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How Have The Cowboys Become So Good? One Set Of Data Contains The Answer

The Cowboys have turned their franchise around, but how did they do it? Looking at a specific set of data illuminates the path to success.

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Jaylon Smith, the Cowboys' second-round pick in 2016, did not play a single snap for the Cowboys this season. Fourth-round pick Charles Tapper was diagnosed with a Pars Defect in his back and also didn't play a single snap in 2016. Neither did sixth-round TE Rico Gathers, who's still on the practice squad, and neither did RB Darius Jackson, who was on the 53-man until mid-December until he was waived and subsequently picked up by the Browns.

That means four of the nine rookies drafted didn't play a single snap this season. So how can this rookie class end up with the second-most snaps of the last ten rookie classes? The answer obviously lies in how much playing time the five other rookies got in 2016.

The five rookies who did play for the Cowboys in 2016 accumulated 3,139 snaps, which is 13.5% of the total amount of snaps the Cowboys played on offense and defense last year. That may not sound like much at first glance, but those 13.5% are the equivalent of three starters, and more importantly, the second-highest value of any Cowboys rookie class since 2007.

If you simply look at the number of starts, the 2016 rookies combined for 55 starts, or 15.6% of the total. Here are the numbers in detail:

2016 Rookie Class
POS Name Total Snaps
Total Starts
QB Dak Prescott 1,013 16
CB Anthony Brown 717 10
RB Ezekiel Elliott 716 15
DT Maliek Collins 656 14
S Kavon Frazier 37 - -
LB Jaylon Smith - - - -
DE Charles Tapper - - - -
TE Rico Gathers - - - -
RB Darius Jackson - - - -
Rookie snaps 3,139 55
In % of total 13.5% 15.6%

It's widely held 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. The Cowboys got four starters out of this draft class, and that's with almost half the rookie class never playing a snap. That's a success any way you look at it, and never mind that this draft class also yielded a franchise quarterback.

Number of starts can be a fickle metric to track over time, so I'll stick with the number of snaps as they are easier to compare over the years. To compare this year's rookie class to previous classes, I've used two sets of data. For 2007-11, I've used the numbers from Pro Football Focus, and for 2012-2016 I've used the official league numbers as recorded by Football Outsiders. There are minor technical discrepancies between the two sets of numbers, but for our purposes the two data sets are sufficiently comparable.


Here's an overview of the previous nine rookie classes and their total number of snaps. The snap numbers in the table are the offensive or defensive snaps, special teams snaps are not included. Where applicable, undrafted rookies are included in the rookie class totals.

2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
Rookie snaps 879 1,542 364 1,629 2,004 1,531 3,583 2,178 2,291
In % of total 3.8% 6.7% 1.5% 6.9% 8.5% 6.5% 15.3% 9.5% 10.0%

Very roughly, this table can be divided into three parts.

It starts out with three very disappointing rookie classes from 2007-2009. The 2009 draft was particularly disappointing for many exhaustively discussed reasons, but the 2008 class may have been even more disappointing considering that the Cowboys had two first-round picks and a second-rounder in that draft. Over the three years, these three rookie classes averaged 4.0% of the snaps in their rookie seasons, the equivalent of 0.9 starters per rookie class.

The 2010-12 rookie classes saw a lot of injuries to players in their rookie seasons, which affected their overall numbers. Dez Bryant and Sean Lee both missed significant time in their 2010 rookie seasons, as did Bruce Carter, DeMarco Murray, and Bill Nagy a year later. In 2012, the trade-up for Morris Claiborne cost the Cowboys their second-round pick, which potentially could have given the Cowboys some extra snaps if they had kept it. But despite the injuries, these three rookie classes averaged 7.3% of the total snaps, or about 1.6 starters per rookie class.

The Cowboys finally hit their stride with the 2013 rookie class, the strongest class in this group. Their snap count is very high in part due to the quality of its players, in part also because the Cowboys traded down for an extra pick that netted them Terrance Williams. They followed that up in 2014 with another strong class that was handicapped when the Cowboys traded away their third-round pick to get DeMarcus Lawrence, only to then see Lawrence miss eight games with a broken foot. The 2015 rookie class finally was hit by injuries to many of the drafted players, but made up for that with its undrafted rookies, La'el Collins chief among them. The three years from 2013-2015 (obviously buoyed by 2013) have been pretty strong, accounting for an average of 11.6% of the snaps in the rookie seasons, which translates to a cool 2.6 starters per rookie class.

In the early parts of the last decade, the Cowboys have struggled with depth across the entire roster, and the weak rookie classes described above are a key driver of that. Over the last few years, that depth has improved significantly, so the recent turnaround in the Cowboys' fortunes shouldn't have come as a surprise to anybody who's been paying attention.


But it's not just the strong rookie seasons that are contributing to the Cowboys' success.

Three years (and sometimes even more) is the standard usually used to fully evaluate a rookie class. Which is why we're now going to look at how the snap percentages of each season's rookie class have progressed over the years.

The snap data I have available 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 9.0% of all snaps) to the roster is a good target for a rookie class, adding less than one starter equivalent (4.5%) is terrible, and getting the equivalent of three starters (13.5% of all snaps) is outstanding.

The table below summarizes the data for the last 12 rookie classes:

1st year 2nd year 3rd year 4th year 5th year
Class of 2005 - - - - 16.9%
Class of 2006 - -
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%
Class of 2011 8.5% 10.9% 11.6%
Class of 2012 6.5% 11.5%
Class of 2013 15.3% 14.8%
- -
Class of 2014 9.5%
- -
- -
Class of 2015 10.0%
- -
- -
- -
Class of 2016 13.5% - -
- -
- -
- -
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 2010, this rookie class played only 6.9% of all snaps, in part because of injuries to Dez Bryant and Sean Lee.
  • In 2011, with both players healthy and UDFA Phil Costa playing center for the year, the figure jumped to 14.2%.
  • In 2012, the percentage dropped as the Cowboys replaced Costa at center, but his snaps were partly replaced by supplemental draft pick Josh Brent and UDFA Danny McCray 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 accounted 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.

From the data accumulated above, it looks like adding the equivalent of two starters (about 9% of all snaps) to the roster is a good target for the first year of a rookie class. The Cowboys had missed that mark every year from 2007-12, but have hit it every year since.

The numbers get better in the second year, where the Cowboys have hit the 2+ starter mark every year since 2010. Also since 2010, the rookie classes show a sea of green and blue in years two, three, and four, which is exactly how you want it to be.

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 from the Cowboys. And the rest of the rookie class (Bill Nagy, Kevin Kowalski, Phillip Tanner, Alex Albright, and Shaun Chapas) never amounted to much.

The data in the color-enhanced table above provides a nice visual representation of the turnaround the Cowboys have made in the Garrett era.

When a team fails to hit on at least two starters in each rookie class, it will have issues with 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 or recruit better, as the Cowboys have done over the last seven years, 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 or plug very specific holes. 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 you more and more compensatory draft picks that could in turn could help you draft even more starters. Which is exactly what happened when the Cowboys let Jeremy Parnell leave to sign a contract in Jacksonville, for which they received a fourth-round compensatory pick that eventually allowed them to draft Dak Prescott.

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 in a virtuous cycle.

And then you can start coloring your charts in blue and green.

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