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Could The Dallas Cowboys Have Drafted Any Better In 2016?

Of course they could have, even if they did put together a pretty impressive draft. But with the benefit of hindsight, every single draft can be optimized.

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Even though the Cowboys had one of their best drafts in a long time, it goes without saying that the Cowboys could have drafted even better in 2016. That's not even debatable. Every single team could have drafted better last year.

About a week ago, the NFL announced the five finalists for the 2016 Rookie Of The Year award. Here are those five players

Name POS Rd (Pick) Team
Carson Wentz QB 1 (2) Philadelphia Eagles
Joey Bosa
DE 1 (3)
San Diego Chargers
Ezekiel Elliott RB 1 (4) Dallas Cowboys
Deion Jones OLB 2 (52) Atlanta Falcons
Dak Prescott
QB 4 (135)
Dallas Cowboys

One year after the fact, it's clear that Dak Prescott was the steal of the 2016 draft. Should other teams have picked Prescott? Of course they should have. But all 32 teams passed on Prescott at least twice. The Cowboys made four picks before drafting Prescott, the Browns and Ravens passed on Prescott eight times before he was picked with the 135th pick in the fourth round. Bummer.

But that's the way it goes in the NFL draft. Which is why coming back a year later and saying this or that team should have drafted this or that guy is one of the silliest things draftniks do: putting together an All-Star list of players a given team should have drafted in 2016 doesn't serve any purpose except for some hindsight trolling and the type of revisionist grandstanding that often goes along with it.

So instead of looking back at 2016 and simply picking a couple of players willy-nilly, I'll try to construct four different scenarios of how the 2016 draft could have gone (within some pretty tight parameters) and see whether the Cowboys could have picked any better than they actually did.

To compare the different alternatives, I'll use a metric called "Approximate Value" from "Approximate Value" is designed to assign a value to any player at any position for any given year. The algorithm behind AV weights position specific metrics (i.e. yards or points scored/allowed) with an indicator for durability (total games played and seasons as their team's primary starter) and quality (Pro Bowl and All Pro nominations) and then normalizes all this at a team level.

Before diving into the Cowboys' numbers though, a little more explanation from the folks at PFR.

"Essentially, AV is a substitute for --- and a significant improvement upon, in my opinion --- metrics like 'number of seasons as a starter' or 'number of times making the Pro Bowl' or the like. You should think of it as being essentially like those two metrics, but with interpolation in between."

And like every stat, AV has its limitations.

"AV is not meant to be a be-all end-all metric. Football stat lines just do not come close to capturing all the contributions of a player the way they do in baseball and basketball. If one player is a 16 and another is a 14, we can't be very confident that the 16AV player actually had a better season than the 14AV player. But I am pretty confident that the collection of all players with 16AV played better, as an entire group, than the collection of all players with 14AV."

This is an important aspect to keep in mind: The AV numbers are relative. Players on good teams will score higher than players on bad teams, some positions (e.g. QB) will score higher than others (e.g. safeties), position groups (e.g. offensive linemen) will score roughly the same even if there are differences in actual performance.

With that out of the way, let's take a look at the 2016 Cowboys draft class and their Approximate Value scores:

Round Pick Name Position Approx. Val.
1 4 Ezekiel Elliott RB 16
2 34 Jaylon Smith OLB - -
3 67 Maliek Collins DT 7
4 101 Charles Tapper DE - -
4 135 Dak Prescott QB 15
6 189 Anthony Brown CB 4
6 212 Kavon Frazier SS 1
6 216 Darius Jackson RB - -
6 217 Rico Gathers TE - -
Total 43

The 43 AV points rank the Cowboys 2016 draft class number one in the league, ahead of the Titans (32 points), Bears (30), and Colts (29). At the bottom of the table, the Vikings rank last with just four AV points for their draft class, while the Cardinals, Redskins, and Rams (all 6 points) rank just ahead of last place (see the bottom of this post for a ranking of all 32 teams).

The Cowboys did not go into the draft set on making Prescott their developmental QB, and a number of trades for QBs fell through before the Cowboys picked Prescott. The first of those attempted trades was for Paxton Lynch, but the Cowboys ultimately balked at giving up their second and third to move up and get Lynch. But what if they had moved up and taken Lynch? That's our first alternative scenario.

Scenario 1: What if the Cowboys had traded up for Paxton Lynch?

This is a very straightforward scenario: Cowboys give up their second and third picks for Lynch. And instead of selecting Prescott with their 135th pick, the Cowboys pick the highest-graded player left on their board at that point, DT Quinton Jefferson.

Round Pick Name Position Approx. Val.
1 4 Ezekiel Elliott RB 16
1 27 Paxton Lynch QB 1
4 101 Charles Tapper DE - -
4 135 Quinton Jefferson
DT 0
6 189 Anthony Brown CB 4
6 212 Kavon Frazier SS 1
6 216 Darius Jackson RB - -
6 217 Rico Gathers TE - -
Total 22

Lynch didn't do all that much in Denver this year, and only got an AV score of one point. That may have been different in Dallas, where he might have been forced into action. The Broncos liked Trevor Siemian over Lynch, and Siemian only collected 8 AV points, so that would arguably have been Lynch's ceiling in Dallas. Regardless of how many pity points we award Lynch, trading up for him would have cost the Cowboys Dak Prescott and Mailiek Collins, who combined for 22 AV points. That's also the total approximate value of the draft class in Scenario 1, and that would have dropped the Cowboys to 9th in the league in terms of draft class AV - they'd still have Ezekiel Elliott after all - but it would have been nowhere near the draft class they did get.

Scenario 2: What if the Cowboys had taken the best player on their board?

Fortunately for us, we know what the Cowboys' actual 2016 draft board looked like, so we should be able to tell what would have happened had the Cowboys stayed put and chosen the highest-ranked player on their board when it came time to hand in their picks. This is what that draft could have looked like:

Round Pick Name Position Cowboys Grade Drafted Approx. Val.
1 4 Ezekiel Elliott RB
1 (1) 4th 16
2 34 Jaylon Smith OLB 1 (5) 34th - -
3 67 Kendall Fuller CB 2 (7) 84th 2
4 101 Quinton Jefferson
DT 3 (11) 147th 2
4 135 Paul Perkins
RB 3 (12) 149th 4
6 189 Anthony Brown CB 4 (5) 189th 4
6 212 Kavon Frazier SS 4 (14) 212th 1
6 216 Darius Jackson RB 6 (5) 216th - -
6 217 Daniel Lasco
RB 6 (8) 237th 0
Total 29

The Cowboys stuck to their board with their first two picks (Elliott was the No.1 player on their board, Smith the No. 5), but then had a nasty surprise for proponents of the BPA approach: the Cowboys abandoned their board for the next three picks before coming back to the board in the sixth round.

In the third round, the Cowboys picked DT Maliek Collins over two guys with a higher grade: CB Kendall Fuller and QB Connor Cook, both of whom had a second-round grade on the Cowboys' board. Collins was the third-highest grade left on the board at the time of the pick.

When pick 101 in the fourth round rolled around (Connor Cook had just been picked with the 100th pick), the Cowboys had five players with a third-round grade left on their board. Three running backs (Paul Perkins, Jordan Howard, Devontae Booker) whose draft value may have dropped after the Elliott pick, one defensive tackle (Quinton Jefferson) whose value may also have dropped after the Collins pick, and DE Roland Blair. Given a choice between Blair and Tapper, the Cowboys opted for Tapper. Which of the two will eventually turn out to be the better pick remains to be seen, though Blair has a leg up in the competition, having played 311 snaps on defense last year and garnering one whole AV point in the process.

Overall, going BPA would not have netted the Cowboys the spectacular draft class they ended up with, but the 29 AV points are nothing to sneeze at either, as the 29 points would have ended up as the third-best total in the draft.

Scenario 3: What if the Cowboys had drafted the next best player at each position?

In this scenario, the Cowboys draft the same positions they did (and in the spot they did), but they take the next best player at the position. We'll leave Elliott in place, because the drop to the next RB is simply too far, but instead of taking LB Jaylon Smith (2-34), they would have taken the next linebacker drafted in Myles Jack (2-36); instead of DT Maliek Collins (3-67), they'd have selected DT Jonathan Bullard (3-72); and so on. If we do this for all picks, we end up with the following draft class:

Round Pick Name Position Approx. Val.
1 4 Ezekiel Elliott RB 16
2 34 Myles Jack (2-34)
LB 5
3 67 Jonathan Bullard (3-72)
DT 2
4 101 Dean Lowry (4-137)
DE 1
4 135 Cardale Jones (4-139)
QB 0
6 189 Blake Countess (6-196)
CB 1
6 212 Will Parks (6-219)
SS 1
6 216 Dwayne Washington (6-236)
RB 2
6 217 Thomas Duarte (6-231)
TE 0
Total 28

With this approach, the Cowboys would have gotten 12 points out of eight players not named Ezekiel Elliott. In the actual draft, they got 27 points out of four players not named Elliott.

Which brings us to our next scenario:

Scenario 4: What if the Cowboys had drafted the best player available within the next five picks?

For this scenario, we'll once again use the Cowboys draft order, but we'll pick the player with the best AV within five picks of the original pick. Example: The Cowboys picked Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall. Of the five players taken between the 5th and the 9th overall picks, OT Jack Conklin had the highest AV with 15, so he'll be our choice in this scenario. And to demonstrate the hit-and-miss nature of the draft, the table below doesn't just show the player with the highest AV, but also the player with the lowest AV within the next five picks

Original Pick Highest AV in next 5 picks Lowest AV in next 5 picks
Round Pick Name POS AV Name POS AV
1 4 Jack Conklin (1-8)
Ronny Stanley (1-6)
2 34 Chris Jones (2-37)
Xavien Howard (2-38)
3 67 Yannick Ngakoue (3-59)
Will Redmond (3-68)
4 101 Tavon Young (4-104)
Joshua Perry (4-102)
4 135 Devontae Booker (4-136)
Cardale Jones (4-139)
6 189 Cory James (6-194)
Kolby Listenbee (6-192)
6 212 Elandon Roberts (6-214)
Darius Jackson (6-216)
6 216 Kevon Seymour (6-218)
Travis Feeney (6-220)
6 217 Ted Karras (6-221)
Brondon Doughty (6-223)
Total 50 9

The scenario on the left yields a very strong AV of 50, which is seven points better than what the Cowboys achieved, even if this scenario would not have netted them a viable QB to step in for Tony Romo.

The scenario on the right is a little more disconcerting. If the Cowboys had been off just a little in every round, that's the type of draft that could have happened. The scenario on the left is similar to countless backslapping "Here's how much better I would have drafted than the Cowboys" articles, but I have yet to see an article about a scenario similar to the one on the right titled "Here's how badly I would have messed up the Cowboys' draft."

I realize of course that we've been comparing a lot of hypothetical scenarios here, and that the purpose of the draft is not to maximize some obscure AV metric. As such, there's only so much you can take away from an exercise like this. Overall though, this is yet another data point that shows what a great draft the Cowboys had, and that's without even accounting for the possibility that some of the picks without an AV score this year could step up next year.

It doesn’t take Ron Wolf to see the implication here. “Obviously the fans are fired up about now, that we’re having success right now—but a big part of it too is our future,” Stephen Jones told MMQB recently, as he ran through the group. “When you look at a draft class like this and a draft class like last year, the offensive line, they’re young by most standards in terms of linemen, and we’re getting them all signed up, there’s a lot to look forward to in terms of the future of this football team."

And don’t worry about jumping the gun, if you’re thinking about where Dallas’s Class of 2016 fits into the best groups we’ve seen. Fact is, the way things have played out, the team’s decision-makers haven’t been able to resist either. “You think about it,” Jones said. “One of the best draft classes I still think about was the one with Bill [Parcells], when we took DeMarcus Ware, Marcus Spears, and [Jay] Ratliff, and [Kevin] Burnett, [Chris] Canty, and [Marion] Barber—I mean, that was an all-timer. Now, does this draft have a chance to challenge all the great drafts we’ve had? Of course it does.

“But I think it’s too early to give a grade to this class. They’re off to an amazing start but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

As I said above, all four scenarios are constructed within some pretty tight parameters. I think this is the only way to approach such an exercise without descending too far into the Land of Wishful Thinking. But for all those wishful thinkers out there, here's my salute to you: The best possible draft the Cowboys could have had as measured by AV.

Round Pick Name Position Team Drafted Approx. Val.
1 4 Ezekiel Elliott RB DAL 4th 16
2 34 Dak Prescott
QB DAL 135th 15
3 67 Tyreek Hill WR KC 165th 10
4 101 Jordan Howard
RB CHI 150th 9
4 135 Joe Haeg OT IND 155th 9
6 189 Anthony Brown CB DAL 189th 4
6 212 Elandon Roberts ILB NE 214th 4
6 216 Kevon Seymour CB BUF 218th 2
6 217 Ted Karras OG NE 221st 2
Total 71


Here the ranking of the draft classes for all 32 teams.

2016 Draft Classes Ranked by Approximate Value
Team Approx. Val Team Approx. Val Team Approx. Val
DAL 43 SDG 19 CAR 12
TEN 32 OAK 19 MIA 11
CHI 30 PIT 18 TAM 11
IND 29 SFO 18 HOU 11
NWE 25 ATL 18 BUF 9
CLE 25 NOR 16 CIN 9
DET 25 SEA 15 LAR 6
KAN 23 NYG 15 WAS 6
JAX 22 NYJ 14 ARI 6
PHI 21 DEN 13 MIN 4
BAL 21 GNB 13

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