Randy Gregory, second-round pick in 2015, missed four games with a high ankle sprain and has played sparingly since returning. Chaz Green, third-round pick, spent most of his rookie season on the NFI List and hasn't played a single snap for the Cowboys. Fifth-round pick Ryan Russell was active for only one game this season and was eventually placed on IR with an abdominal injury. Seventh-round pick Mark Nzeocha is still on the NFI list and has not played a snap of football since being drafted.
So how can this apparently snakebit rookie class end up with the second most snaps of the last nine rookie classes? The answer obviously lies in how much playing time the undrafted rookies from the 2015 rookie class got during the first 14 games of the season.
To compare this year's rookie class to previous classes, I'll use two sets of data. For 2007-11, I'll use the numbers from Pro Football Focus, and for 2012-2015 I'll use the official league numbers as recorded by Football Outsiders. There are minor technical discrepancies between the two sets of numbers, but for our purposes the two data sets are sufficiently comparable.
Through 14 games, the 2015 rookie class has accumulated 1,829 snaps, which is 9.8% 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 9.8% are the equivalent of 2.2 starters, and more importantly, the second highest value of any Cowboys rookie class since 2007.
Here's an overview of the 2007-09 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, undrafted players are marked with an asterisk.
|2007 Rookie Class||2008 Rookie Class||2009 Rookie Class|
|OLB||A. Spencer||422||DB||O. Scandrick||395||TE||J. Phillips||198|
|OG||C. Procter*||174||TE||M. Bennett||389||LB||V. Butler||112|
|FB||D. Anderson||136||DB||M. Jenkins||379||WR||K. Ogletree*||44|
|DT||R. Ayodele*||56||RB||T. Choice||267||DB||M. Hamlin||10|
|DB||C. Brown||35||RB||F. Jones||66|
|CB||A. Ball||24||DB||T. Battle*||45|
* denotes UDFAs
|Rookie snaps||879||Rookie snaps||1,542||Rookie snaps||364|
|In % of total||3.8%||In % of total||6.7%||In % of total||1.5%|
These are three very poor rookie seasons. The 2009 draft was particularly disappointing for many exhaustively discussed reasons, but the 2008 class may have been even more disappointing considering that the Cowboys had two first-round picks and a second rounder in that draft.
Over the three years, these three rookie classes averaged 4.0% of the snaps in their rookie seasons, the equivalent of 0.9 starters per rookie class.
Next up, the 2010-12 rookie classes:
|2010 Rookie Class||2011 Rookie Class||2012 Rookie Class|
|WR||D. Bryant||429||T||T. Smith||1,074||CB||M. Claiborne||875|
|FB||C. Gronkowski*||336||RB||D. Murray||388||DE||T. Crawford||295|
|DT||J. Brent||236||C||B. Nagy||283||WR||C. Beasley||124|
|LB||S. Lee||169||C||K. Kowalski*||114||TE||J. Hanna||105|
|DB||B. McCann||146||RB||P. Tanner*||50||RB||L. Dunbar||91|
|S||B. Church*||119||LB||A. Albright*||44||DE||B. Bass||25|
|C||P. Costa*||109||LB||B. Carter||41||OLB||K. Wilber||16|
|Total Rookie snaps||1,629||Total Rookie snaps||2,004||Total Rookie snaps||1,531|
|Rookies in % of total snaps||6.9%||Rookies in % of total snaps||8.5%||Rookies in % of total snaps||6.5%|
These three rookie classes saw a lot of injuries in their rookie seasons, which affected their overall numbers. Dez Bryant and Sean Lee both missed significant time with new or existing injuries in their rookie seasons, as did Bruce Carter, DeMarco Murray and Bill Nagy a year later. In 2012, the trade-up for Claiborne cost the Cowboys their second-round pick, which potentially could have given the Cowboys some extra snaps if they had kept it.
But despite the injuries, these three rookie classes averaged 7.3% of the total snaps, or about 1.6 starters per rookie class.
|2013 Rookie Class||2014 Rookie Class||2015 Rookie Class (14 games)
|C||T. Frederick||997||OG||Z. Martin||1,053||DB||B. Jones||672|
|WR||T. Williams||677||LB||A. Hitchens||531||OG||L. Collins*||596|
|S||J. Heath*||594||DE||D. Lawrence||217||DL||D. Irving*||177|
|S||J.J. Wilcox||515||WR||D. Street||148||DE||R. Gregory||163|
|LB||D. Holloman||207||CB||T. Patmon*||71||WR||L. Whitehead*||119|
|TE||G. Escobar||197||DT||K. Bishop||66||DE||R. Russell||33|
|CB||B.W. Webb||178||DT||D. Coleman*||52||LB||D. Wilson||32|
|RB||J. Randle||119||LB||K. Smith*||40||RB||R. Smith*||20|
|LB||C. Lawrence*||63||TE||G. Swaim||17|
|Total Rookie snaps||3,583||Total Rookie snaps||2,178||Total Rookie snaps||1,829|
|Rookies in % of total snaps||15.3%||Rookies in % of total snaps||9.5%||Rookies in % of total snaps||9.8%|
The 2013 class is the strongest class in this group, in part due to the quality of its players, in part also because the Cowboys traded down for an extra pick that netted them Terrance Williams. They followed that up in 2014 with another strong class that was handicapped when the Cowboys traded away their third-round pick to get DeMarcus Lawrence, only to then see Lawrence miss eight games with a broken foot.
The 2015 rookie class finally was hit by injuries to many of the drafted players, but made up for that with its undrafted rookies, La'el Collins chief among them. The 9.8% snap percentage narrowly edges out the 2014 class for the second best value of the last nine years.
And with two games left, the 2015 class might have a chance to increase their percentage further. Randy Gregory and Lucky Whitehead have both seen their snap counts increase over the last few weeks, Geoff Swaim might see more playing time with Gavin Escobar out, and there may be a chance Chaz Green could get some snaps at tackle.
Overall, the last three years (obviously buoyed by 2013) have been pretty strong, accounting for an average of 11.7% of the snaps in the rookie seasons, which translates to a cool 2.6 starters per rookie class.
Conventional wisdom holds that a good draft class 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.
From the data accumulated above, 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 2007-2009 classes missed that mark by a mile, the 2010-2012 classes came closer to that mark without reaching it, and the last three draft classes surpassed that mark. 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 six drafts, netting three Pro Bowl linemen and a Pro Bowl wide receiver. And perhaps Byron Jones will add to that post-season honors tally for Cowboys first-round picks soon.
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, either via the draft or via college free agency.
The Cowboys are probably going to be picking fairly high in the 2016 draft. And in principle, the high draft position should give them access to higher quality players in each round of the draft. But only as long as they don't trade away the pick.
For much of the last decade, the Cowboys have struggled with depth across the entire roster, and the weak draft classes described above are a key driver of that. Over the last few years, that depth has improved significantly, driven by the strong draft classes of recent years. Unfortunately, the one spot that proved to be the most critical of all was not addressed adequately, so perhaps this is the year the Cowboys invest a pick in a quarterback, even if a QB probably won't get the amount of snaps in his rookie season as many other positions would.
But if the Cowboys stay their course and approach the next draft like they did the last three, good things should happen.