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Are The Dallas Cowboys A Pro Bowl Factory?

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How successful have the Cowboys been at drafting Pro Bowlers in the more recent past? Very.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

It may be hard to believe after the disaster that was the 2015 season, but in January last year, Jerry Jones was named the 2014 NFL Executive of the Year by the Pro Football Writers Association.

Jones received the award for rebuilding a Cowboys roster that nobody expected would be able to surpass the 8-8 marks of the previous three years, but ended up with a 12-4 record anyway. One of the highlights of the 2014 offseason came in the draft when the Cowboys let Johnny Manziel slide and instead selected Zack Martin, who would be named to the Pro Bowl and would earn all-pro honors as a rookie, and who would help turn the Cowboys offensive line into one of the best in the league.

One of the side effects of the reward, which Jones was quick to share with his entire staff, was that it focused the attention away from the larger-than-life Jerry Jones persona that so many love to hate, and onto the achievements of Jones and his staff. Two examples illustrate that:

In March 2015, Mike Huguenin of NFL.com put together a ranking of active NFL GMs with the best record of drafting Pro Bowlers, and found that Jerry Jones was the most successful GM at drafting Pro Bowlers.

In June 2015, Jim Reineking of NFL.com looked at the Cowboys' draft track record of the previous 10 years and concluded that the "Dallas Cowboys have drafted the most Pro Bowlers in the last decade."

I'm generally very cautious about using Pro Bowls as a measure for anything, and I'm also very wary of the two periods the NFL.com data used to make their point. For one thing, how much of Jerry's success at drafting Pro Bowlers is driven by the talent the Cowboys drafted in the 90s? And if we look at how successful the Cowboys been at drafting Pro Bowlers from 2005-14, how much is that driven by the 2005 draft class that delivered three Pro Bowlers in DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff, and Marion Barber?

To answer these questions, I reviewed the last 10 drafts, from 2006 to 2015 to figure out how successful the modern-day Cowboys have drafted, and I'll play along with NFL.com here and use Pro Bowlers as a proxy for draft success.

Turns out, the Cowboys have done pretty well over the last 10 years. They drafted 11 future Pro Bowlers, second in the league only to the Vikings, who drafted 12 future Pro Bowlers over the same span. For the Cowboys, that's a success rate of 13.8% (11 Pro Bowlers out of 80 draft picks). So over the last ten years, which excludes the 2005 draft, Jerry Jones as a GM has been drafting almost as well (as measured by Pro Bowlers) as he has over the course of his entire career (14.7%). That's pretty impressive, but how do the Cowboys of the last 10 drafts compare with other NFL teams over that period? Here are the top five teams over the last decade as measured by the percentage of future Pro Bowlers among their draft picks:

MOST PRO BOWLERS DRAFTED SINCE 2006
Team Draft Picks Pro Bowlers in %
Carolina 73 11 15.1%
Minnesota 82 12 14.6%
New Orleans 62 9 14.5%
Dallas 80 11 13.8%
Kansas City
81 11 13.6%

If you accept a ranking using Pro Bowlers drafted as a measure of a GM's quality, then the Cowboys rank at the very top of the league over the last 10 years. How can that be, knowing that the oft-ridiculed Jerry Jones is the GM in Dallas?

The key reason is that people often confuse what Jerry does with what a GM on many other teams does. Regular GMs spend countless hours every day watching film, watching practice and evaluating their players, draft prospects and free agents. Jerry Jones doesn't do that, or at least doesn't spend nearly the amount of time on those tasks as a regular GM does. Instead, Jerry has his guys who do that work for him. And the quality of those guys has a direct impact on the quality of the players the Cowboys have drafted, as Jerry Jones explained.

"What really came to play this year as much as any time, was standing on the shoulders of Stephen [Jones], standing on the shoulders of Will [McClay], standing on the shoulders of a great staff of not just personnel, but also a real inclusive -- led by Jason [Garrett] -- group of coaches to help us evaluate and make decisions," Jones said. "And it was a good experience. And it was one that we had some success in it. And so I know this is an old cliché, but that recognition really is for this organization."

The following table illustrates that in stark numbers, as we look at the numbers over Jerry Jones' entire tenure, but split them into three distinct periods: the Jimmy Johnson years, the Larry Lacewell years, and the "modern era" years:

1989-1993
Jimmy Johnson
1994-2002
(Switzer/Gailey/Campo)
2003-2015
(Parcells/Phillips/Garrett)
Pro Bowl % 20% (13 of 65)
7.8% (6 of 77)
15.5% (16 of 103)
NFL average 9.0% 11.1% 10.2%
Cowboys NFL rank No. 1
No. 29
No. 2

Note that these numbers only contain drafted players who made the Pro Bowl, not the undrafted players, where the likes of Tony Romo, Miles Austin, Dan Bailey, Matt McBriar, and L.P. Ladouceur would make the last 13 drafts look even better, though this would likely be true for other teams as well.

Jerry Jones got off to a great start with Jimmy Johnson, and a large part of their joint drafting success is owed to the Hershel Walker trade, which gave the Cowboys some great ammunition in the draft.

That brief period of brilliance was followed by a long, dark period during which Larry Lacewell was in charge of scouting, Jerry Jones got more involved in the draft, and a succession of head coaches led the Cowboys to ever worse season records. Importantly, the period from 1994 to 2002 also shows that simply being a popular team (it's hard to imagine any team being more popular in the 90s than the Cowboys) doesn't automatically make your draft picks into Pro Bowlers.

The Cowboys revamped their scouting operation once Parcells was brought in, and despite unmitigated disasters like the 2009 draft, the Cowboys of the last 13 years have put together a pretty good draft record compared to their NFL peers.

Here's a further breakdown by the last three coaching regimes:


03-06, Bill Parcells 07-10, Wade Phillips 11-15, Jason Garrett
Pro Bowl % 19.4%
18.2%
10.3%
NFL average 13.3% 11.7% 6.3%
Cowboys NFL rank No. 4
No. 3 No. 3

The Bill Parcells Cowboys delivered Pro-Bowlers at a rate similar to that of Jimmy Johnson, but without the benefit of a Hershel Walker trade. Again, note that the Pro Bowls from the UDFAs brought in under Parcells are not included here. Parcells' six drafted Pro Bowlers are Jason Witten, Terence Newman, DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff, Marion Barber, and Jason Hatcher.

Parcells helped the Cowboys improve their scouting organization, and although Wade Phillips gets blamed for a lot of things in Cowboys Nation, his tenure did bring the Cowboys six Pro Bowlers in Anthony Spencer, Nick Folk, Mike JenkinsDez Bryant, Sean Lee, and even Martellus Bennett, who in 2014 finally got his first Pro Bowl nomination with his third NFL team.

Garrett's tenure has four Pro Bowlers to its credit so far (Tyron Smith, DeMarco Murray, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin). Four Pro Bowlers over the last five drafts may not initially seem like much, but only two teams have drafted more Pro Bowlers over hat span, the Vikings have seven and the Panthers have five.

I'd venture to say that after a long, bleak period following Jimmy Johnson's departure, the Cowboys over the last 10 years have started hitting on their draft picks again. At the end of the day, the Cowboys' one key issue in the draft is much less about hitting on draft picks, and much more about keeping enough of their high draft picks to hit on future Pro Bowlers with.

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NFL Teams with the highest percentage of draft picks to make 1+ Pro Bowls, 2006-2015

Team Picks Pro Bowlers % Team Picks Pro Bowlers % Team Picks Pro Bowlers %
CAR 73 11 15.1% BAL 85 9 10.6% TAM 76 6 7.9%
MIN 82 12 14.6% DEN 77 8 10.4% ATL 78 6 7.7%
NOR 62 9 14.5% BUF 82 8 9.8% GNB 92 7 7.6%
DAL 80 11 13.8% PIT 85 8 9.4% WAS 80 6 7.5%
KAN 81 11 13.6% NYJ 66 6 9.1% DET 77 5 6.5%
HOU 80 10 12.5% CLE 81 7 8.6% OAK 82 5 6.1%
SEA 84 10 11.9% MIA 81 7 8.6% PHI 88 5 5.7%
SFO 89 10 11.2% NWE 93 8 8.6% JAX 73 4 5.5%
CIN 91 10 11.0% ARI 72 6 8.3% NYG 73 4 5.5%
CHI 74 8 10.8% TEN 86 7 8.1% LA 90 3 3.3%
SDG 66 7 10.6% IND 76 6 7.9%

The Cowboys have a handful recent draft picks like Tyrone Crawford, Demarcus Lawrence, Byron Jones, and Randy Gregory who could conceivably make a Pro Bowl if they live up to expectations (and the Pro Bowl ship has likely sailed on the likes of Morris Claiborne, Gavin Escobar, or J.J. Wilcox). And given the high picks they have in this year's draft, there's reason to believe the Cowboys will be adding more Pro Bowlers to their tally, thus re-establishing themselves as the Pro Bowl Factory they used to be.

To a certain degree, the Pro Bowl is a popularity contest, but it is a popularity contest that is heavily skewed towards the most successful teams at the end of each season. Which is why the Carolina Panthers had 10 Pro Bowl players last year after having just two the year before. And being a popular team doesn't automatically guarantee you any Pro Bowlers. We saw that earlier while discussing the Larry Lacewell years, and we see it in the table above where some pretty popular teams have fairly low success rates.

The long and short of it is that the Cowboys have done petty well at drafting and developing future Pro Bowlers both historically and in the recent past. Too bad it hasn't resulted in more post-season success recently.

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If you've made it all the way to the end of this post, you may wonder why we're talking about draft success in the middle of the busiest period of free agency. Here's why: The two least successful teams at drafting Pro Bowlers over the last eight years were the highest spenders in free agency yesterday.

The Giants drafted only two Pro Bowlers (Beckham and Pierre-Paul) with 58 picks from the last eight drafts. Over the same period, the Jaguars drafted just one Pro Bowler with 56 picks (WR Allen Robinson). That ranks the teams teams 31st and 32nd respectively in the league over that span. No surprise then that both teams felt they had to break the bank in free agency to compensate: The Giants lead the league with $193 million spent on free agents on the first day of free agency, the Jaguars rank second with $173.8 million.