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2014 Dallas Cowboys Rookies: Evaluating The Playing Time Of Recent Rookie Classes

The contribution of recent Cowboys' rookie classes has been highly erratic. 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

There are lots of ways to evaluate the relative success of a given rookie class, in part because there is no established definition of what success actually means, just as there is no established definition of what constitutes failure. You could count the number of starts, the number of games played, the number of postseason accolades received or anything else that you can assign a number to.

We went in a slightly different direction yesterday when we looked at the number of snaps played by the last five Cowboys draft classes in their rookie seasons. We found that the 2013 draft class played on 12.3% of the total offensive and defensive snaps in their rookie season, the highest value of the last six years. But is that high enough, or still too low? How much is good enough?

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 rookie 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 don't have to be immediate first-year starters, eventual starters in later years 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."

Technically, one starter on a 22-man roster would account for 4.5% of all snaps on a team, but not every starter plays all snaps, even if he remains completely healthy. Some positions like O-line, QB, starting DBs, and some linebackers usually play close to the maximum number of snaps, others positions like running backs, defensive linemen and wide receivers often play less. So I'm going to discount that percentage a little, and assume that 4% of total team snaps gives you one equivalent starter.

One important note right up front: The snap numbers I use below 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. Also, just for clarity's sake, when we are talking about rookie classes, we are talking about all rookies from a given year, drafted or undrafted.

Here' how the different rookie classes performed in terms of snap percentage in each of their first five years in the league:

1st year 2nd year 3rd year 4th year 5th year
Class of 2005 - - - - - - 16.3% 11.7%
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%
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% 11.0%
Class of 2013 15.2%
Red = less than one starter, Green = 2+ starters, Blue = 3+ starters

How to read the table: Take row for the 2008 class. In its first year in the league, the 2008 rookie class played on 6.7% of all snaps, which is below the 8% mark for two equivalent starters. That figure climbed to 10.9% in the second year and 11.9% in the third year; strong numbers that had the class coming very close to the 12% mark for three equivalent starters. The figure fell in the 4th year (2011) with injuries to Felix Jones and Mike Jenkins, and fell further in the 5th year (2012) when Felix Jones and Martellus Bennett weren't re-signed.

If you move up one row to the 2007 class, you'll see that we don't have snapcount for their rookie season, but do have the data for their later seasons. That class exceeded 12%, the mark for three starter equivalents, in its fourth year (2010), when Doug Free (1,105 snaps), Alan Ball (987), and Anthony Spencer (952) were all starters.

Notice how from 2010 on, the Cowboys rookie classes look a little shaky in their rookie seasons, but then all come close to the 12% threshold in the following seasons, with class of 2010 exceeding the 12% mark in 2011 behind the play of Dez Bryant (951 snaps), Danny McCray (658), Sean Lee (331), Sean Lissemore (329), Josh Brent (320), Phil Costa (126), and Barry Church. However, of those seven players only Bryant and Church are left to take snaps this year.

The standout class here is without a doubt the 2013 class, which returned the highest value of any class in its rookie season with 15.3%. That is the second best overall value, almost on par with the legendary 2005 rookie class and its playing time in 2008 of 16.3%. Quite a haul for the Cowboys, especially considering that every single draft pick got snaps in 2013, as did UDFAs Jeff Heath and Jakar Hamilton - and there's reason to believe this rookie class will get even more snaps in 2014.

Overall, I'd say that the graph corresponds nicely to the way we collectively view the past couple of drafts. 2005 was an excellent draft class, 2007 and 2008 could have been better, the 2006 and 2009 classes are forgettable. And with this historical perspective, the last four Cowboys classes all look quite promising.

From the data accumulated in this little exercise, it looks like adding the equivalent of two starters (or 8% 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 close to the equivalent of three starters (12% of all snaps), and everything above that is just gravy.

The other thing to take away from this is to understand the contribution of each rookie class in 2013, which I've summarized in the table below:

Rookie classes 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003
In % of total snaps 15.2% 11.0% 11.6% 11.3% 0% 4.6% 4.4% 5.4% 2.7% 0% 8.1%
Players remaining on 2013 roster (incl. snapcount in 2013) - - Scandrick (1.118) Free (1,025), Spencer (38) Hatcher (773), Austin (541) Ware (648) - - Witten (1,012), Romo (944)

I've added the names of the players contributing snaps from the 2003-2009 rookie classes to give you a sense of what this table could look like after this season: There'll be a lot more red on display. The table adds up to 74.3%; the remaining snaps were played by players who were brought in as free agents in some form.

Not counting Spencer, the Cowboys will have only four players taking snaps on their roster who were brought in as rookies by the Cowboys between 2003 and 2009. NFL careers are notoriously short, so the picture doesn't come as a big surprise overall, but the absence of a core veteran group from the 2007-2009 rookie classes has been a big burden for the Cowboys.

They've gotten fair to good results from their rookie classes since, and the 2013 class is clearly a highlight. Now they have to hope that the 2014 rookie class will yield a similar result. Because if it does, the Cowboys can turn their attention from re-building back to contending for the playoffs.

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