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Is the Cowboys defense suffering from a lack of draft investments?

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Maybe - but it’s not as obvious as it might seem

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NFL: New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Mind boggling fact: teams that rush for 160+ yards, gain 400+ total yards and score 30+ points in the Super Bowl era are 988-60 (94.3%). The Dallas Cowboys are 0-2 the last two weeks despite surpassing all three of those offensive metrics. We all know why: the defense simply hasn’t been good enough. This has led to much wailing and gnashing of teeth with many trying to figure out why. One meme that has popped up is the idea the Cowboys are suffering the consequences of failing to invest on the defensive side of the ball. They point to the multiple first-round draft picks used on offense and claim the team has failed to invest draft capital on defense.

But is that really true? Draft capital assigns a numeric value to every pick in the NFL draft. Here’s a table showing the values. Looking at every Cowboy’s draft from 2010 forward we find Dallas has invested the exact same draft capital on both sides of the ball:

Now, this obviously doesn’t tell the whole story. Questions remain about how and when that capital was invested on both sides of the ball. In addition, trades are not accounted for. These figures represent draft capital used on actual draft picks and does not reflect capital gained or lost by trading picks. Still, let’s look a little closer and see what that the data tells us. First thing to understand is a team’s available draft capital varies from year to year depending on the team’s finish the previous year. Here’s the Cowboys available draft capital since 2010:

The Cowboys made the playoffs in 2009, 2014 and 2016. As a result, they had relatively limited draft capital in 2010, 2015 and 2017. On the flip side, the team finished with six or fewer wins in 2010 and 2015 and thus had relatively more draft capital in 2011 and 2016. Here’s how the team allocated that capital in each year:

A couple trends clearly emerge:

  • Between 2010 and 2014 the team used significantly more draft capital on offense than defense four of five years.
  • Five times out of eight Dallas used more capital on offense than defense
  • Three times (2012, 2015 and 2017) the team spent almost all draft capital on defense

A cumulative sum of the draft capital investment gives us the following:

This seems to indicate that over time, the team is investing evenly on both offense and defense. However, the trend is for the team to invest in offense first, then play catch up with the defense.

But this only accounts for total draft capital investments. The reality is a single stud first-rounder is probably worth more than four fourth-round picks. So how have the Cowboys allocated their draft capital by draft round?

Here we see the disconnect. Dallas has invested nearly two-thirds (65%) of first-round draft capital on offense. Five of the team’s eight first-round picks have been on offense. Also, four of the team’s five highest individual draft capital expenditures have been on offense.

Compare that to the team’s second-round picks, which have been almost exclusively on defense: six of the team’s seven second-round picks have been on defense. Third-round picks, by comparison, have been about even on both offense and defense.

Thus, an argument can be made that Dallas has invested the bulk of its “premium” draft capital on offense.

The team’s approach is pretty clear as the top is heavily green and the middle (second round) is almost all red. Still, Dallas has had a dominant offense for much of the last three years while the defense has varied from mediocre to terrible. Yes, first-round picks have predominately gone to the offense but overall the team has invested nearly as much on defense.

The issue then, would seem not to be how much has been invested on defense but who the team invested in. The following excludes 2017 draftees and shows each top draft pick’s:

  • Average number of start per season played with Dallas
  • Total Pro Bowl honors earned
  • Average AV per season played with Dallas (you can go here for an explanation of AV)

The numbers here are revealing. The top five picks on offense (all first-rounders) have all been home runs. The five have combined to average nearly 15 starts per season, nearly 12 AV per season and have 14 Pro Bowls. Only offensive draftees to not produce (thus far) are Gavin Escobar and Chaz Green. That’s a remarkably consistent record of drafting highly-productive players. Combined, the nine picks are starting nearly 99 games and generating over 76 AV per season. (AV = approximate value, a methodology developed by Pro Football Reference to put a single number on the seasonal value of a player at any position from any year.)

The same cannot be said of the team’s defensive picks. Ten first-, second- and third-round picks have combined to earn two Pro Bowl berths. Combined, the 10 picks are starting 79 games and generating only 37 AV per season.

Looking at more recent drafts, note that Dallas has spent five of the team’s last six first- and second-round picks on defense (B. Jones, R. Gregory, J. Smith, T. Charlton and C. Awuzie). That’s five players that should be providing the foundation for the current defense. Instead, only one of the five is even an average starting NFL player. Most troublesome is that two players chosen on the defensive line (Gregory and Charlton) are contributing almost nothing. Yes, Charlton and Awuzie are less than halfway through their rookie years and could develop into starters and even Pro Bowl players. But when looking at the team’s defense right now one of the problem is that between Charlton, Awuzie and Jaylon Smith none of the three are making positive contributions.

Will McClay and the Cowboy’s braintrust has earned a lot of kudos for hitting on a number of first-round picks as well as some later picks (Dak Prescott) on offense. However, the team has done a very poor job drafting for defense. While there’s been only one complete bust (Gregory) there have been far too many highly-pedigreed players who have failed to meet expectations. Other than Sean Lee, none have developed into “foundational” defensive players the way Dez, Tron, Zack, Frederick and Elliott have on offense. Those are all first-round picks, so perhaps that the lesson: don’t just invest equal draft capital on both sides, invest equal premium draft capital. The easiest example to point to right now is selecting Ezekiel Elliott over Jalen Ramsey.

Elliott has already won a rushing title, Pro Bowl and 1st team All Pro honors. Ramsey, however, has already established himself as an elite corner and ranks 3rd among all cornerback by Pro Football Focus. Had the Cowboys drafted Ramsey instead of Elliott these numbers would be much different....and so would the team.

In conclusion:

  • Dallas has invested evenly on both sides of the ball
  • However, Dallas has invested most “premium” draft capital on offense
  • Dallas has drafted poorly when choosing defensive players

What do you think BTB? Have the Cowboys invested enough draft resources on the defense? Or is the lack of high-end draft picks on defense a cause of the team’s woes?

Poll

Have the Cowboys invested enough draft capital on the defense?

This poll is closed

  • 19%
    Yes - the young defensive draftees will prove to be core players moving forward
    (135 votes)
  • 48%
    Yes - but they simplyl drafted poorly and that’s why the team is suffering
    (338 votes)
  • 32%
    No - the failure to use "premium" draft picks on highly-pedigreed players is hurting the current team
    (223 votes)
696 votes total Vote Now