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Dallas Cowboys Rookies: Evaluating The Playing Time of Recent Rookie Classes

Since 2005, the success of the Cowboys' rookie classes has been highly erratic. But a look at the playing time of each rookie class suggests there's reason for optimism about the more recent rookie classes.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, we took a look at the number of snaps played by each of the last six Cowboys draft classes in their rookie seasons. We found that the 2013 rookie class played in 15.3% of the total offensive and defensive snaps in their rookie season, making the 2013 Cowboys rookies the most productive rookie class of the last six years.

But is that high enough, or still too low? How much is good enough?

You often hear how it usually takes three years, and sometimes more, to fully evaluate a rookie class. So that's exactly what we'll do today. We'll look at the snap percentages of each season's rookie class and see how those values have progressed over the years.

Again, one important note up front: The snap numbers I use are taken from Pro Football Focus, and unfortunately, their data only goes back to 2008, so I don't have snap numbers for the rookie seasons of rookie classes prior to 2008. But I do have the second year of the 2007 class, the third year of the 2006 class and the fourth year of the 2005 class and so on.

What this allows me to do is to show how different rookie classes performed in terms of snap percentage in each of their first five years in the league. For this analysis, let's assume that adding the equivalent of two starters (or 9.1% of all snaps) to the roster is a good target for a rookie class, adding less than one starter equivalent (4.6%) is terrible, and getting the equivalent of three starters (13.6% of all snaps) is just gravy.

The table below summarizes that data:

1st year 2nd year 3rd year 4th year 5th year
Class of 2005 - -
- -
- -
Class of 2006 - -
- -
3.6% 7.7% 7.6%
Class of 2007 - -
7.1% 9.3% 13.0% 10.8%
Class of 2008 6.7% 10.9% 11.9% 9.4% 4.6%
Class of 2009 1.5% 0.9% 3.6% 4.6% 0.0%
Class of 2010 6.9% 14.2% 11.7% 11.3%
- -
Class of 2011 8.6% 10.9% 11.6%
- -
- -
Class of 2012 6.5% 6.8%
- -
- -
- -
Class of 2013 15.3% - -
- -
- -
- -
Red = Green = 2+ starters, Blue = 3+ starters

How to read the table: Take the row in the middle of the table marked "Class of 2008" which represents the 2008 rookie class. In its first year in the league, the 2008 rookie class played on 6.7% of all snaps. That figure climbed to 10.9% in the second year (2009) and 11.9% in the third year (2010) before falling back slightly in the fourth year to 9.4% (2011). By its fifth year (2012) Martellus Bennett and Tashard Choice had left for greener pastures, and the snap percentage dropped to 4.6%.

Now take the first row, the 2005 rookie class. As we only have data starting in 2008, we can only look at snaps for that rookie class beginning in 2008, their fourth year in the league. The 2005 rookie class is without a doubt the standout class here, as it achieves the highest value of any class in its fourth year with 16.3%. That is the equivalent of 3.6 starters playing every single snap in 16 games. Quite a haul for the Cowboys. The drop in the fifth year to a more pedestrian 11.7% is a result of the way many rookie contracts are structured. Most players reach free agency after four years, and in this case DE Chris Canty and LB Kevin Burnett left the Cowboys, taking almost 800 snaps with them.

The 2009 rookie class is the very obvious odd man out, with terrible values all the way through. By the fifth year, not a single player from that rookie class was left in Dallas.

The Cowboys did better with the 2010 and 2011 rookie classes, although the 2011 rookie class wasn't able to significantly build on its relatively high rookie season snap percentage (8.5%).

The class of 2012 is a snake-bit bunch, with Claiborne and Crawford missing significant playing time in 2013, while fellow draft picks Matt Johnson, Danny Coale and Caleb McSurdy did not get a single NFL snap in two years due to various injuries. The saving grace for this rookie class is Kyle Wilber, who notched 511 snaps last year in emergency relief at linebacker, and may have found a home there.

We covered the 2013 class yesterday, and the table above once again shows just what a strong class this has proven to be so far.

Overall, I'd say that the table corresponds nicely to the way we collectively view the last nine rookie classes. 2005 was an excellent rookie class, 2007 and 2008 could have been better, the 2006 and 2009 classes are forgettable. And while it looks like the Cowboys have been drafting better of late, the 2012 class has got to be a reason for concern, but that class may also be a prime example of why we need to wait for the full three years before making a final judgment.

From the data accumulated here, it looks like 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).

Unfortunately, the Cowboys have not hit those marks all that often, which is one reason the team has issues with its depth. But perhaps an even bigger issue is a purely mathematical one:

Long Cycle: When you only hit on only 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.

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.

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 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). 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. 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.

With their history of rookie classes, the Cowboys have been on a long cycle for a while now, 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.

Ultimately though, this long cycle, coupled with the initial inability or unwillingness to adapt to the realities of the salary cap era, is the main reason why the Cowboys have been a largely average team over the last decade or so.

The good news here is that, health permitting, the Cowboys rookie classes from 2010-2013 could average three starters per year:

2010: Dez Bryant, Sean Lee and Barry Church
2011: Tyron Smith, DeMarco Murray and Bruce Carter
2012: Morris Claiborne and possibly Kyle Wilber at SLB, a wildcard for Tyrone Crawford and endless hope for Matt Johnson
2013: Travis Frederick, Terrance Williams, perhaps Gavin Escobar down the line, and perhaps one or two other rookies.

If these last four draft classes come through for the Cowboys, and if they add another solid draft class in 2014, the Cowboys should get on a roughly seven-year roster cycle, which in turn should have long-term beneficial effects on the Cowboys' salary cap - and the Cowboys' W/L record.

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