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Cowboys Rookies: Recent Rookie Classes With Strong Playing Time Contributions

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A look at the playing time of the last 11 rookie class suggests the Cowboys have been drafting well recently.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

At the end of last season, we took a look at the number of snaps played by each of the last nine Cowboys rookie classes in their rookie seasons. We found that the 2015 rookie class played more snaps in their rookie season than all but one of the last nine rookie classes.

That makes the 2015 rookie class (and we're talking specifically about rookie classes, not just draft classes) one of the most productive recent Cowboys rookie classes, despite being handicapped from the start. Randy Gregory suffered a high ankle sprain in the season opener. Chaz Green, third-round pick, spent most of his rookie season on the NFI List and didn't play a single snap for the Cowboys. Fifth-round pick Ryan Russell was active for only one game and was eventually placed on IR with an abdominal injury. Seventh-round pick Mark Nzeocha rehabbed his reconstructed ACL for most of the season. But the rest of the rookie class stepped up (La'el Collins and Lucky Whitehead specifically), and accumulated 10% of all snaps over 16 games, the second highest value for a Cowboys draft class since at least 2007.

But is that high enough, or still too low? How much is good enough?

Three years (and sometimes even more) is the standard usually used to fully evaluate a rookie class. Which is exactly what we'll do today. We'll look at the snap percentages of each season's rookie class and see how those values have progressed over the years.

The snap numbers up to 2013 is taken from Pro Football Focus, 2014-15 is from the official NFL numbers. The PFF data only goes back to 2007, so I don't have snap numbers for the rookie seasons of rookie classes prior to 2007. But I do have the second year of the 2006 class and the third year of the 2005 class, which is about as far back as we want to go anyway.

What this allows me to do is to show how different rookie classes performed in terms of snap percentage in each of their first five years in the league. For this analysis, let's 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, adding less than one starter equivalent (4.6%) is terrible, and getting the equivalent of three starters (13.6% of all snaps) is outstanding.

The table below summarizes the data for the last 11 rookie classes:

1st year 2nd year 3rd year 4th year 5th year
Class of 2005 - - - - 16.9%
16.3%
11.7%
Class of 2006 - -
8.8%
3.6% 7.7% 7.6%
Class of 2007 3.8% 7.1% 9.3% 13.0% 10.8%
Class of 2008 6.7% 10.9% 11.9% 9.4% 4.6%
Class of 2009 1.5% 0.9% 3.6% 4.6% 0.0%
Class of 2010 6.9% 14.2% 11.7% 11.3%
7.9%
Class of 2011 8.5% 10.9% 11.6%
10.9%
4.5%
Class of 2012 6.5% 11.5%
12.5%
11.7%
- -
Class of 2013 15.3% 14.8%
14.1%
- -
- -
Class of 2014 9.5%
12.8%
- -
- -
- -
Class of 2015 10.0%
- -
- -
- -
- -
Red = 1 starter, Orange = 1-2 starters, Green = 2-3 starters, Blue = 3+ starters

How to read the table: Take "Class of 2010" which represents the 2010 rookie class. In its first year in the league, the 2010 rookie class played on only 6.9% of all snaps, in part because of injuries to Dez Bryant and Sean Lee. With both players healthy and UDFA Phil Costa playing center for the year, the figure jumped to 14.2% in 2011. The percentage dropped in 2012 as the Cowboys replaced Costa at center, and his 1,024 snaps were partly replaced by supplemental draft pick Josh Brent (320) and UDFA Danny McCray (658) who was forced into play at safety. 2013 was Barry Church's first year as a starter, and together with Bryant and Lee, those three players account for almost all snaps of that rookie class (11.3% of the total snaps). In 2014, the percentage dropped to 7.9 with Lee out due to his ACL tear. Although the table doesn't show this, the 2010 class was back in the green in 2015 with 9.3% despite Dez Bryant's abbreviated season.

Conventional wisdom holds that a good draft class yields two solid starters. Two starters may not be a great draft, but it is certainly a solid draft. However, those two starters are not necessarily expected to be starters in their first season.

From the data accumulated above, it looks like adding the equivalent of two starters (which translates to 9.1% of all snaps) to the roster is a good target for the first year of a rookie class. The Cowboys have missed that mark every year from 2007-12, and only the the last three draft classes surpassed that mark.

The numbers get better in the second year, where the Cowboys have hit the 2+ starter mark pretty consistently since 2008, only interrupted by the atrocity of the 2009 draft. The third and fourth years of recent rookie classes, again with the exception of the 2009 class also look good, but the fifth year seems to have become an issue recently.

The fifth-year drop in playing time contribution is partly due to the way many rookie contracts are structured. Most players reach free agency after four years and move on to other teams, so a drop in snaps is to be expected to some degree. But that drop can also mean that the players from that rookie class simply weren't good enough to warrant a second, and bigger, contract, or turned out to be too expensive to retain. Case in point, the 2011 class:

Tyron Smith is the only player from that rookie class still on the roster. DeMarco Murray and Dwayne Harris left for better offers. Bruce Carter left because he didn't receive an offer. And the rest of the rookie class (Bill Nagy, Kevin Kowalski, Phillip Tanner, Alex Albright, and Shaun Chapas) never amounted to much.

From the data accumulated here, it looks like adding the equivalent of two starters to the roster is a good target for the first year of a rookie class. In the following years, you'd probably want to come out with the equivalent of three starters (13.6% of all snaps).

Unfortunately, the Cowboys have not hit those marks all that often, which is one reason the team has had issues with its depth. And when you have issues with depth, free agency becomes an absolute necessity as you'll need to plug holes all over the roster (often at high cost to your salary cap).

If you draft better, as the Cowboys seem to have done recently, free agency becomes more of a luxury, and you can use it to selectively sign players that can elevate the overall talent level of your roster. Plus the pressure on your salary cap decreases.

And when you draft well, you’ll eventually have an abundance of starter-level players, and since you can't re-sign all of them to second contracts, you'll have to allow them to leave in free agency for greener pastures, which in turn will land more and more compensatory draft picks. Which in turn could help you draft even more starters. And that's a good place to be in.

The Cowboys have done well with their recent draft classes, at least as measured by this methodology. Picking in the fourth spot in this year's draft, the Cowboys have a chance to select a draft class that should get "into the blue" quickly and perhaps rival the 2005 and 2013 rookie classes. Good things will happen if they achieve that.