2013
(Parcells/Phillips/Garrett)
Pro Bowl % 20% (13 of 65)
7.8% (6 of 77)
14.0% (12 of 86)
NFL average 9.0% 11.1% 9.3%
Cowboys NFL rank No. 1
No. 28
No. 4

Note that these numbers only contain drafted players who made the Pro Bowl, not the undrafted players, where the likes of Tony Romo, Miles Austin and Matt McBriar would make the last 11 years look even better.

Jerry Jones got off to a great start with Jimmy Johnson, and a large part of their joint drafting success is owed to the Hershel Walker trade, which gave the Cowboys some great ammunition in the draft. That brief period of brilliance was followed by a long, dark period during which Larry Lacewell was in charge of scouting, Jerry Jones got more involved in the draft, and a succession of head coaches led the Cowboys to ever worse season records. The Cowboys revamped their scouting operation once Parcells was brought in, and despite unmitigated disasters like the 2009 draft, the Cowboys of the last 11 years have put together a pretty good draft record compared to their NFL peers.

Here's a further breakdown by the last three coaching regimes:


03-06, Bill Parcells 07-10, Wade Phillips 11-13, Jason Garrett
Pro Bowl % 19.4%
12.1%
9.1%
NFL average 12.6% 9.3% 4.8%
Cowboys NFL rank No. 4
No. 8 No.5

Bill Parcells delivered Pro-Bowlers at a rate similar to that of Jimmy Johnson, but without the benefit of a Hershel Walker trade. Again, note that the Pro Bowls from the UDFAs brought in under Parcells are not included here. Parcells helped the Cowboys improve their scouting organization, and although Wade Phillips gets blamed for a lot of things in Cowboys Nation, his tenure did bring the Cowboys four Pro Bowlers in Dez Bryant, Anthony Spencer, Mike Jenkins, and Nick Folk. Garrett only has Tyron Smith and DeMarco Murray to his credit so far, but that number could easily increase over the coming years.

Note that where the Cowboys have two Pro Bowlers so far from their last three draft classes, only the Vikings (4) and Washington (3) have more. 10 NFL teams don't yet have a single Pro Bowler to show from their last three drafts, including such supposed bastions of great drafting like Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and New England.

I'd venture to say that after a long, bleak period following Jimmy Johnson's departure, the Cowboys over the last 11 years have started hitting on their draft picks again. The Cowboys' issue is much less about hitting on draft picks, and perhaps more about having enough draft picks to hit with.

Myth #4: The Cowboys like to draft injured players.

A more recent theme has been the Cowboys' propensity to draft injured players. After all, they used two successive second-round picks on injured players: Sean Lee in 2010 and Bruce Carter in 2011. And Morris Claiborne had an injury in 2012 as well. And didn't they just sign Henry Melton, who's coming off an ACL reconstruction and Anthony Spencer with a bum knee? And Rod Marinelli has a gimpy leg. See, it all adds up.

There really isn't much we can do to confirm or refute this narrative, except point out the dangers of recency bias (the tendency to think that trends and patterns we observe in the recent past will continue in the future) or point out that the first six players the Cowboys drafted in 2013 had missed a grand total of two games in the last two years.

But that's not going to stop Dominique Easley (two ACLs), Aaron Murray (ACL), and Brandon Thomas (ACL) being some very popular names in Cowboys mock drafts. And since for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, for every mock that features an injured player going to the Cowboys, you'll have a Cowboys fan somewhere conclusively determining that a given draft prospect isn't suited for Dallas because that prospect allegedly felt a brief tightening of his hamstring in his sophomore season of high school football.

Myth #5: Jerry Jones likes to pick players out of Arkansas.

This is a favorite among people who like to jump up and down for long periods of time in the belief that doing so will force others to accept the jumper's opinion as fact. But regardless of how long the jumping up and down goes on, fact is that of the 228 draft picks in Jerry Jones' tenure as Cowboys owner, only one draft pick, 2008's Felix Jones, was a Razorback.

Yet it seems that every time there's a highly rated prospect out of Arkansas, that player is automatically associated with the Cowboys. There is no highly rated Razorback this year, so you haven't seen this narrative pop up too much,  but don't tell us we didn't warn you when the time comes.

Tomorrow, we look at the Cowboys' propensity to draft small-school prospects. And I promise, that one is not a myth.

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