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Cowboys' 2014 Draft Class: Recalibrating Our Expectations, Part III: Position Success

With OTAs underway, and reports emerge extolling the play of the Cowboys most recent draft crop, it's important that we take a step back and recalibrate our expectations to the actual historical performance of first-year players. Here, in the third installment of a multi-part series, we look at which positions tend to have the best rookie seasons.

Fourth-rounder Anthony Hitchens may well have the best season of any Cowboys rookie.
Fourth-rounder Anthony Hitchens may well have the best season of any Cowboys rookie.
Rick Yeatts

On Saturday, the inimitable O.C.C.penned a post that looked at the playing time of recent rookie classes in order to evaluate which drafts had been more (2005) or less (2009) effective. If a good draft class is one that nets at least two first-year starters, The Cool One proffers, then only twice in the last five years have the Cowboys had a rookie class make a satisfactory impact (this doesn't mean that they fail to provide impact in future years; as he points out, all come close to the "three-start" threshold in following seasons).

The above followed a terrific post in which Cool showed us how much of a contribution recent rookie classes had made by snap counts. Aside from the 2013 class logging a whopping 12.3% of Dallas' total snaps, most of these contributions are, shall we say, paltry, ranging from the 2009 class's 1.4% to 2011's 7.6%. Both posts reinforce the notion that popular memes offered by draft pundits and coaches alike - that a given collegian, especially if he is a high-round pick, should be able to "step in right away" or that a team "must find three or four impact players"  - are balderdash.

Or, at the very least, highly unrealistic. And its not just me that thinks so; none other than the brilliant Crimson fellows at the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective would agree. Not too long ago, Alex Koenig, one of these distinguished gents, decided to investigate this claim further. What he found was that this is indeed a fallacy; even the best rookies (Tyron Smith is a superb recent example) struggle in their rookie years, and often in their second or third seasons as well.

To arrive at this conclusion, Koenig used fairly standard modes of inquiry: recipients of AP Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year awards; first-year players who have made Pro Bowl appearances; and Approximate Value (AV), Pro Football Reference's useful tool that allows us to compare players across positions and eras.

As might be expected, the first two of these categories produced uneven results. For example, no O-lineman has received an Offensive Rookie of the Year Award (it's hard to imagine that none has been deserving, especially given that four rookie linemen have been named to the Pro Bowl). With AV, as is often the case, the numbers offer what seems to be a more reasonable assessment.

Looking at all first- and second-rounders drafted since 1970, the HSAC came up with the top 100 seasons in terms of AV, with a distribution as follows:

Positon Number
Running Back 40
Linebacker 16
Wide Receiver 13
Quarterback 9
Cornerback 5
Safety 5
Left Tackle 5
Defensive End 3
Tight End 3
Defensive Tackle 1

As this chart makes clear, an even 40% of the top 100 rookie seasons were had by running backs, with linebackers and wide receiver a fairly closely distributed second and third. Why these positions? All three of these position groups play in space (linebackers less so, obviously), and rely on natural instincts, speed, and reaction time to succeed. On the other hand, the interiors of both lines are under-represented; there are no centers or guards and only one defensive tackle. This suggests that even the strongest college players must get stronger before they are ready to compete.

Perhaps the most interesting test case is cornerback, a "space" position whose players, like running backs or receivers, rely on natural instincts to do their best work. Indeed, the very best rookie season in terms of AV belongs to cornerback/return man Patrick Peterson of the Arizona Cardinals, in 2011. Thanks to four punt return touchdowns and two interceptions, Peterson notched an impressive 21 AV (to put this in context, the highest AV total Peyton Manning ever accumulated was 21, in 2004 - yes, including his record-setting 2013 campaign). Yet this thesis is belied by the facts: only five corners appear on the list.

What does this mean for the Cowboys' 2014 draft haul? It doesn't look good; there are no offensive guards in this group, and defensive ends lie near the bottom of the list, at 3%. If their rookie seasons follow the historical trend, therefore, they may be eclipsed by players at positions that tend to make more impact year one: LB Anthony Hitchens (whose playing time can't help but increase as a result of Sean Lee's injury) and WR Devin Street. That doesn't mean that Zack Martin will have a terrible rookie campaign; it might be that, due to the positions they play, Martin has a terrific rookie campaign and still scores a lower AV than other rooks who do the things that pile up AV points: making tackles; intercepting passes; scoring touchdowns.

How about the late-round selections? Koenig's analysis is derived only from first- and second-round choices, due to the fact that guys picked in the third round and later have historically taken longer to develop and been less productive in year one. In the last installment of this series, I wrote a historically-inflected post that pointed out how rare it is for a team to find a starter on the third day of the draft. Indeed, less than one quarter (24.4%) of NFL starters come from rounds 4-7, and almost 70% of players chosen at the beginning of the fourth round - well before the draft's halfway point - never become even below average starters or regularly-contributing backups. The odds of finding a starter in the seventh round, I concluded, is somewhere between a one-in-ten and a one-in-twenty proposition.

With this in mind, considering both draft round and positional expectation, we must admit that it's highly unlikely that any of these players approach Peterson's phenomenal rookie season. The larger conclusion therefore is that we must -surprise! - temper our enthusiasm and expectations. The NFL draft, as our Harvard man proposes, is an exercise in patience:

Unlike the NBA, it is rare for highly touted NFL rookies to make significant impacts at key positions. Sure, a player like Cam Newton will come around every now and then, but by and large draft picks are made under the reasonable assumption that the transition from the college to the pro game takes a while.

As followers of the draft, therefore, we must try to exercise the same level of patience that teams do. So, while several of Dallas' 2014 selections appear to be good players at positions of need, it's important that we don't get too caught up in "plug-and-play" narratives. History shows that, unless they are running backs, even the very best rookies take a year or two to make any significant contributions.

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