The Cowboys' current list of free agents includes several players from the 2012 draft whose contracts will expire at the end of the NFL League year on March 14. As such, Mo Claiborne, Kyle Wilber, and James Hanna have almost certainly played their final games as Cowboys (Claiborne, as a first-rounder, could have had a five-year deal had the club opted to exercise the option year. They did not).
These three men join a list of former Cowboys that, at this time last year, was freshly populated by 2011 draftees Bruce Carter, DeMarco Murray and Dwayne Harris. These two years' worth of departures mean that only one player from each of the 2011 and 2012 drafts - Tyron Smith and Tyrone Crawford, respectively - merited the famed second contract, a largesse dispensed to "core" players around whom the front office wants to build the team.
The fact that those last two drafts offered up only one player upon whom such a contract could conceivably be bestowed has caused observers - including, I must confess, yours truly - to judge both of them a failure. By extension, the thinking goes, the narrative that the Cowboys have been drafting better since Jason Garrett ascended to the head coaching role appears to be a weak and unsupportable supposition. With only Tyron and Tyrone in the fold as "core" guys, the new narrative runs, the Garrett era's roster building efforts have failed to do more than tread water.
This very idea was raised during the pre-game show on The Ticket in Dallas, when Norm Hitzges and the great Bob Sturm brought it up in the course of looking forward to the organization's offseason work (that's what happens when a week 17 game is meaningless). Here's how he set up the general topic in a subsequent Friday mailbag post at the Dallas Morning News:
On the pregame show on Sunday, we started talking about the "personnel conveyor belt" of the NFL as it pertains to making sure your draft is populating your roster. This leads to continuity and a healthy salary cap as well as a young roster that doesn't grow old at the same time. With rookie contracts at 4-5 years, you are drafting 22 year olds (roughly) and they are cheap labor until they turn 25 or 26. Then, you keep the keepers (at a much higher cost - like Tyron Smith and Dez Bryant) and start over with the others by replacing them with 22 year-olds again on cheap deals.
The key, as Sturm elucidates, is that teams need to stay young, so that they can get maximum value under the cap. A couple of years ago, I reported on a discussion on the use of analytics in football conducted at the 2013 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. On the panel were several front office decision-makers, notably 49ers President Paraag Marathe; former Patriots and Chiefs GM Scott Pioli; and Kevin Demoff, the Rams' Executive Vice President of Football Operations & Chief Operating Officer. One of the points they stressed repeatedly was the need to build through the draft. With the salary cap, its not only preferable but downright mandatory that teams stay young. Marathe reports that, when he came to the 49ers, they ran a study of:
...a veteran team [and its salary structure] and...[discovered] that's not sustainable over time. Because of the salary cap, if every [veteran] player on your team took a fifteen percent discount on market value, you could not field that team still, under the salary cap, because the difference between wholesale and retail is so wide...
For Marathe, free agents, and veterans in general, "are retail...and the draft is where its wholesale. That's why the more players you can have on wholesale who are good players, the more draft picks you can accumulate, the better off you're going to be." Because the salary cap simply will not allow franchises to field a starting 22 who are all on their second contracts, Marathe concludes, "you've got to continue to replenish the system."
While a team comprised of players on discounted second contracts is not sustainable, a team made up exclusively of young, developing players first contracts isn't likely to be successful or, if they are (I'm looking at you, 2012 Seahawks), they will soon need, as Sturm puts it, to "keep the keepers" by paying retail for the players whose talent and passion serve as models for all the wholesale players in the locker room. Therefore, its critical to keep select players in-house for their second contracts, which tend to cover their prime years (and, often the beginning of a player's decline).
If a team fails to re-up their own players, it is ostensibly an indictment of the organization's drafting, long-term plan, and continuity. Thus, the fact that the Cowboys have only T. Smith and T. Crawford to show for their drafting work in 2011 and '12 suggests, at first glance, a failure on the Dallas front office's part. Such a conclusion is often reached without any context. Sure, this cursory study reveals that the Cowboys are averaging one "core" player per draft, but how does that compare to the other 31 teams? We cannot judge the Cowboys' roster building effectiveness without supplying some context. With this in mind, I decided to engage in a bit of research.
Before I share what I found, allow me a couple of provisos: 1) Some players left their drafting team for a season and returned and played in 2015. I have marked those with an asterisk; you can consider them "core" players or not 2) For the 2011 first rounders, I included only those who had already inked an extension, as Tyron Smith has done. Those who played in 2015 (which would have been the fifth year of their rookie deal) but haven't signed an extension, such as Prince Amukamara, I left off the list. Here's the NFC:
The Cowboys are tied for fifth in the NFC, with five "core" players taken during the years in question. The average number of second contract guys for NFC teams is 4.88, so the Cowboys are just above average in that regard. I sent my findings to Sturm, and he appears to concur.
we can see the Cowboys actually aren't in a bad spot when you compare with everyone else. It is interesting that Green Bay, Seattle, and Minnesota are the top 3 in this category. The Panthers are not great on here, but if you look at its roster, it seems they are doing quite a bit on the strength of the 22-26 year olds (like Seattle already did). Like Seattle, they will find that those guys get pretty expensive when they need their deal, but there are many ways to skin a cat...And man, the Bears. Wow.
I sent him results from all 32 teams but the AFC teams were not published. So, here they are (BTB exclusive!):
If you thought the Bears were bad, get a load of the Raiders, who get the goose egg. Across the league, the Cowboys are tied for 11th in terms of draftees still on the team/ offered second contracts. And, as it turns out, the league average for retained players is exactly the same across both conferences: 4.875, to be precise. On both counts, therefore, the Cowboys rate slightly above average in terms of drafting players worthy of second contracts.
That's not good enough, of course; eight of the ten teams above them are 2015 playoff teams; if Dallas wishes to join that illustrious bunch, they will have to make like the Packers and have more drafts like the 2003 draft, which brought in three core/ second contract guys (Terrance Newman, Jason Witten, Bradie James) or the 2005 anno mirabilis, which secured four such types (DeMarcus Ware, Marcus Spears, Marion Barber, Jay Ratliff) and another, Chris Canty, who is still in the league.
On the other hand, they are ahead of the other teams in the NFC East. As the first chart reveals, they drafted five players from 2007-12 who merited second contracts, while the rest of the division secured four. To be accurate in this regard, of course, we must add UDFAs to whom the division's teams have offered second contracts. The Cowboys have three such types: Barry Church (2010), Dan Bailey (2011), and Cole Beasley (2012). The Redskins - Darryl Young (2009); Logan Paulsen (2010) - and Giants - Victor Cruz (2010); Mark Herzlich (2011) - each have two. The Eagles have none.
And the Cowboys have the division lead in terms of acquired "wholesale" talent on the roster. Recall the above discussion about the distinction between retail and wholesale; the best teams bring in both, and balance them to maximize their talent level and cap space. And that's where The Sturminator is the bearer of good tidings; in another mailbag piece, he points out that, in the NFC East, the most successfully "homegrown" team is Dallas, who has 38 players (26 drafted and 12 UDFA) on their 53-man roster that they have brought into the league. That's 72%. By comparison, Washington is at 58.5%, with 31 (24 + 7); the Giants currently sit at 29 (22 +7), for a 54.7% homegrown quotient; and, after the failed Chip Kelly experiment, only 47.2% of the Eagles roster (20 draftees and 5 UDFAs) are homegrown.
The takeaway from all of this? The Cowboys appear to be drafting and acquiring collegiate talent better than any of their division rivals, but not as well as the league's perennial elite. To say that the 2011-12 drafts were failures, however, is to ignore (or be unaware of) the evidence.