Conventional wisdom holds that the litmus test for a good draft class is if a draft yields two solid starters. Two starters may not be a great draft, but it is certainly a solid draft. However, those two starters are not necessarily expected to be starters in their first season.
So far this year, the Cowboys have gotten 26 starts from their 2014 rookie class (Zack Martin: 15, Anthony Hitchens: 10; Davon Coleman: 1), which would be the equivalent of about 1.7 starters. Yet 'games started' is a pretty imprecise metric by which to measure the contribution of a rookie class.
So today we'll look at the 2014 rookie class by asking the most basic question: How much playing time did the 2014 rookie class get during the first 15 games of the season? To do that, we'll use the number of snaps played by the rookie class so far. The snap numbers I use are taken from Pro Football Focus, and unfortunately their data only goes back to 2007, which means I don't have snap numbers for the rookie seasons of rookie classes prior to 2007. So 2007 is where we start as we look at how much playing time the previous rookie classes got in their rookie seasons.
Through 15 games, the 2014 rookie class has accumulated 2,064 snaps, which is 9.4% of the total amount of snaps the Cowboys have played on offense and defense this year. That may not sound like much at first glance, but those 9.4% are the equivalent of 2.1 starters, and more importantly, the second highest value of any Cowboys draft class since 2007.
Here's an overview of the 2007-10 rookie classes and the number of snaps per player. The snap numbers in the tables are the offensive or defensive snaps, special teams snaps are not included.
|2007 Rookie Class||2008 Rookie Class||2009 Rookie Class||2010 Rookie Class|
|OLB||A. Spencer||422||DB||O. Scandrick||395||TE||J. Phillips||198||WR||D. Bryant||429|
|OG||C. Procter*||174||TE||M. Bennett||389||LB||V. Butler||112||FB||C. Gronkowski*||336|
|FB||D. Anderson||136||DB||M. Jenkins||379||WR||K. Ogletree*||44||DL||J. Brent||256|
|DT||R. Ayodele*||56||RB||T. Choice||267||DB||M. Hamlin||10||LB||S. Lee||169
|DB||C. Brown||35||RB||F. Jones||66||DB||B. McCann||146|
|CB||A. Ball||24||DB||T. Battle*||45||DB||B. Church*||119|
|OT||D. Free||17||OL||P. Costa*||109|
* denotes UDFAs
|Rookie snaps||879||Rookie snaps||1,542||Rookie snaps||364||Rookie snaps||1,629|
|In % of total||3.8%||In % of total||6.7%||In % of total||1.5%||In % of total||6.9%|
The 2008 draft class was the "richest" draft class in the last eight years in that the Cowboys had two first-round picks and a second-rounder. But those riches didn't translate into a lot of snaps - or core players for the Cowboys. Orlando Scandrick got more snaps than both first rounders (Jones & Jenkins) and the second rounder (Bennett) and is the only member of that draft class left on the roster.
We've been over how bad the 2009 class was so often it stopped being funny a long time ago. Yet here it is highlighted once again: That rookie class combined for a frighteningly low 364 snaps, just 1.5% of the total team snaps. And 2007 wasn't much better, though the claim to fame for that class is that Doug Free and Anthony Spencer are still with the Cowboys.
The 2010 class saw its snap totals cut short by injuries to Dez Bryant and Sean Lee. Josh Brent, supplemental draft pick in 2010, as well as a bunch of UDFAs give this rookie class a little boost.
Next up, the 2011-13 rookie classes:
|2011 Rookie Class||2012 Rookie Class||2013 Rookie Class|
|T||Tyron Smith||1,074||CB||Morris Claiborne||909||C||Travis Frederick||1.025|
|RB||DeMarco Murray||388||DE||Tyrone Crawford||303||WR||Terrance Williams||700|
|C||Bill Nagy||283||WR||Cole Beasley||128*||S||Jeff Heath*||613|
|C||Kevin Kowalski*||114||TE||James Hanna||109||S||J.J. Wilcox||530|
|RB||Phllip Tanner*||50||RB||Lance Dunbar||91*||LB||DeVonte Holloman||214|
|LB||Alex Albright*||44||DE||Ben Bass||26*||TE||Gavin Escobar||207|
|LB||Bruce Carter||41||OLB||Kyle Wilber||16||CB||B.W. Webb||185|
|FB||Shaun Chapas||8||RB||Joseph Randle||120|
|WR||Dwayne Harris||1||LB||Cameron Lawrence*||63|
|Total Rookie snaps||2,004||Total Rookie snaps||1,582||Total Rookie snaps||3,694|
|Rookies in % of total snaps||8.5%||Rookies in % of total snaps||6.5%||Rookies in % of total snaps||15.3%|
The 2011 draft class effectively played without second-round pick Bruce Carter, but Tyron Smith made up for that by playing all but six offensive snaps in 2011. Both DeMarco Murray's as well as Bill Nagy's seasons were cut short by fractured ankles, but on the strength of Tyron Smith, this draft class walks away with the highest total snap count yet, notching a solid 8.5% of all offensive and defensive snaps.
In 2012 the Cowboys gave up their second-round pick to draft Morris Claiborne, and given that missing pick, the snap-count total of 6.5% is actually quite good for a draft class from which three players ended up on IR (Danny Coale, Matt Johnson, Caleb McSurdy) and a fourth, Kyle Wilber, also hardly saw the field.
In 2013, the Cowboys' decision to move down in the draft paid handsome dividends in that they got 16 starts from Travis Frederick, and an extra eight from Terrance Williams. These two rookies headlined a rookie class that played almost twice as many snaps as the next best class of the previous six years. Easily the best rookie class since 2007.
On to the 2014 rookie class:
|2014 Rookie Class
|Total Rookie snaps||
Rookies in % of total snaps
The 2014 draft class was handicapped from the start when the Cowboys traded away their third-round pick to get DeMarcus Lawrence - and then Lawrence missed eight games with a broken foot. But the rest of the draft class stepped up, and has accumulated 9.5% of all snaps, the second highest value for a Cowboys draft class since 2007.
From the data accumulated in this little exercise, it looks like adding the equivalent of two starters (which translates to about 9% of all snaps) to the roster is a good target for the first year of a rookie class. The 2010 and 2011 classes came close to that mark without reaching it, and the 2014 class surpasses that mark despite being handicapped by injury and trade-ups. The 2013 rookie class beats all other classes by a significant margin, adding the equivalent of 3.4 starters to the team based on its cumulative snap count.
The Cowboys have been highly successful with their first-round picks over the last five years, as Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas explains in this tweet:
GM Jerry's Cowboys are only team in NFL to draft Pro Bowlers in 1st round 4 times in last 5 drafts.— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) December 24, 2014
But as you can see from all the data above, the key to a productive draft is to get playing time from your later-round picks to complement the stars you pick in the first round. And the Cowboys have done a much better job of that recently.
In this exercise, we looked only at the first year of each rookie class. In the next instalment, we'll look at how each rookie class developed in subsequent years.