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Everybody Loves An Underdog: Will Cowboys Draft More Small-School Prospects in 2015?

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Every tenth draft pick over the last four years did not play Division I football in college. We look at which teams draft the most of these small-school prospects, where the Cowboys rank, and what it could mean for this year's draft.

Bowling Green linebacker Gabe Jackson in on the Cowboys' radar.
Bowling Green linebacker Gabe Jackson in on the Cowboys' radar.
Brian Powers-USA TODAY Sports

The small-school standout is a staple of Dallas Cowboys drafts, and has been for decades. The first Cowboys player to fit the "small-school standout" definition was defensive tackle Jethro Pugh out of Elizabeth (N.C.) City State in the 1964 draft. Since then, the Cowboys have had great success looking for talent in out of the way places, and have compiled an impressive list of small-school talent that includes Hall of Fame OT Rayfield Wright out of Fort Valley State, HoF OG Larry Allen out of Sonoma State, and numerous Pro Bowlers. More recently, the Cowboys found Tony Romo in out of the way Eastern Illinois, and small-school prospects continue to make the roster in Dallas.

Everbody loves an underdog, but for all the feel-good stories about guys that made it, there are also a lot of stories about guys who weren't able to make the jump from small schools to the NFL. For the purposes of today's post, we'll use classify college players into three categories:

  • Power Five: Players from the five conferences with guaranteed berths in the "access bowls" associated with the College Football Playoffs (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC) + Notre Dame
  • Other Division I (FBS): Players from any of the other five Football Bowl Subdivisions (AAC, C-USA, MAC, MWC and Sun Belt)
  • Non-FBS: Players not from any of the 128 FBS programs. These are your classic small-school players.

As you would expect, players from the five big college conferences make up the bulk of the draft picks in the NFL. 72% of all draft picks from 2011-2014 played in one of those five conferences. Another 18% of the draft picks hail from the remaining Division I schools, while 10% of the players drafted did not attend a FBS school. Those percentages naturally differ by round, as the following table shows:

Round Power Five
Other Div. I
Non-FBS
1 92% 7% 1%
2 79% 17% 5%
3 68% 25% 7%
4 75% 11% 14%
5 71% 21% 7%
6 66% 21% 13%
7 58% 22% 22%

For many Cowboys fans, fourth-rounder Akwasi Owusu-Ansah from Indiana (Pa) has become a synonym for a small-school bust. In 2010, AOA was selected with the 126th pick at the end of the fourth round. The next three DBs selected were Kam Chancellor out of Virginia Tech (133rd), Dominique Franks out of Oklahoma (135th), Kendrick Lewis out of Mississippi (136th), and Perrish Cox out of Oklahoma State (137th). Those four players have combined for 155 starts in five years. AOA started two games for Jacksonville in 2011 and never started for Dallas.

And even though AOA was widely reported to be a Wade Phillips pick, the pick still falls squarely on the Cowboys: AOA was the BPA on the Cowboys' board when the Cowboys were on the clock. The Cowboys had AOA rated as their 69th guy with a fourth-round grade. Franks was 82nd (4th rd grade), Chancellor was 87th (4th rd grade), Lewis and Cox weren't even on their draft board.

Undeterred by the AOA experience, the Cowboys have drafted 11 players over the last four years, just under three per year, that did not play in one of the Power Five conferences. And of the 11, five hail from non-Division I schools. Here's an overview of Cowboys draft picks from outside the Power Five conferences:

Year Round Player POS College Conf Power Five Other Div. I
Non-FBS
2014 2 DeMarcus Lawrence DE Boise State MWC - - Yes - -
2014 7 Ken Bishop DT Northern Illinois MAC - - Yes - -
2013 2 Gavin Escobar TE San Diego State MWC - - Yes - -
2012 3 Tyrone Crawford DE Boise State MWC - - Yes - -
2011 5 Josh Thomas CB Buffalo MAC - - Yes - -
2011 6 Dwayne Harris WR East Carolina AAC - - Yes - -
2013 3 J. J. Wilcox S Georgia Southern Sun Belt - - Yes
2013 4 B. W. Webb CB William & Mary CAA - - - - Yes
2012 4 Matt Johnson S Eastern Washington Big Sky - - - - Yes
2012 7 Caleb McSurdy ILB Montana Big Sky - - - - Yes
2011 4 David Arkin G Missouri State MVFC - - - - Yes

Technically, J.J. Wilcox should also be considered a small-school prospect. Georgia Southern University only moved to the Division I Sun Belt Conference in 2014, a year after Wilcox left school.

If you look dispassionately at the table above, you'll have to concede that this is a pretty sobering list. Six of the eleven picks on the list are no longer with the Cowboys. And this highlights some of the risks inherent in selecting small-school players: They've excelled against mostly inferior competition; many of them have relied more on pure athleticism than technique to beat their opponents in college, and that won't work at the NFL level anymore; many of them face a steeper learning curve in the NFL than big-school prospects; some of them need considerable strength & conditioning time to get NFL-ready. In short, small-school prospects face an arduous uphill climb in the NFL, and not all of them are up to that task.

It's not clear to us how the Cowboys factor this risk into their prospect grades, but the Cowboys’ recent talent acquisition history indicates that college pedigree may play a lesser role in Dallas than in other places - even if they didn't pick a single non-Division I prospect last year.

To see how the Cowboys compare to the other teams in the league in terms of drafting small-school players, I looked at how many of each NFL team's draft picks between 2011 and 2014 come from non-FBS schools, and I used the same criteria outlined above to run the numbers:

Small-School Prospects by Team, 2011-2014 (click blue column headers to sort)
Team No. of Picks
Power Five
Power Five in % Other Division I
Other Division I in %
Non- FBS
Non-FBS in %
Bengals 36 31 86% 4 11% 1 3%
Eagles 35 30 86% 5 14% 0 0%
Bills 33 28 85% 3 9% 2 6%
Steelers 34 28 82% 3 9% 3 9%
Saints 22 18 82% 0 0% 4 18%
Patriots 32 26 81% 3 9% 3 9%
Titans 30 24 80% 5 17% 1 3%
Vikings 39 31 79% 5 13% 3 8%
Redskins 36 28 78% 7 19% 1 3%
Falcons 29 22 76% 5 17% 2 7%
Jets 33 25 76% 5 15% 3 9%
Chargers 27 20 74% 6 22% 1 4%
Buccaneers 27 20 74% 6 22% 1 4%
Panthers 26 19 73% 4 15% 3 12%
Broncos 29 21 72% 7 24% 1 3%
Bears 25 18 72% 7 28% 0 0%
Texans 35 25 71% 9 26% 1 3%
Cardinals 31 22 71% 5 16% 4 13%
Seahawks 39 27 69% 8 21% 4 10%
Giants 29 20 69% 7 24% 2 7%
Browns 31 21 68% 5 16% 5 16%
Chiefs 31 21 68% 6 19% 4 13%
49ers 40 27 68% 10 25% 3 8%
Colts 27 18 67% 6 22% 3 11%
Packers 38 25 66% 6 16% 7 18%
Ravens 35 23 66% 4 11% 8 23%
Cowboys 31 20 65% 7 23% 4 13%
Rams 36 22 61% 7 19% 7 19%
Dolphins 32 19 59% 5 16% 8 25%
Jaguars 28 16 57% 8 29% 4 14%
Lions 30 17 57% 5 17% 8 27%
Raiders 32 18 56% 10 31% 4 13%

Note that the 190 colleges that produced at least one NFL draft pick in the last four years are sorted by which conference they belong to today, not where they belonged to six months ago or four years ago or which conference they'll belong to next year. Which means that the same data produced last year would show slightly different results, just as it probably would next year. But that's college football for you.

With just 65% of Power Five players, the Cowboys have the sixth-lowest percentage of Power Five picks in the league, an indication that the Cowboys like to find their talent outside of the big programs. This is in stark contrast to a team like the Eagles, who seem to prefer their picks from the big-name schools and seem to have no interest in non-FBS prospects - at least not over the last four years.

Taken by itself, the Cowboys' low percentage of Power Five picks is neither a good nor a bad thing, but simply a statement of fact. Other teams with low percentages like the Ravens and Packers are normally considered good drafters, while some teams at the other end of the scale also routinely receive good grades for their drafts.

But what these percentages are indicative of is a team's draft strategy: Are they more or less inclined to go after smaller school prospects or not. The percentage is also indicative of a team's risk tolerance, or risk adversity, depending on your POV. Teams like the Bengals, Eagles, or Bills seem to believe they'll increase their chances at draft success by drafting mostly from bigger, established schools. Teams like the Cowboys, Packers and Ravens seem to believe that the higher risk of taking a smaller school prospect can be outweighed by that prospect's potential upside.

Where it can get troubling is when a team like the Cowboys finds enough gems like Larry Allen for example. Do that often enough and you may come to the belief that your organization is especially adept at unearthing these jewels. And while that may have been true 20 years ago, today's scouting process by the vast majority of NFL teams is so ubiquitous and so thorough, that the chance of talented players falling through the cracks is virtually non-existent.

If the trend of the previous years holds, the Cowboys could easily draft another three players from outside the Power Five schools this year. Who could some of those players be?

One clue can be found in our pre-draft visit tracker, which lists the players brought in for pre-draft visits as well as players the Cowboys worked out at some point. These are the players from that list who would qualify as small-school prospects per our definitions from above:

CBS Rank Proj. Rd Player POS College FBS-Conf Visit Status
21 1 Byron Jones CB Connecticut AAC Official Visit
42 2 Jay Ajayi RB Boise State MWC Dallas Day
52 2 Quinten Rollins CB Miami (Ohio) MAC Private Workout
101 3-4 Garrett Grayson QB Colorado State MWC Private Workout
311 7-FA Chris Bonner QB Colorado State-Pueblo Non-FBS Private Workout
312 7-FA Tray Walker CB Texas Southern Non-FBS Private Workout
336 7-FA Gabe Martin LB Bowling Green MAC Official Visit

There are seven players on this list, and according to the grading at CBSSports, they could be available almost across the entire Cowboys draft. Odds are that at least one of these players could end up a Dallas Cowboys.

Which of these players would you want it to be, or would you like the Cowboys to stick with the prospects from the Power Five conferences?