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Are The Cowboys Done Drafting Small-School Prospects?

The small-school prospect has been a staple of Cowboys teams and drafts in the past, but that may have changed recently.

The Cowboys have had a long and rich history with players from small schools. Defensive tackle Jethro Pugh out of Elizabeth (N.C.) City State was the first small-school standout for the Cowboys when he was drafted in 1964. Since then the Cowboys have compiled an impressive list of small-school talent that includes Hall of Fame OT Rayfield Wright out of Fort Valley State, HoF OG Larry Allen out of Sonoma State, and numerous Pro Bowlers.

Even today, small-school prospects continue to make the roster in Dallas. Brandon Carr (Grand Valley State), Barry Church (Toledo), and Jeff Heath (Saginaw Valley St.) all started at least one game in 2016. Others, like Ryan Davis (Bethune-Cookman), Chris Jones (Carson-Newman), Tony Romo (Eastern Illinois), Justin Durant (Hampton), or Cedric Thornton (Southern Arkansas) didn't start but also hail from non FBS-schools.

Most of the names above joined the Cowboys as free agents from other NFL teams or as undrafted free agents right after college. But that doesn't mean the Cowboys acquired small-school prospects entirely through the draft, far from it. For a while, between 2009 and 2013, the non-FBS prospect was a staple in the Cowboys' drafts:

Year Round Player POS College Conf NFL Games started
2013 3 J.J. Wilcox S Georgia Southern SoCon
2013 4 B.W. Webb CB William & Mary CAA 9
2012 4 Matt Johnson S Eastern Washington Big Sky - -
2012 7 Caleb McSurdy ILB Montana Big Sky - -
2011 4 David Arkin G Missouri State MVFC - -
2010 4 Akwasi Owusu-Ansah DB Indiana (PA) PSAC 2
2010 7 Sean Lissemore DT William & Mary CAA 21
2009 3 Jason Williams LB Western Illinois MVFC 4

As you review the names on the list above, you can't be very happy. J.J. Wilcox (whose school has moved into the FBS since his graduation) is the only pick that panned out for the Cowboys. Sean Lissemore has started 21 games for the Cowboys and Chargers and at least netted the Cowboys a 2015 seventh-round pick (#236-Mark Nzeocha); the remaining names have combined for 15 career starts. That's terrible. And what is particularly galling is that the list above contains six 3rd- or 4th-round picks. That's still premium territory as far as the draft is concerned. Those types of picks have netted the Cowboys players like Dak Prescott, Maliek Collins, Anthony Hitchens, and Damien Wilson in the last three drafts. Certainly nothing to sneeze at.

And those last three drafts have brought about a notable change in how the Cowboys draft small-school prospects. Here's an overview of all the non-FBS players drafted over the last three years:

Year Number of non-FBS football players drafted
2016 0
2015 0
2014 0

Three years is not a very robust sample size (mandatory caveat: the Cowboys did draft a basketball player last year, even if he was from Baylor), and the Cowboys may very well go back to the small-school well this year, but the last three drafts correlate nicely with some changes the Cowboys made to their draft process.

After the 2013 draft, the Cowboys were happy with their draft haul, but unhappy with the process that got them there. Their process had seen them pass over DT Sharrif Floyd because some of the coaches felt he wasn't the right fit for the Cowboys, even though the Cowboys’ scouts had ranked him fifth on the Cowboys draft board. That disconnect between the scouts and coaches led to the promotion of Will McClay to the most important position in the organization that can be manned by somebody not named Jones.

In June 2013 McClay was named the assistant director of player personnel. And the Cowboys haven't drafted a small-school prospect since. Coincidence?

It's not clear if and how the Cowboys factor the small-school risk into their prospect grades, but the Cowboys’ recent talent acquisition history indicates that it may play a bigger role than before, and they're not making a big secret out of it either. Here's will McClay talking about his preference for big schools in 2014:

"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."

Where teams can get into trouble with their scouting process is when they find enough gems like Larry Allen for example. Do that often enough and you may come to the belief that your organization is especially adept at unearthing these jewels. And while that may have been true 20 years ago, today's scouting process by the vast majority of NFL teams is so ubiquitous and so thorough, that the chance of talented players falling through the cracks is virtually non-existent.

We humans are psychologically predisposed to confuse luck with skill. If we get a favorable outcome due to luck, we tend to ascribe that to a particular skill we think we have.

Happens all the time, everywhere.

You sink a three-pointer from mid-court, you sink a hole-in-one on the minigolf course, you'll actually catch something edible when you go fishing, you pick your franchise QB in the fourth round etc., you’ll beat your chest and tell everyone how good, how skillful you are. You will not put it down to pure luck, yet at the very next try, you won’t be able to repeat it. Ironically, you’ll put the failed attempt down to bad luck and not to a lack of skill on your part.

The same applies to the NFL draft. If you drafted Peyton Manning instead of Ryan Leaf, or Aaron Rodgers over Alex Smith, you might believe that you actually have some specific skill that enabled you to do that, instead of just having gotten lucky.

Hey, if I had drafted DeMarcus Ware over Shawne Merriman, or Dak Prescott over all the other QBs in the 2016 NFL draft, I’d be feeling pretty full of myself right now too. And every NFL franchise has these examples that makes them feel like they have some specific edge over their competitors – when in fact they just got lucky.

Acknowledging that you are not superior to your competitors  (almost impossible for the 32 billionaire narcissistic owners and their staff) is the only way that you’ll see the talent acquisition process for what it is: a process where you can get lucky occasionally, but will increase your chances of success in the long term if you avoid taking unnecessary risks.

And the risks inherent in selecting small-school players are clear: They've excelled against mostly inferior competition; many of them have relied more on pure athleticism than technique to beat their opponents in college, and that won't work at the NFL level anymore; many of them face a steeper learning curve in the NFL than big-school prospects; some of them need considerable strength & conditioning time to get NFL-ready. In short, small-school prospects face an arduous uphill climb in the NFL, and not all of them are up to that task.

Nobody is going to object to teams spending a sixth or seventh on a small-school prospect, but investing mid-round picks in those prospects can be a bit more tricky. For now, the Cowboys seem to prefer their picks from big-name schools and seem to have no interest in non-FBS prospects - at least not over the last three years.

Do you approve of the Cowboys' new approach, or would you prefer the Cowboys find their way back to the wildcatting ways of yesteryear?

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