When you ask around what constitutes a successful draft, the answer you're most likely to get is that if you get two starters out of a draft class, you've done a good job. Veteran NFL GMs like Baltimore’s Ozzie Newsome set three starters per draft as the benchmark for a successful draft, but those three guys they don't have to be immediate starters, eventual starters count as well.
Daniel Jeremiah, a former scout for the Baltimore Ravens who now works for NFL Network, explains Newsome's thinking.
"If three years down the line, three of the players [Baltimore] picked in that draft were solid starters who we weren’t looking to replace, we viewed that as a successful draft," said NFL analyst Daniel Jeremiah. "You figure, on average, you’ve got seven picks — that’s not even batting .500, but that’s pretty good. If you can go year after year doing that, you can sustain excellence as a football team."
From a purely mathematical point of view, that is actually quite a simple notion. All else being equal, adding the equivalent of two starters (or 9.1% of all snaps) to the roster is a good target for the first year of a rookie class. In the following years, you'd probably want to come out with the equivalent of three starters (13.6% of all snaps). Consistently over-or underachieving those targets has wide-ranging implications for your franchise as your hit rate dramatically impacts your roster renewal cycle:
Long Cycle: When you only hit on two starters per rookie class, you'll be on a roughly eleven-year cycle of roster renewal, which is much longer than the average span of an NFL starter's career. In a long cycle situation, free agency becomes an absolute necessity as you'll need to plug holes all over the roster (often at high cost to your salary cap).
I assume this is a concept most Cowboys fans are intimately familiar with. The Cowboys have been on a long cycle for the better part of the new millennium, which is one of the main reasons for the lack of depth across the roster. They've intermittently signed high-priced free agents to plug the worst holes, and made do with average to below average talent at other spots where cap restrictions simply didn't allow the free-spending strategy the Cowboys had employed so successfully in the 90s.
Medium Cycle: If you hit on three starters per rookie class, that cycle comes down to a roughly seven-year roster renewal frequency, and you would be able to fill most of your roster holes internally. In a medium cycle situation, free agency becomes more of a luxury, and you can use it to selectively sign players that can elevate the overall talent level of your roster. This is the direction the Cowboys are currently trending towards. Only a very small part of the Cowboys' salary cap issues are driven by expensive free agent signings; the majority is due to bloated contracts for underperforming players - a different issue entirely.
Short Cycle: If you get four starters per year, your cycle drops to 5.5 years, and you're generating a surplus of starters. In a short cycle situation, you’ll have an abundance of starter-level players who are at the beginning or in the middle of their second contracts. And what do you do with those guys? You trade them. Preferably for high draft picks. You then end up with more draft picks, which in turn will help you draft even more starters. It’s really quite simple.
Ben Violin of the Boston Globe recently did a study in which he looked at which teams perform best in the NFL draft by measuring which teams retained the most players they originally selected in the NFL Draft. Leading the resulting list are the 49ers, who have 18 starters the 49ers originally selected themselves. The Patriots are ranked second with 16 starters, and five teams share third place with 15 starters each (HOU, CIN, MIN, GB, PIT). The Cowboys are a little off the pace with 13 starters, but still a long way away from the likes of Chicago, Tampa Bay and Jacksonville (seven each).
Overall, hitting on two starters isn't really that big of a deal, to be honest. In an analysis of drafts from 1993 through 2012, Tony Violetti - who really, really, likes to talk about himself in the third person - shows how frequently teams have drafted 3-years starters, based on where they were picked.
|Probability of drafting a 3-year starter|
If you were to draft in the top 10 of each of the first three rounds, the math says you should average about two starters in every draft. In other words, you could simply throw darts at your board for the first three rounds, and the odds are you could still come away with two starters. Which makes using the first three rounds as any kind of success measure for GMs or front offices a largely useless metric.
A much better measure of how good a front office/GM is would be to look at the success rate of late-round picks or UDFAs. The table above suggests only about one out of ten picks in rounds four through seven eventually become a starter in the NFL.
Todd Archer of ESPN Dallas, also referencing the Ben Violin data, writes that the Cowboys have done a terrible job in the late rounds of late, but also points out that they have done fairly well with undrafted free agents:
The Dallas Cowboys are one of six teams not to have a current starter they selected in Rounds 5-7, according to the chart. Since 2010, the Cowboys have had 12 picks in Rounds 5-7 and only Dwayne Harris, James Hanna, Joseph Randle and DeVonte Holloman remain.
Also in Volin’s chart is a look at undrafted starters. The Cowboys had a league-high five in 2013 with Tony Romo, Miles Austin, Barry Church, Ronald Leary and Jeff Heath. For years the Cowboys have excelled in finding undrafted free agents. In the last three years they have landed Dan Bailey, Phillip Tanner, Chris Jones, Ben Bass, Cole Beasley, Leary, Heath and Cam Lawrence.
The Cowboys have eight picks at their disposal heading into the final rounds of the draft later today. To make this a successful draft and get onto the short cycle track, the Cowboys have to come away with at least four starters, preferably five, from the 2014 NFL draft. We'll give the Cowboys the benefit of the doubt and assume that Zack Martin and Demarcus Lawrence will be starters in the league. That still means the Cowboys need to get three eventual starters with their eight picks today.
That will be how we'll measure the success of this draft. The late rounds are where successful franchises routinely gain an edge over their competitors. Because as happy as we are that the Cowboys drafted Dez Bryant and Sean Lee in 2010, those are also the only two starters to materialize from that draft class. And we don't want a repeat of that this year.
Of course, there's no way of making an assessment about the number of eventual starters from this draft class at the conclusion of the draft tonight. But keep the idea of the long, medium and short cycles in mind as you reflect on previous draft classes; of late, we've been talking about how the Cowboys have gotten better at drafting over the last few years, but that assessment is based almost entirely on picks made in the top three rounds.
But looking only at the top half of the draft is like looking at a newscaster sitting behind his desk in a shirt and tie, and not realizing that he's not wearing a suit at all.
Today we begin finding out just how good or bad the Cowboys' revamped front office really is.