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2010-2014 NFL Drafts: Team-By-Team Draft Success In First Three Rounds

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In the first three rounds of any draft, NFL teams expect to draft either an immediate starter or an eventual starter. We take a look at how successful NFL teams have been over the last five years at turning their top picks into starters.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Today, I'd like to look at the last five drafts - specifically, the first three rounds of the last five drafts - and see how well the Cowboys have drafted compared to their NFL peers.

The first three rounds are where teams should be expecting to draft immediate or eventual starters. Going by NFL.com's definition, a first-round player is expected to "start immediately except in a unique situation (i.e. behind a veteran starter)." With their second-round picks, most teams should also reasonably expect to draft starters. And with a little luck, the third-round pick is "a quality player who will contribute to the team early on and is expected to develop into a starter."

Starting in the fourth round, teams look to add a backup/role player, and if they are really lucky, these players eventually develop into starters. But that doesn't happen all that often. And that's why getting it right in the first three rounds is so critical: When teams fail to get starters in the Top 100 picks of a draft, they usually end up having to fill those voids with expensive free agents.

But "getting it right" is far from easy, even in the top three rounds. Here's an overview showing how many prospects from each round of the last five drafts ended up becoming primary starters in the NFL. A "primary starter" is a player who has started at least eight games in at least one of the last five seasons:

Primary Starters by round, 2010-2014 Drafts

Round 1 Round 2 Round 3 Round 4 Round 5 Round 6 Round 7 Total
No. of Players 160 158 171 183 178 190 234 1,274
Primary Starters 130 92 77 47 35 26 18 425
In % 81% 58% 45% 26% 20% 14% 8% 33%

Only 81% of the first-round picks over the last five draft classes have become primary starters so far (which means that to date, one out of five first-round picks has failed to become a starter). As is to be expected, the overall percentages decrease the further back in the draft a player is selected. Granted, because we're looking only at a five-year window, these percentages could still improve, but the overall picture won't: The top three rounds are where you can reasonably expect to get your starters; after that it's largely a matter of luck.

Cowboys fans hold their recent top-round draft picks in fairly high regard and believe the Cowboys have done quite well in the top three rounds of the last five drafts:

2010 - 1st: Dez Bryant, 2nd: Sean Lee, 3rd: - -
2011 - 1st: Tyron Smith, 2nd: Bruce Carter, 3rd: DeMarco Murray
2012 - 1st: Morris Claiborne, 2nd: - -, 3rd: Tyrone Crawford
2013 - 1st: Travis Frederick, 2nd: Gavin Escobar, 3rd: Terrance Williams, 3rd: J.J. Wilcox
2014 - 1st: Zack Martin, 2nd: DeMarcus Lawrence, 3rd: - -

The five drafts above have yielded 13 players drafted in the top three rounds, and 11 of those picks have notched at least one season as the primary starter for the Cowboys. Only Gavin Escobar and DeMarcus Lawrence have yet to start eight games in a season.

If a team's objective is to collect future starters in the first three rounds, the Cowboys look to have done a pretty good job. Sure, you could argue that some players have missed significant time with injuries. Others might point to the fact that the Cowboys have only drafted 13 players in the top three rounds of the last five drafts, and had they not moved up three times, the Cowboys would have had 16 such picks (and possibly more, had they chosen to trade down more frequently). Others yet again might wonder what Bruce Carter and DeMarco Murray are doing on this list, now that they've left in free agency.

But overall, that feels like a solid haul for the Cowboys - especially considering that there are five Pro Bowlers in that list.

To get a better feel for how this compares to other NFL teams, the table below looks at the top three rounds of the last five drafts for all NFL teams, and shows how successful each team was in getting primary starters out of their picks.

Draft Success Rounds 1-3, 2010-14
(click column header to sort)
Team Picks in Rds 1-3 Primary Starters Success rate
Dallas 13 11 85%
Tampa Bay 15 12 80%
Carolina 13 10 77%
Atlanta 12 9 75%
Buffalo 16 12 75%
Seattle 12 9 75%
Indianapolis 14 10 71%
Jacksonville 14 10 71%
Minnesota 14 10 71%
NY Jets 14 10 71%
Oakland 14 10 71%
San Diego 16 11 69%
Chicago 12 8 67%
Detroit 15 10 67%
Tennessee 15 10 67%
Cleveland 20 13 65%
Miami 16 10 63%
New Orleans 13 8 62%
Kansas City 17 10 59%
St. Louis 19 11 58%
Baltimore 16 9 56%
Philadelphia 16 9 56%
Denver 18 10 56%
NY Giants 15 8 53%
Pittsburgh 15 8 53%
New England 20 10 50%
Houston 17 8 47%
Arizona 15 7 47%
Green Bay 15 7 47%
Washington 11 5 45%
San Francisco 18 7 39%
Cincinnati 19 7 37%

Note that a success rate of 61% is the average value in this analysis. Note also that for the purposes of this analysis, "primary starter" is a hard cutoff. It doesn't matter whether a player did not start eight games in a season because he was injured or for any other reason. If you're Philly's pass rusher extraordinaire Marcus Smith and only played 74 snaps in six games without starting once, tough luck; if you're Houston's Jadeveon Clowney and only started two games due to injury, you're out; if you're Cleveland's Johnny Manziel and only played 79 offensive snaps, recording a 42.0 passer rating on 35 attempts over four games, you're not making the list.

1,274 players were selected in the last five drafts (including the supplemental draft). Of those, 425 have been primary starters in at least one season. That means that, on average, every NFL teams has drafted 2.7 players per draft over the last five years who eventually became primary starters. That's not a particularly high number, and it follows that a team's overall objective must be to collect as many quality starters as possible. The above table suggests there are two basic ways of going about this, either by going after quantity of quality. Very few teams manage to do both, some manage to do neither.

The table above is sorted by success rate, or the percentage of draft picks from the first three rounds that have become primary starters. By that measure, the Cowboys, Bucs, and Panthers have been the most successful recently at selecting prospects that turned into primary starters.

At the other end of the scale, the Redskins have only five primary starters (Trent Williams, Ryan Kerrigan, Jarvis Jenkins, Robert Griffin, David Amerson) to show for the last five years of drafts in the first three rounds. That's downright scary.

If success rate is a sign of quality, then accumulating a lot of picks in the first three rounds is a sign of an approach that values quantity. Underlying that approach is some pretty simple math: The more players you draft, the better your odds of landing good players. The Patriots in particular have made this a big part of their drafting philosophy, but they are not the only ones. In total, there are 13 teams that for various reasons have ended up with more than 15 picks in the top three rounds over the last five years. Of those 13 teams, only the Bills, Chargers, Browns, and Dolphins have a success rate above the league average. All others have a below average success rate.

The Patriots in particular stand out with 20 picks in the top three rounds where the average team only had 15. However, the Patriots were not able to transform that advantage into more primary starters; with a success rate of just 50%, they rank 26th in the table above.

Ultimately though, whether you go for quality or quantity (or both), what matters in the end is that you get quality players for your roster. In football, players are going to get hurt, so the more depth you have, and the more good players you have, the better your chances are of winning.

With these results as a starting point, the Cowboys have to ask themselves a tough question: Are these numbers the results of some organizational skill that sets them apart from other teams, or are these numbers the result of little more than luck.

If they believe it's an organizational skill, and that the skill is replicable, then they must do everything to increase their number of picks in the first three rounds. And trading out of the first round to gain more picks in the second or third round should be their primary objective.

If the past results are more luck- than skill based, then the Cowboys must follow the old axiom that says "The higher the pick, the better the player."

If the Cowboys can move down a few spots and get a third- or even a second-round pick in return, that would be a good thing, right? But if you believe the Cowboys need better players, not more players, then staying put may be the better option.

So where do you stand, should the Cowboys stay put or trade down?