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How Well Have the Dallas Cowboys Drafted? 2010-2013, A Quantitative Approach

Grading drafts is typically a highly subjective process ("I thought the team selected the players I liked/ knew about") or, when done more scientifically, serves as an assessment of each team's pre-draft capital ("They had two first rounders, ergo I deem their draft to be good"). Here, we try another method, assessing each team's recent draft borrowing a quantitative approach.

Mo Claiborne is killing Dallas' draft grades
Mo Claiborne is killing Dallas' draft grades
Crystal Logiudice-US PRESSWIRE

Usually, we assess the success of a given draft in a rather simplistic way: he with the most toys wins. Often the teams that pundits declare have "won" in the draft are those that were best positioned to do so, with the most picks and/ or the most picks in the top 100. We can see this in the most recent iteration of the draft; in late April, Bill Barnwell, formerly of Football Outsiders, penned a piece on Grantland in which he asked the question: which team had it best? Using  Approximate Value as his metric, Barnwell measured each team's expected draft haul given the "pick capital" it had accumulated. His top five should not surprise (remember that this was going into the draft; some of these picks were traded away over the weekend):

1. Cleveland (fifth overall pick, with additional 1st, 3rd and 4th rounders)
2. St. Louis (third overall pick, plus an extra 1st, 6th and two 7ths)
3. Houston (first pick in each round plus an additional 4th, two 6ths and a 7th).
4. Jacksonville (second pick in each round, with an extra 4th, two 5ths and a 6th)
5. Atlanta (sixth overall pick plus an additional 4th and two 7ths)

Each of these teams was initially slated to pick in the top six (Cleveland traded back and ended up with the eighth selection), had smartly not traded away any of their original picks and had acquired additional picks from other teams. Sure enough, they were routinely singled out by draft pundits as "winners" after draft weekend. Of course they were: they had the most draft capital!

And we see this every year. Remember those great Cowboys drafts from the late 1980s and early 90s? We recall that Jimmy Johnson was a master manipulator and supreme talent evaluator, but the real reason that Dallas was so successful is that they accumulated an unprecedented amount of draft capital. To put this in perspective: in 2013, after the first-round trade with the 49ers, the Cowboys had, per the traditional draft trade chart, 780.6 points of value. Compare this to the 1991 draft when, after making several trades, Dallas enjoyed a whopping 2,103.6 points. That's nearly three times as much draft capital!

As might be expected, post-draft analyses of these two drafts were rather divergent: the 1991 haul was considered one of the best ever; the 2013 haul was thought to be middling to good. Such analyses are in actuality assessments of pre-draft capital; they fail to take into account that a draft with two picks can (and should) be a good draft if both of those picks exceed their value, and struggle to assess accurately instances wherein a teams trade away a current pick for one in the next year's draft. What we need is a more quantitative approach, one that looks at how well teams did relative to whatever picks they possessed.

For just such an approach, I'd like to turn to the superb work done at one of our SBNation sister sites, Niner Nation. In a late May FanPost, a member named nickbradley offers a quantitative approach to recent drafts. Using Approximate Value, the same metric employed by Barnwell, he calculates what he terms "expected Career AV" based on a player’s draft position. From there, he determined what he calls "netCarAV," totaling the netCarAVs for each team's picks to determine how well that team did in a given draft.This does away with the standard assessment of pre-draft capital, as he notes:

Alternate approaches can include simply summing up CarAV for that team in that draft, but if you do that, teams that drafted high automatically come out on top unless [they blew it]. But with this approach, if you take a player at #7 overall, he better play like a #7 overall pick, or you’ll get negative netCarAV.

Next, nickbradley compiles his findings for the 2010-13 drafts, with the proviso that, because a player's Career AV presumably goes up each season, the 2010 draft is more heavily weighted than subsequent efforts, with 2013 being weighted least. Here's what he found:

Team 2010 2011 2012 2013 Total
SEA 17.99 37.79 40.57 -5.96 90.38
NWE 39.15 -10.06 4.74 6.17 40.01
DEN 37.53 3.07 0.74 -2.67 38.68
PIT 30.71 2.98 -12 0.85 22.54
MIA 20.48 12.03 4.78 -15 22.29
SFO 46.48 4.5 -24 -4.91 22.07
ATL 0.73 15.13 7.49 -3.71 19.64
CIN 6.48 17.18 -2.23 -4.7 16.73
GNB 27.68 -5.96 -15.32 8.92 15.32
CHI 10.25 -2.25 -7.6 14.59 15
DAL 11.7 15.76 -20.51 5.83 12.78
NOR 11.85 -8.53 1.88 5.69 10.89
ARI 19.41 6.12 -10.45 -6.32 8.76
HOU -6.05 22.15 -8.88 -1.01 6.22
CLE -11.85 14.97 2.91 -5.74 0.29
SDG 7.03 -11.87 -8.57 13.22 -0.19
WAS -6.74 3.68 6.36 -4.52 -1.21
NYJ -25.88 23.51 -2.42 2.59 -2.19
TEN -16.36 8.75 3.31 0.11 -4.19
CAR -3.32 -12.86 8.93 0.22 -7.03
TAM -21.22 -7.83 11.97 9.99 -7.08
OAK -2.62 -1.74 -3.12 -3.09 -10.57
PHI -20.83 -10.85 17.35 3.74 -10.59
BAL -14.2 1.18 6.25 -4.51 -11.27
IND -8.3 -18.3 11.58 -3.08 -18.1
DET -2.27 -19.82 -8.4 1.53 -28.95
KAN -5.85 -17.78 -1.63 -7.61 -32.87
MIN -29.24 -6.74 3.62 -4.93 -37.3
STL -47.21 -17.58 9.2 8.93 -46.65
JAX -21.08 -14.37 -11.19 -3.08 -49.72
NYG -16.74 -18.72 -10.75 -5.69 -51.91
BUF -38.55 -11.45 -7.01 3.75 -53.26

A couple of takeaways from this information:

  • The Cowboys come in eleventh overall. This serves to confirm our sense that Dallas has been drafting better since 2010. However, their scores are rather uneven. 2010 should be the highest total but it isn't (look at San Francisco's score), and 2012's score is catastrophic (more on that below). On the bright side, their 2011 and '13 hauls both register one of the league's better scores. What this also confirms is that Dallas' drafts haven't been nearly consistent enough; the Cowboys seem to be an every-other-year kind of operation.
  • The 2012 draft class is killing their grade. Curiously this poor grade doesn't reflect the fact that the Cowboys traded away their second rounder - which is exactly why most pundits consider 2012 to be a sub-par draft. Rather, it's because neither Mo Claiborne (8 Career AV) nor Tyrone Crawford (one) has done anything of note. The rest of the class looks like a missing persons ad: Kyle WIlber (4 CAV); Matt Johnson (0); James Hanna (2).
  • Seattle is rewarded for its late-round hits. If the mark of good drafting is to exceed the expected value for a given pick, the Seahawks have certainly excelled of late, with several third-day selections who have far exceeded expectations - not only the oft-covered guys like Cam Chancellor and Richard Sherman, but also linebacker Malcolm Smith and OG J.R. Sweezy (a converted defensive end). That said, given the fact that all NFL teams are more or less equal in terms of drafting ability, this probably represents a run of luck moreso than it does the superiority of Seattle's drafting acumen.

Finally, nickbradley converted each team's total netCarAV into some kind of grade, creating a grading curve where the 50th percentile team received a grade of "C," which he correlates to 75 percent. Here are the year-by-year grades:

2010 2011 2012 2013
85.07 93.22 52.54 90.48

A look at the Cowboys four-year report card shows a "B," an "A," and "F" and an "A-" Note that their lowest grades have come in years in which Dallas traded up to grab the player or players they wanted. And, as noted above, the Cowboys have received very little from the 2012 draft class. More than anything, the Cowboys fortunes in 2014 and beyond rest on Claiborne and Crawford meeting or exceeding their draft expectations; a little something from the third-day players would also be a welcome development.

After all, rebuilding teams simply cannot afford to have washout years.

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