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2010-2015 NFL Drafts: Team-By-Team Draft Success In First Three Rounds

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In the first three rounds of any draft, NFL teams expect to draft either an immediate starter or an eventual starter. We take a look at how successful NFL teams have been over the last six years at turning their top picks into starters.

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The first three rounds of the NFL draft are where teams should expect to draft immediate or eventual starters. NFL.com for example grades draft prospects in five tiers, and expects a first-round pick to be an immediate starter, and players drafted in round two and three to become eventual starters:

Grade Description Draft (Round) Details
96-100 Future Hall of Famer Top Pick A once-in-a-generation type prospect who could change how his position is played
85-95 Immediate Starter 1st An impact player with the ability/intangibles to become a Pro Bowl player. Expect to start immediately except in a unique situation (i.e. behind a veteran starter).
70-84 Eventual Starter 2nd-3rd A quality player who will contribute to the team early on and is expected to develop into a starter. A reliable player who brings value to the position.
50-69 Draftable Player 4th-7th A prospect with the ability to make team as a backup/role player. Needs to be a special teams contributor at applicable positions. Players in the high range of this category might have long-term potential.
20-49 Free Agent UDFA A player with solid measurables, intangibles, college achievements, or a developing skill that warrants an opportunity in an NFL camp. In the right situation, he could earn a place on a 53-man roster, but most likely will be a practice squad player or a camp body.

Yesterday, we looked at the draft success of teams on the third day of the draft ("Do Cowboys go to sleep on 3rd day of the draft?") and came away unimpressed with the results of the last six Cowboys drafts.

Today, I'd like to look at the last six drafts again, only this time I'll focus on the first three rounds to see how well the Cowboys did on the first two days of the draft compared to their NFL peers. Getting it right in the first three rounds is critical, because when teams fail to get starters in the Top 100 picks of a draft, they usually end up having to fill those voids with expensive free agents.

But "getting it right" is far from easy, even in the top three rounds. Here's an overview showing how many prospects from each round of the last six drafts ended up becoming primary starters in the NFL. A "primary starter" is a player who has started at least eight games in at least one of the last six seasons:

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%

Only 83% of the first-round picks over the last six draft classes have become primary starters so far (which means that to date, one out of six first-round picks has failed to become a starter). As is to be expected, the overall percentages decrease the further back in the draft a player is selected, but the overall picture is clear. The top three rounds are where you can reasonably expect to get your starters, though that is by no mean guaranteed.

Cowboys fans hold their recent top-round draft picks in fairly high regard and believe the Cowboys have done quite well in the top three rounds of the last six drafts:

2010 - 1st: Dez Bryant, 2nd: Sean Lee, 3rd: - -
2011 - 1st: Tyron Smith, 2nd: Bruce Carter, 3rd: DeMarco Murray
2012 - 1st: Morris Claiborne, 2nd: - -, 3rd: Tyrone Crawford
2013 - 1st: Travis Frederick, 2nd: Gavin Escobar, 3rd: Terrance Williams, 3rd: J.J. Wilcox
2014 - 1st: Zack Martin, 2nd: Demarcus Lawrence, 3rd: - -
2014 - 1st: Byron Jones, 2nd: Randy Gregory, 3rd: Chaz Green

The six drafts above have yielded 16 players drafted in the top three rounds, and 13 of those picks have notched at least one season as the primary starter for the Cowboys. Only Gavin Escobar and last year's rookies Randy Gregory and Chaz Green have yet to start eight games in a season.

If a team's objective is to collect future starters in the first three rounds, the Cowboys look to have done a pretty good job. Sure, you could argue that some players have missed significant time with injuries. Others might point to the fact that the Cowboys have only drafted 16 players in the top three rounds of the last six drafts, and had they not moved round during the draft, the Cowboys would have had 18 such picks (and possibly more, had they chosen to trade down more frequently). Others yet again might wonder what Bruce Carter and DeMarco Murray are doing on this list, as both have left in free agency.

But overall, that feels like a solid haul for the Cowboys - especially considering that there are already six Pro Bowlers on that list.

To get a better feel for how the Cowboys compare to other NFL teams, the table below looks at the top three rounds of the last six drafts for all NFL teams, and shows how successful each team was in getting primary starters out of their picks.

Draft Success Rounds 1-3, 2010-15
(click column header to sort)
Team Picks in Rds 1-3 Primary Starters Success rate
Jacksonville 17 15 88.2%
Tampa Bay 18 15 83.3%
Oakland 17 14 82.4%
Dallas 16 13 81.3%
Carolina 15 12 80.0%
Buffalo 18 14 77.8%
San Diego 19 14 73.7%
Atlanta 15 11 73.3%
Tennessee 18 13 72.2%
Washington 14 10 71.4%
NY Jets 17 12 70.6%
Chicago 15 10 66.7%
Detroit 18 12 66.7%
New Orleans 18 12 66.7%
Pittsburgh 18 12 66.7%
Los Angeles 23 15 65.2%
Indianapolis 17 11 64.7%
Minnesota 17 11 64.7%
Seattle 14 9 64.3%
Cleveland 25 16 64.0%
Denver 21 13 61.9%
Kansas City 21 13 61.9%
Miami 18 11 61.1%
Baltimore 19 11 57.9%
Philadelphia 19 11 57.9%
Arizona 18 10 55.6%
NY Giants 18 10 55.6%
Houston 20 11 55.0%
New England 23 12 52.2%
Green Bay 18 9 50.0%
San Francisco 21 10 47.6%
Cincinnati 23 10 43.5%

Note that a success rate of 65% in the first three rounds is the NFL average over the last six drafts. Note also that for the purposes of this analysis, "primary starter" is a hard cutoff. It doesn't matter whether a player did not start eight games in a season because he was injured, or for any other reason. If you're Randy Gregory and played 245 snaps in 12 games but didn't start once, tough luck; if you're Chaz Green and never played a snap due to injury, you're out; if you're Gavin Escobar and played in 46 games over three years but only started in six, you're not making the list.

The table above is sorted by success rate, or the percentage of draft picks from the first three rounds that have become primary starters. By that measure, the Cowboys are one of the most successful teams at selecting prospects that turned into primary starters. Carolina, another team with a high success rate, has translated that recent success into a Super Bowl appearance.

At the other end of the scale, you have teams hitting on only every second draft pick. If that's all you have to show for your day one and day two picks, that's downright scary.

1,533 players were selected in the last six drafts (including supplemental picks). Of those, 561 have been primary starters in at least one season. That means that on average, every NFL teams has drafted 2.9 players per draft over the last six years that eventually became primary starters. That's not a particularly high number, and it follows that a team's overall objective must be to collect as many quality starters as possible. The above table suggests there are two basic ways of going about this, either by going after quantity or quality. Very few teams manage to do both, some manage to do neither.

If success rate is a sign of quality, then accumulating a lot of picks in the first three rounds is a sign of an approach that values quantity. Underlying that approach is some pretty simple math: The more players you draft, the better your odds of landing good players. The Patriots in particular have made this a big part of their drafting philosophy, but they are not the only ones. In total, there are 11 teams that for various reasons have ended up with more than 18 picks in the top three rounds over the last six years. Surprisingly, of those 11 teams, only the Chargers have a success rate above the league average. The remaining 10 teams are at or below the league average success rate of 65%.

These results pose an interesting question for the Cowboys (and all other teams with a high success rate). Are the high success rates the result of some organizational skill or capability that sets these teams apart from other teams, or are these numbers the result of little more than luck?

If a team believes they have an organizational skill that allows them to make better picks than other teams, and that the skill can be repeated, then they must do everything in their power to increase their number of picks in the first three rounds. And if, like the Cowboys, you're drafting at the No. 4 spot, then trading down a few spots to gain more picks in the second or third round would be a good thing, right?

However, if the past results are more the result of luck than of skill, then you must follow the old axiom that says "The higher the pick, the better the player." And if you believe the Cowboys need better players, not more players, then staying put may be the better option.

So where do you stand, should the Cowboys stay put or trade down?