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Cowboys 2012 Draft: How Good Is Dallas At Assembling A Draft Board, Part III: Defense

Last year's defensive "little board" featured second-round selection Bruce Carter
Last year's defensive "little board" featured second-round selection Bruce Carter

In part one of this series, we looked at what most NFL scouting departments do each offseason to winnow the massive amount of draftable players down to a workable number, and offered a rearview-mirror look at the Cowboys' 2011 "little board," made up of guys who they invited out to Valley Ranch for Dallas Day events in early April. Part II offered a closer look at the various offensive players on Dallas' short list, presented what I hope were some interesting numbers from their first years in the league, and concluded with a few salient takeaways from those numbers.

Here, in Part III of the series, we'll do the same with the Dallas Day invitees on the other side of the ball. The Cowboys' offensive focus was fairly concentrated, with 10 of the 18 total players being offensive linemen and no quarterbacks or tight ends in the bunch. By contrast, there was a much broader and more uniform spread in their 2011 defensive players of interest: 4 defensive linemen; 3 inside linebackers; 2 outside linebackers; 6 corners; 4 safeties. All positions, from nose tackle to free safety, were represented.

Moreover, there was a much greater spread insofar as where these players were expected to go. While most of the offensive linemen in whom the Cowboys expressed interested were slotted by pundits to be first round picks (and the majority of running backs to be third or fourth rounders), Dallas' strategy seemed to be to establish defensive positional options in multiple rounds. For example, at safety, they took a closer look at guys who were selected in the second (Rahim Moore), fourth (Da'Norris Searcy) seventh rounds (Jonathan Nelson and Eric Hagg).

What do the numbers tell us? A handy-dandy chart, after the jump...

Team and Round (pick #) Games Played/ Starts Position on Depth Chart PFF Grades Total Snaps Rookie Year AV
Defensive Linemen
Christian Ballard MIN 4 (106) 15/ 2 2 (LDE) -0.8 245 1
J.J. Watt HOU 1 (11) 16/ 16 1 (LDE) 26.3 806 10
Kenrick Ellis NYJ 3 (94) 5/2 2 (NT) 2.7 69 1
Ian Williams SF UDFA 1/0 3 (NT) -0.2 7 0
Inside Linebackers
Greg Lloyd PHI 7 (237) 0/0 2 (MLB) NP NP 0(??)
Kelvin Sheppard BUF 3 (68) 16/ 9 1 (LILB) 5.8 442 4
Nate Irving DEN 3 (67) 15/ 0 2 (MLB) 0 5 1
Outside Linebackers
Bruce Carter DAL 2 (40) 7/0 2 (LILB) -1.7 41 0
Martez Wilson NO 3 (72) 13/ 1 3 (SLB) -2.3 105 1
Aaron Williams BUF 2 (34) 9/6 2 (LCB) -6.4 444 2
Brandon Burton MIN 5 (139) 10/1 4 (RCB) -2.8 74 0
Johnny Patrick NO 3 (88) 9/0 3 (RCB) 1.2 47 0
Korey Lindsey CIN 7 (207) Cut, went to AZ P.S. 0/0 4 (RCB) NP NA 0
Prince Amukamara NYG 1 (19) 7/0 2 (LCB) -1.4 167 0
Shareece Wright SD 3 (89) 6/0 3 (LCB) 0.1 4 0
Da’Norris Searcy BUF 4 (100) 16/ 3 2 (SS) 2.7 231 2
Eric Hagg CLEV 7 (248) 10/0 3 (SS) -3.6 182 1
Jonathan Nelson STL 7 (229), cut, went to CAR 2/1 2 (FS) -1.1 77 0
Rahim Moore DEN 2 (45) 14/ 6 2 (FS) -7.7 527 0

First, a bit of contextualization:

  • AV is Pro Football Reference's cumulative season grade (they also offer career AV). Again, some context: for the first rounders, the highest 2011 AVs were Patrick Peterson's 25 and Cam Newton's 19. J.J. Watt's score of 10 ties him for fourth best among 2011 rooks, well above the first-round average of 5.75.
  • Although these PFF grades may appear to be low, be advised that the average PFF grade given to 2011 first rounders was a .75. The average of the players in the above chart is .32, not far behind and a third of a point above the NFL average for all players. This is largely because of J.J. Watt's astonishing 26.3 but, considering that he's the only clear blue-chipper on this list, it's a strong number.

Some takeaways from this data:

  • The Cowboys did an excellent job identifying guys in all rounds. This is most apparent in the late rounds, where some of their targets exceeded the expectation level of their draft positions. In particular, Kelvin Sheppard, Da'Norris Searcey and Eric Hagg outplayed pre-draft expectations.
  • Several of these players might have shown more but were buried down the depth chart at positions of strength. Kenrick Ellis saw a few snaps on a deep Jets DL. UDFA Ian Williams managed to see some playing time on a very athletic and deep 49er front seven (suggesting that, even though most draftniks were pooh-poohing Williams, the Cowboys weren't foolish to take a longer look at him). A similar argument could be made for Martez Wilson and Johnny Patrick, both of whom earned late-season snaps on a veteran (albeit shaky) Saints defense.
  • Rookie defensive backs rarely take the league by storm. Judging by their number of snaps, both Rahim Moore and Aaron Williams earned significant playing time, but their PFF grades suggest that each took his lumps in his rookie campaign.

The overall takeaway from this exercise? For years, people with access to Valley Ranch have been saying that Tom Ciskowski (and, before him, Jeff Ireland) do a masterful job identifying potential Cowboys and building a draft board. Given the guys, on both sides of the ball, in whom they expressed interest before the 2011 selection jamboree, this assertion appears to hold water. Still, the one way to really determine its truth is to look at one of the Cowboys' actual draft boards. And guess what? In the next and final installment of this series, we'll do just that, focusing on players who were drafted 40 or more spots before or after the Cowboys had them slotted. I'll ask: who was right? Dallas or the team that actually drafted the player.

In the meantime, share your thoughts on the chart above down below, in the comments section...

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