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Cowboys' 2012 Draft Class: Keep The Cap On The Anointing Oil

What is the likelihood Danny Coale becomes a legitimate contributor? History says about one in sixteen.
What is the likelihood Danny Coale becomes a legitimate contributor? History says about one in sixteen.

This weekend was a heady one for the most dedicated Cowboys fans, as we were treated to a steady series of tweets and blog posts detailing the exploits of the Cowboys incoming rookie class.The Interwebs were rife with reports of Tyrone Crawford's strength, Danny Coale's ability to get open and, most of all, Kyle Wilber's speed and ferocity. I hate to be that guy, but I'd ask that we tap the brakes a little on the Wilber-to-Canton talk. Not only was he tearing it up against scrubinis who aren't likely to survive the first cut, but the poor guy has history stacked against him.

What history, you ask? Well, draft history. To support this claim, I'd like to turn your attention to a superb fanpost by jdg4660, in which he looks at the percentage of starters historically found in each round of the draft. Like me, 4660 confesses to being excited by the superlatives, delicious measurables and high RKG coefficients heaped on the recent draft class, and wondered "what a more analytical, less emotional perspective might do to our hopes and dreams" for this and other draft classes. His more sober approach involved looking up every player on every NFL team's 2011 roster, and creating a database detailing the position, the number of games each was active, and the number of games started by each player. In addition, he notated the year and round (and even where in the round) every player was drafted.

What did 4660 do with all this information? You'll have to make the jump to find out...

After compiling this comprehensive databank, 4660 turned to the 2008 draft, and selected out the 2008 draftees, regardless of round, who started at least eight games in 2011 - which, he notes, would have been their all-important fourth year. His findings were sobering, to say the least: roughly one-third of 2008's first rounders failed to start eight or more games last year, a figure which spiked to more than 60% for guys chosen in round two and almost 85% by the fourth round. Wanting to gather a larger sample size, 4660 then selected every player who started nine or more games in 2011, regardless of draft year, and looked at the round in which he was drafted. Here's what he found:

Draft Round Starters Percentage of Starters
First 197 30.40%
Second 120 18.50%
Third 86 13.30%
Fourth 57 8.80%
Fifth 39 6.00%
Sixth 34 5.30%
Seventh 28 4.30%
UDFA 86 13.40%
Totals 647 100%

What this tells us is that its extremely rare 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. If Dallas' 2012 draft runs true to league-wide form, 4660's data suggests they have a 6.24% chance of one of their five day three draftees becoming a starter. Them's not great odds.

Lest you dismiss jdg's analysis, know that independent sources have arrived at the same conclusions. Late last year, a post on a Cleveland Cavaliers website, of all places (heck, if I were a Cavs fan, I'd post about the NFL, too), presented a slightly different rubric for judging draft picks but nevertheless arrived at remarkably similar conclusions. The author, known only as "Matches," took all NFL drafts from 1999-2006 and consigned each pick to a different NFL success tier, ranging from superstars to guys who played (not started, played) eight professional games.

What are the chances of finding a day-three starter? Matches's conclusions are amazingly similar to 4660's: 8-9% of fourth rounders become above-average starters; 6% of fifth-rounders do, followed by 4% of sixth rounders and 5% of seventh-round picks. For a bit of perspective, consider this: almost 70% of players chosen at the beginning of the fourth round - well before the draft's halfway point - fail to qualify for Matches's "depth" category, meaning that they never manage even to become below average starters or regularly-contributing backups. Sheesh.

If this amateur sleuthing and statistical acumen doesn't convince you, perhaps Cade Massey will. Massey, you may recall from a late-March post, is a professor at Yale; his area of specialty is the psychology of overconfidence, particularly as it applies to making decisions in uncertain environments. In the aforementioned post, I noted a lecture Massey delivered in early March at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, entitled "Flipping Coins in the War Room." In it, he makes some startling points about the draft, setting them up by first establishing (using a variety of criteria) what the league-wide expectations are for each draft pick, from the first selection to Mr. Irrelevant, over a sixteen-year period.

In the slide show accompanying his lecture, Massey offers a Lowess curve tracking these expectations for players drafted from 1991-2004 (if you hit the link, it's the second slide). According to Massey, the first player drafted in the second round has historically been about 70% as successful as the first player taken overall; the guy chosen at the top of round three would be roughly 50% as successful, and so on. By the time we get to the top of round five (about where the Cowboys picked up safety Matt Johnson), the expectation is that they player will be less than 25% as successful as, in this case, Andrew Luck. Given that the first overall selection includes the likes of Aundray Bruce, Steve Emtman, Ki-Jana Carter, Courtney Brown and JaMarcus Russell, we should pause before we anoint the likes of Kyle Wilber, Matt Johnson or Caleb McSurdy. History suggests the likelihood of their becoming starters, much less stars, to be very, very low.

What it also does is offer a new perspective on the sordid 2009 draft, which I've seen local scribes declare the worst in NFL history. This is simply not true. Sure, neither of their seventh rounders, Oklahoma wide receiver Manny Johnson or Cincinnati corner Mike Mickens, ever did played an NFL down. But that, not Jay Ratliff or Patrick Crayton, is the norm; according to our friend Matches, only 55% of seventh rounders even played (much less started) in as many as eight NFL games. In the seventh round, success means finding a guy who will get a few snaps here and there. As 4660 sagely notes, "No wonder the 2009 draft was so bad. The odds of finding a starter in the 7th round is worse than a one-in-twenty proposition." In that ill-fated year, the problem wasn't that the Cowboys failed to draft the right players; it was that they traded away their picks in the rounds where solid players can be found at a double-digit success rate.

And guess what? They did the same thing again this year, dealing away their second-rounder for Mo Claiborne. Which brings me to the key difference: the 2009 draft didn't feature the consensus best defensive player in the draft. As these writers all make clear, Claiborne is no sure thing - in the draft such an animal doesn't exist - but he's as close to one as this crapshoot will allow. And that puts us well ahead of 2009 already.

After Claiborne, however, who's to say what this class will offer? Will history, just this once, be kind? I fervently hope so, but I wouldn't bet on it. History plays with house money.

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