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Dallas Cowboys Rookies: Recent Rookie Classes With Strong Playing Time Contributions

A look at the playing time of the last 10 rookie class suggests there's reason for optimism about the more recent rookie classes.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, we took a look at the number of snaps played by each of the last eight Cowboys rookie classes in their rookie seasons. We found that the 2014 rookie class played more snaps in their rookie season than all but one of the last eight rookie classes.

That makes the 2014 rookie class (and we're talking specifically about rookie classes, not just draft classes) one of the most productive Cowboys recent rookie classes, despite being handicapped from the start. Not only did the Cowboys trade away their third-round pick to move up for DE DeMarcus Lawrence, they also lost Lawrence for eight games with a broken foot. But the rest of the draft class stepped up, and over 16 games has accumulated 9.5% of all snaps, the second highest value for a Cowboys draft class since at least 2007.

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

Three years (and sometimes even more) is the standard usually used to fully evaluate a rookie class. Which is 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.

The snap numbers I used for this post are taken from Pro Football Focus, and their data only goes back to 2007, so I don't have snap numbers for the rookie seasons of rookie classes prior to 2007. But I do have the second year of the 2006 class and the third year of the 2005 class, which is about as far back as we want to go anyway.

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 outstanding.

The table below summarizes the data for the last 10 rookie classes:

1st year 2nd year 3rd year 4th year 5th year
Class of 2005 - - - - 16.9%
Class of 2006 - -
3.6% 7.7% 7.6%
Class of 2007 3.8% 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 8.5% 10.9% 11.6%
- -
Class of 2012 6.5% 11.5%
- -
- -
Class of 2013 15.3% 14.8%
- -
- -
- -
Class of 2014 9.5%
- -
- -
- -
- -
Red = 1 one starter, Green = 2+ starters, Blue = 3+ starters

How to read the table: Take "Class of 2010" which represents the 2010 rookie class. In its first year in the league, the 2010 rookie class played on only 6.9% of all snaps, in part because of injuries to Dez Bryant and Sean Lee. With both players healthy and UDFA Phil Costa playing center for the year, the figure jumped to 14.2% in 2011. The percentage dropped in 2012 as the Cowboys replaced Costa at center, and his 1,024 snaps were partly replaced by supplemental draft pick Josh Brent (320) and UDFA Danny McCray (658) who was forced into play at safety.  2013 was Barry Church's first year as a starter, and together with Bryant and Lee, those three players account for almost all snaps of that rookie class (11.3% of the total snaps). In 2014, the percentage dropped to 7.9 with Lee's injury, but we should expect it to rise again in 2015, as Bryant, Church and Lee are all locked in as starters, and Josh Brent may provide some further upside.

Now take the first row, the 2005 rookie class. As we only have data starting in 2007, we can only look at snaps for that rookie class beginning in 2007, their third 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 third and fourth years with 16.9% and 16.3%. That is the equivalent of about 3.7 starters playing every single snap in 16 games. Quite a haul for the Cowboys (aided somewhat by having two first-round picks at their disposal). 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.

2009: 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.

2011: Overall, the Cowboys look to have done better with their drafts since 2010. The 2011 rookie class is holding its own thanks to Tyron Smith, DeMarco Murray and Bruce Carter, but if the latter two were to leave in free agency, the numbers wouldn't look good in 2015. You'll notice that the 2011 rookie class wasn't able to significantly build on its relatively high rookie season snap percentage (8.5%), in part due to the relatively weak haul of UDFAs, in part also because Dan Bailey doesn't count against the totals, as we're only looking at offensive and defensive snaps.

2012: The class of 2012 may be the surprise class in this roundup, even though it looked like the cards were stacked against this class early. The Cowboys had traded away a second-round pick for Morris Claiborne, then Claiborne and Tyrone Crawford missed significant playing time in 2013, and Claiborne again missed most of the 2014 season. Fellow draft picks Matt Johnson, Danny Coale and Caleb McSurdy did not get a single NFL snap in their career with the Cowboys due to various injuries. The saving grace for this rookie class is the strong UDFA haul. Ronald Leary, who sat out his rookie season, was a starter for the last two seasons, Cole Beasley and Lance Dunbar have both increased their snaps every season. If the Cowboys can keep this class together and Claiborne returns healthy and regains a starting spot, this class can hit the three-starter threshold next year.

2013: The 2013 class already has three bona fide starters in Travis Frederick, Terrance Williams, and J.J. Wilcox, and still has upside with Joseph Randle and Gavin Escobar. From a playtime percentage point of view, this may turn into the best class of the last 10 years, which just goes to show the value of accumulating more draft picks in the top 100, and not trading them away.

2014: The 2014 class got off to a very good start, and is only the second rookie class in this analysis that yielded more than two starter equivalents in its rookie season.

Which brings me to a key takeaway from this analysis: Coincidence or not, but the Cowboys seem to have placed more emphasis recently on drafting players who can have an immediate impact. No more players with injury histories like Lee and Carter who'll be limited in their rookie seasons, no more special teams drafts. Now if they would only stop trading away picks to move up...

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 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.

As you look at the playtime percentages of the 2006-2009 classes it's clear that the Cowboys were on long cycle for quite a while, one of the main reasons for the lack of depth across the roster over the last few years. They've intermittently had to sign 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, this long cycle is one of the key reasons why the Cowboys have not had the success they wanted recently.

The good news here is that, health permitting, the Cowboys rookie classes since 2010 could average at least three starters per year, firmly establishing the Cowboys in a medium cycle situation:

2010: Dez Bryant, Sean Lee and Barry Church
2011: Tyron Smith, DeMarco Murray and Bruce Carter
2012: Ronald Leary, Tyrone Crawford, possibly Morris Claiborne (and a lot of depth from Cole Beasley, Lance Dunbar, James Hanna, and Kyle Wilber)
2013: Travis Frederick, Terrance Williams, J.J. Wilcox, perhaps Gavin Escobar and Joseph Randle down the line.
2014: Zack Martin, DeMarcus Lawrence, Anthony Hitchens and maybe a contributor or two from the ranks of the UDFAs/late-round picks.

These last five draft classes have already come through for the Cowboys, and are a key component of this year's 12-4 finish. If they add another solid draft class in 2014, the Cowboys will move closer to a short 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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