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Will Cowboys Draft Any Small-School Prospects in 2016?

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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.

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The Cowboys have had a long and rich history with players from small schools. Defensive tackle Jethro Pugh out of Elizabeth (N.C.) City State was the first small-school standout for the Cowboys when he was drafted in 1964. Since then, the Cowboys 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.

Even today, small-school prospects continue to make the roster in Dallas. Tony Romo (Eastern Illinois), Brandon Carr (Grand Valley State), Barry Church (Toledo), Lance Dunbar (North Texas), Mackenzy Bernadeau (Bentley College), and Jeff Heath (Saginaw Valley St.) all started at least one game in 2015.

Everybody 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 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. 74% of all draft picks from 2010-2015 played in one of those five conferences. Another 17% 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:

Draft picks by College Conference, 2010-2015
Round Power Five
Other Div. I
Non-FBS
1 92% 8% - -
2 82% 14% 4%
3 73% 21% 6%
4 78% 11% 11%
5 73% 17% 10%
6 65% 23% 12%
7 60% 21% 19%

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 four 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 194 starts in six 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 highest-ranked player left on the Cowboys' draft 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.

But the AOA experience is just part of a larger pattern. Between 2009 and 2013, the Cowboys drafted eight players, just under two per year, from non-Division I schools. Here's an overview of those draft picks:

Year Round Player POS College Conf Non-FBS
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
2010 4 Akwasi Owusu-Ansah DB Indiana (PA) PSAC Yes
2010 7 Sean Lissemore DT William & Mary CAA Yes
2009 3 Jason Williams LB Western Illinois MVFC Yes

*Georgia Southern University only moved to the Division I Sun Belt Conference in 2014, a year after Wilcox left school.

As you review the names on the list above, you can't be very happy. J.J. Wilcox has started 34 games in his career; Sean Lissemore has started 21 games for the Cowboys and Chargers; the remaining names have combined for 10 career starts. That's terrible.

And what is particularly galling is that the list above contains six 3rd- or 4th-round picks. That's still premium territory as far as the draft is concerned. Those types of picks have netted the Cowboys players like Jason Witten, Brady James, Chris Canty, DeMarco Murray, Doug Free, or Marion Barber in the recent past. Certainly nothing to sneeze at.

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.

Another point that I found particularly noteworthy in the table above is that the table ends in 2013. And that's because not one of the last 17 draft picks over the last two years has been a small-school prospect. Are the Cowboys done with drafting small-school prospects?

Two years is a small sample size of course, so the Cowboys may very well go back to the small-school well this year, but the last two years also dovetail nicely with some changes the Cowboys made with their draft process since then.

After the 2013 draft, the Cowboys were happy with their draft haul, but unhappy with the process that got them there. Their process had seen them pass over DT Sharrif Floyd because some of the coaches felt he wasn't the right fit for the Cowboys, even though the Cowboys’ scouts had ranked him fifth on the Cowboys draft board. That disconnect between the scouts and coaches led to the promotion of Will McClay to the most important position in the organization that can be manned by somebody not named Jones. In mid-June of 2013, McClay was named the assistant director of player personnel, replacing Tom Ciskowski, who took on an expanded role in the college scouting side (allowing him to spend more time "on the road," scouting, rather than in his office in Valley Ranch).

And the Cowboys haven't drafted a small-school prospect since. Coincidence?

It's not clear if and how the Cowboys factor the small-school risk into their prospect grades, but the Cowboys’ recent talent acquisition history indicates that it may play a bigger role than before, and they're not making a big secret out of it either. Here's will McClay talking about his preference for big schools:

“Man, we went into [the draft] looking for the best football players, first,” McClay said. “Guys that had the skill set that fit our deal, were from a big school. It was part of the discussion. You look at the big school, small school and you weigh those things and look at the history that's been throughout the league, if 82 percent comes from major schools, well there is some reason for that.”

Where teams can get into trouble with their scouting process is when they find enough gems like Larry Allen for example (Allen was discovered by Tom Ciskowski in 1994). 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.

Nobody is going to object to teams spending a sixth or seventh on a small-school prospect, but investing mid-round picks in those prospects can be a bit more tricky. Ultimately, the decision to invest in small-school prospects is a question of each team's risk tolerance or risk aversion. Some teams believe they'll increase their chances at draft success by drafting mostly from bigger, established schools. Other teams seem to believe that the higher risk of taking a small-school prospect can be outweighed by that prospect's potential upside.

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 2010 and 2015 come from non-FBS schools, and I used the same criteria outlined above to run the numbers:

Small-School Prospects by Team, 2010-2015 (click blue column headers to sort)
Team No. of Picks
Power Five
Power Five in % Other Division I
Total FBS in %
Non- FBS
Non-FBS in %
Bengals 54 47 87% 5 96% 2 4%
Eagles 54 47 87% 6 98% 1 2%
Patriots 55 46 84% 6 95% 3 5%
Steelers 52 43 83% 6 94% 3 6%
Vikings 57 47 82% 5 91% 5 9%
Saints 37 30 81% 2 86% 5 14%
Titans 48 38 79% 6 92% 4 8%
Buccaneers 43 34 79% 7 95% 2 5%
Redskins 52 41 79% 10 98% 1 2%
Browns 51 40 78% 6 90% 5 10%
Broncos 47 36 77% 10 98% 1 2%
Bills 48 36 75% 7 90% 5 10%
Bears 36 27 75% 8 97% 1 3%
Texans 51 38 75% 12 98% 1 2%
Jets 43 32 74% 6 88% 5 12%
Chargers 38 28 74% 8 95% 2 5%
Panthers 41 30 73% 8 93% 3 7%
49ers 58 42 72% 11 91% 5 9%
Falcons 43 31 72% 8 91% 4 9%
Seahawks 56 40 71% 11 91% 5 9%
Chiefs 47 33 70% 9 89% 5 11%
Colts 43 30 70% 10 93% 3 7%
Raiders 51 35 69% 11 90% 5 10%
Packers 53 36 68% 10 87% 7 13%
Lions 43 29 67% 7 84% 7 16%
Cowboys 46 31 67% 9 87% 6 13%
Cardinals 45 30 67% 7 82% 8 18%
Giants 42 28 67% 11 93% 3 7%
Dolphins 47 31 66% 8 83% 8 17%
Ravens 51 33 65% 6 76% 12 24%
Rams 56 34 61% 14 86% 8 14%
Jaguars 42 24 57% 9 79% 9 21%

Note that the 211 colleges that produced at least one NFL draft pick in the last six years are sorted by which conference they belong to today, not which conference 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.

The Cowboys rank near the bottom of this table in terms of their percentage of Power Five picks in the league, though as we've seen, we're bunching two very different periods together here. From 2010-2013, the Cowboys had a Power Five percentage of just 62%, which would rank them 30th in the table above. Similarly, their percentage of FBS picks (79%) would rank them 31st in the table above. All of this is an indication that the Cowboys liked to find their talent outside of the big programs.

This is in stark contrast to the Cowboys of the last two years. Their Power Five percentage for 2014-2015 is 76%, which would rank them 12th overall in the table above, and their percentage of FBS pick (100%) would be tops in the league.

Like it or not, the Cowboys now seem to prefer their picks from big-name schools and seem to have no interest in non-FBS prospects - at least not over the last two years (again with the mandatory caveat of small sample size).

Taken by itself, a low or high percentage of Power Five picks is neither a good nor a bad thing, but simply a statement of fact. Teams with low percentages like the Ravens and Packers are generally considered good drafters, just as teams at the other end of the scale, like the Patriots, 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. And if the trend of the previous years holds, the Cowboys may pass on non-FBS prospects for the third straight time this year. That could potentially exclude fan favorites like QB Carson Wentz (North Dakota State), DT Javon Hargrave (South Carolina State), or other small-school prospects in this draft class.

Of course, picking prospects from big-name schools is no guarantee of success either. The Eagles for example have the highest percentage of Power Five picks in the NFL. Didn't prevent them from drafting Danny Watkins or Marcus Smith, did it?

Do you approve of the Cowboys' new approach, or would you prefer the Cowboys to continue the wildcatting ways of Jerry Jones?