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Sunday NFL Thoughts: How Have The 10 Cowboys Rookies Looked So Far?

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A look at how each of the rookies has contributed and how the 2016 rookie class measures up overall.

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

At the quarter mark of the season, we take a look at the Cowboys 10 rookies, how they’ve contributed, and how the rookie class measures up overall.

1. RB Ezekiel Elliott, 1st round

190 snaps on offense (65.5%), 1 snap on special teams (0.9%)

Elliott leads the NFL in a lot of production metrics:

No. 1 with 103 rushing yards per game

No. 1 with 27 first downs

No. 1 with 140 rushing yards after contact

On Sunday, Elliott could become the first rookie in the Super Bowl era to have 20-plus carries in each of his first five games.

And while other running backs have more impressive efficiency stats than Elliott - his yards per attempt is a middle-of-the-field 4.4 yards - no other back has a better success rate than Elliott. Elliott tops the league in success rate with 61%, a sign that he's getting the important yards (or "dirty yards" as Jason Garrett likes to call them). Success rate measures a back's ability to get 40% of the required yards on first down, 60% of yards on second down, and 100% of yards on third down.

Not every Cowboys fan agrees that the Cowboys should have taken a running back at No. 4 overall, but so far Elliott has played like a player drafted No. 4 overall and just this week won the NFL's Fedex Ground Player of the Week award.

2. LB Jaylon Smith, 2nd round

0 snaps on defense (0%), 0 snaps on special teams (0.0%)

Earlier this week, Jerry Jones refused to rule out Jaylon Smith playing for Cowboys this season.

"We are waiting," Jones said, according to the Star-Telegram. "He's in great shape, great rehab shape with his knee. So we're just trying to hope that he wakes up a nerve, a nerve re-firing or a regeneration of a nerve, is just that. It's like a foot that's gone to sleep and shaking it till it wakes up is how I picture it to some degree."

"I'm not ruling out the fact that he could get on the field this year."

Smith is currently on the reserve/ non-football injury list and the earliest he could return is Oct. 17. If he does, the Cowboys would have to activate him to the 53-man roster or move him to injured reserve latest by Nov. 28. But there are a lot of hypotheticals in that scenario, and if his nerve doesn't fire soon, all of that will remain a hypothetical.

Smith appears to have a bright future. If he can heal from his injury.

3. DT Maliek Collins, 3rd round

137 snaps on defense (56.8%), 16 snaps on special teams (15.1%)

Collins broke his foot during OTAs and missed most of training camp due to the injury. For many rookies, missing that much time usually results in a disappointing rookie season, but not so for Collins.

He got 17 snaps in the season opener, 35 in Week 2, and has started the last two games. And Collins has been effective in his time on the field: the coaches credit him with five QB pressures, which is tied with Terrell McClain for second place on the team behind David Irving with seven.

Here's Collins with a tackle-for-loss from the defensive tackle spot last week.

4. DE Charles Tapper, 4th round

0 snaps on defense (0.0%), 0 snaps on special teams (0.0%)

In the second week of training camp, Tapper was diagnosed with a Pars Defect in his back, a stress fracture of the lower lumbar vertebrae (L5). Apparently, Tapper has had the fracture since childhood, but it was not known until it was diagnosed in training camp. For a while it looked like Tapper might return to action in the first quarter of the season, but a recent setback led the Cowboys to place him on IR.

5. QB Dak Prescott, 4th round

289 snaps on offense (99.7%), 0 snaps on special teams (0%)

There isn't much to write about Prescott that hasn't been written already, and it's a good bet that Prescott will emerge as The Steal of the 2016 NFL draft. Just this week he was voted NFL Rookie Of The Week, and his arrow continues to point up.

6. CB Anthony Brown, 6th

119 snaps on defense (49.4%), 32 snaps on special teams (30.2%)

Another surprise contributor for the Cowboys, Brown already has two NFL starts to his name. He's filled in surprisingly well for the injured Orlando Scandrick as the slot corner, so much so that when the Colts released CB Antonio Cromartie earlier this week, there was nary a mention in Cowboys Nation about picking up Cromartie - quite unusual for a fan base that wants every big-name free agent to sign in Dallas immediately, and preferably yesterday.

7. S Kavon Frazier, 6th round

0 snaps on defense (0.0%), 0 snaps on special teams (0.0%)

Frazier has had a slow start to the season, which has to be a bit of a surprise for the many fans that were willing to jettison J.J. Wilcox in favor of Frazier.

But Frazier's arrow may be pointing up after all: he was inactive for the first three games, but active for the Week 4 game against the 49ers, even if he didn't get a single snap during the game.

8. RB Darius Jackson, 6th round

0 snaps on offense (0.0%), 0 snaps on special teams (0.0%)

Jackson has been inactive for all four games so far, and he's currently looking like the 53rd player on the roster. Technically, Jackson is the fifth RB on the roster behind Ezekiel Elliott, Alfred Morris, Lance Dunbar and fullback Rod Smith, a former running back. As Dunbar continues to struggle with a knee injury, perhaps Jackson's time will come soon, but he could just as easily be the next guy to get released if the Cowboys need a roster spot.

9. TE Rico Gathers, 6th round

Gathers did not make the active roster and is on the practice squad. Few observers expected the former college hoops star to make the 53-man roster, and he now has a full year on the practice squad to hone his craft. It will be interesting to see how Gathers developed in OTAs and training camp next year.

10. WR Andy Jones, UDFA

Jones is the only undrafted free agent signed immediately after the draft who's still with the Cowboys. Jones started the preseason as a strong candidate for a roster spot at wide receiver, but the Cowboys decided to only keep five receivers on their roster, and Jones was not one of them. Still, the Cowboys were impressed enough to keep him around. Jones received the largest signing bonus of $15,000, the largest sum the Cowboys paid out to any of their 14 UDFAs they signed immediately after the draft.

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After four weeks, the Cowboys 2017 rookie class looks to have delivered more quality than quantity. Only four players have seen NFL playing time, but those four have all seen significant snaps. With Jaylon Smith and Charles Tapper likely taking redshirt years, and the remaining rookies also possibly coming along at a later stage, the Cowboys can reasonably expect to get even more out of their 2017 rookie class than they already have.

Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Maliek Collins, and Anthony Brown have combined for 735 snaps on offense and defense, which is 12.6% of all snaps the offense and defense have played in four games. Compared to recent draft classes, that's a pretty good number. Here are the snap percentages of the last 10 years, keeping in mind that the data from 2007-2015 is for the entire rookie seasons, while the 2016 number is for the first four weeks only.

Cowboys rookie class snap percentages, 2007-2016
Year 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
Snap Percentage 3.8% 6.7% 1.5% 6.9% 8.5% 6.5% 15.3% 9.5% 10.0% 12.6%

If we assume that adding the equivalent of two starters (or 9.1% of all snaps) to the roster is a good target for a rookie class, then the Cowboys look to have been fairly successful at restocking their talent cupboard over the last four years, while the previous six years ranged anywhere from below average to truly horrific.

After four weeks, the 2016 rookie class is already the second-best Cowboys class of the last 10 years (as measured by snap percentages), and that's not even accounting for the possibility that the Cowboys may have found their next franchise quarterback at the bottom of the fourth round.

In the NFL, the draft is where depth is built. When you fail to draft sufficient depth, you must address this via free agency. When you draft successfully, you create a surplus of talent that will in turn further generate additional draft picks. Used well, those draft picks generate even more talent and even more depth, and before you know it you're on a virtuous cycle.

And it looks like the Cowboys may be there.