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NFL Draft Success 2010-15: Do Dallas Cowboys Go To Sleep On The Third Day Of The Draft?

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The Cowboys have one of the worst success rates on the third day of the draft.

Giulio Di Sturco/Getty Images

The Cowboys have done fairly well in the first three rounds of the draft this decade. From 2010-15, 13 of the 16 players they drafted in the first three rounds developed into primary starters, i.e. a player that started at least eight games in at least one of the last six seasons.

Outside of last year's rookies Randy Gregory and Chaz Green who didn't start a single game in their rookie seasons, Gavin Escobar is the only draft pick taken on the first two days of that draft since 2010 not to have started at least eight games in a season.

Overall that's a pretty good track record, especially considering that there are six Pro Bowlers among those players, but we'll explore that in a future post in more detail.

Today we're going to focus on what happens on the third day of the draft in rounds four through seven, where the odds of landing a starter get progressively lower, as the table below illustrates.

Primary Starters by round, 2010-2015 Drafts

Round 1 Round 2 Round 3 Round 4 Round 5 Round 6 Round 7
No. of Players 192 190 206 220 219 231 275
Primary Starters 159 122 101 66 50 34 29
In % 83% 64% 49% 30% 23% 15% 11%

Over the last six drafts, only 19% of the prospects drafted on the third day of the draft have become starters. That number will likely rise a little as the more recent draft classes eventually find their way into starting roles, but for now let's assume that only every fifth player taken on the third day turns into a primary starter.

Over the last six drafts, the Cowboys have drafted 30 players. Assuming a league average hit rate where every fifth draft picks eventually turns into a primary starter, the Cowboys should have gotten six primary starters out of their 30 picks. So how many did they get?

Two.

Tight end James Hanna, a sixth-round pick in 2012, had more than eight starts in 2013 and 2014, and 2014 fourth rounder Anthony Hitchens was pressed into a starter role in his rookie season due to injuries to the linebacker corps. That’s it.

Of course, there’s always the chance that Anthony Hitchens could get another season as a primary starter, or that Damien Wilson, Ryan Russell, and German Wunderkind Mark Nzeocha could emerge as starters, but the Cowboys recent track record with these late picks makes this a long shot.

Incredibly, the Cowboys have had more success with undrafted free agents than with their third-day draft picks over the last six years. Barry Church (3 primary starter seasons), Ronald Leary (2) La’el Collins (1), Jeff Heath (1), Danny McCray (1), Phil Costa (1).

Of course, you could always argue that you get your starters in the first three rounds, and that the later rounds are where you get your bottom-of-the roster guys, your backups, and your special teams stalwarts. And if one of them turns into a starter, you simply got lucky.

And if you’ve been a Cowboys fan long enough, perhaps you even buy into this line of thinking. Or you could argue that the Cowboys are already so stacked with talent that barring injury, it’s almost impossible for third-day picks to become starters. Granted, even dyed-in-blue Cowboys fans probably don’t think that.

Where the Cowboys have a 6.7% (2 out of 30) success rate for third-day starters, other teams are much more successful. The Jaguars have the highest success rate in the league with 36% (9 out of 25) while the Seahawks have gotten the highest number of primary starters (11) out of their third-day draft picks.

So who said you can’t go looking for starters on the third day of the draft? Here’s how the Cowboys compare to the other 31 teams in the league:

Draft Success Rounds 4-7, 2010-15
(click column header to sort)
Team Picks in Rds 4-7 Primary Starters Success rate
Jacksonville 25 9 36.0%
Arizona
27 8 29.6%
Houston 31 9 29.0%
Tampa Bay
25 7 28.0%
Denver 26 7 26.9%
Seattle 42 11 26.2%
Miami 29 7 24.1%
Cleveland
26 6 23.1%
New York Jets
26 6 23.1%
Oakland 35 8 22.9%
Philadelphia 35 8 22.9%
Chicago 22 5 22.7%
Atlanta 28 6 21.4%
Green Bay 35 7 20.0%
Indianapolis 26 5 19.2%
Baltimore 32 6 18.8%
New England
32 6 18.8%
Washington 38 7 18.4%
Buffalo 30 5 16.7%
Tennessee 30 5 16.7%
Cincinnati 31 5 16.1%
Detroit 25 4 16.0%
San Diego
19 3 15.8%
Carolina 26 4 15.4%
Los Angeles
34 5 14.7%
Minnesota 40 5 12.5%
Pittsburgh 34 4 11.8%
Kansas City
26 3 11.5%
San Francisco
37 4 10.8%
Dallas 30 2 6.7%
New Orleans
19 1 5.3%
New York Giants
24 1 4.2%

First, what little there is in "good" news: the Cowboys are not the worst team in the league; the Saints and Giants are even less successful at developing their third-day picks into starters.

But a look at the teams at the top of this chart has got to leave you wondering whether the Cowboys consistently fall asleep on the third day of the draft. At the very least, you’ve got to wonder whether the Cowboys are doing something fundamentally different (and wrong) than some of the other teams.

We know that the Cowboys have a long and rich history of drafting players from small schools. We know that they’ve occasionally drafted players for their special teams ability (remember the 2009 "special teams draft"). We also know that whatever they’ve been doing, it hasn’t gotten them the results other teams have achieved.

One thing that has changed, perhaps as a reaction to their dismal third-day results, is a stronger focus on big schools, as Will McClay explains:

"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."

But is that enough?

This year, the Cowboys will likely have six picks on the third day of the draft. They would be well advised to replicate what teams like Seattle, Arizona, or Denver have done to get better results from day three of the draft. Because what they can ill afford is to waste another six draft picks.