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What Kind Of Immediate Value Can The Cowboys Expect From The 2017 Draft?

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We have looked at the last seven Cowboys drafts to see what Dallas might expect. Now we are going to use Approximate Value again and focus on pass rushers and defensive backs.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

This is not officially a series, but it is to the extent that it’s the fourth recent article we’ve written using Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value metric.

Created by PFR founder Doug Drinen, the Approximate Value (AV) method is an attempt to put a single number on the seasonal value of a player at any position from any year (since 1950).

We used this stat in going over the last seven Cowboy’s drafts. We then used it to compare Ezekiel Elliott and Jalen Ramsey’s rookie seasons. And lastly we used it to compare the rookie value of every Dallas Cowboys draft back to 1961. In that comparison, the 2016 draft came out on top with two of the best rookie seasons in Cowboys history - by Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott.

Now we’re going to look at the last 10 NFL drafts at the two positions Dallas is expected to focus most of their draft attention on — defensive line/pass rush, and defensive back. Using approximate value as the measuring stick, how many players have had rookie seasons that could qualify as above average in value?

Before we get to that, we need to decide where to draw the line. In 2016, PFR graded 1,589 NFL players with a 1 or higher. There were players who received a 0, and even some who received a negative number. Because “0” is not a positive value, we have excluded all the zeros and negative scoring players.

How do the other players break down? These are the PFR AV scores, followed by the number of players with that score in 2016.

21-1 12--17 5--142
18-2 11--23 4--127
17-3 10--38 3--181
16-8 9--37 2--256
15-9 8--56 1--425
14-6 7--109
13-20 6--127

The median point in terms of value is at the high end of the players with 6 AV scores. The average score of all valued players was 4.12 AV. For purposes of this article, we’ve decided to go with the rookies who scored 5 AV or above as “above average”, though a 7 AV or higher, which is above the median value, might be more indicative of an impact rookie.

Note here that AV is not a perfect system. But these words of its founder are relevant.

"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."

That last line is essentially how we are using the stat - by evaluating the group of players at a given level of AV, and seeing how many of them there are in any particular year at certain positions and certain draft slots.

Defensive Linemen

With the preliminaries taken care of, let’s look at all the defensive linemen taken in the last 10 drafts who have performed at a 5 AV or higher as rookies. We’re are using PFRs slotting for position, and not including outside linebackers who might be rush players because many of them would not be suited to Dallas’s 4-3 alignment.

Rk Player Year Age Draft Tm G GS Yrs PB AP1 AV
1 Ndamukong Suh 2010 23 1--2 DET 16 16 1 1 1 15
2 Aaron Donald 2014 23 1--13 STL 16 12 1 1 0 11
3 Jabaal Sheard 2011 22 2--37 CLE 16 16 1 0 0 10
4 J.J. Watt 2011 22 1--11 HOU 16 16 1 0 0 10
5 Muhammad Wilkerson 2011 22 1--30 NYJ 16 16 1 0 0 10
6 Star Lotulelei 2013 24 1--14 CAR 16 16 1 0 0 9
7 Brian Orakpo 2009 23 1--13 WAS 16 16 1 1 0 9
8 Phil Taylor 2011 23 1--21 CLE 16 16 1 0 0 9
9 Leonard Williams 2015 21 1--6 NYJ 16 15 1 0 0 9
10 Jurrell Casey 2011 22 3--77 TEN 16 15 1 0 0 8
11 Derek Wolfe 2012 22 2--36 DEN 16 16 1 0 0 8
12 Vic Beasley 2015 23 1--8 ATL 16 16 1 0 0 7
13 Malcom Brown 2015 21 1--32 NWE 16 12 1 0 0 7
14 DeForest Buckner 2016 22 1--7 SFO 15 15 1 0 0 7
15 Maliek Collins 2016 21 3--67 DAL 16 14 1 0 0 7
16 Marcell Dareus 2011 21 1--3 BUF 16 15 1 0 0 7
17 Javon Hargrave 2016 23 3--89 PIT 15 13 1 0 0 7
18 Lamarr Houston 2010 23 2--44 OAK 16 15 1 0 0 7
19 Edward Johnson 2007 24 IND 16 16 1 0 0 7
20 Cameron Jordan 2011 22 1--24 NOR 16 15 1 0 0 7
21 Terrance Knighton 2009 23 3--72 JAX 16 16 1 0 0 7
22 Yannick Ngakoue 2016 21 3--69 JAX 16 15 1 0 0 7
23 Emmanuel Ogbah 2016 23 2--32 CLE 16 16 1 0 0 7
24 Corey Peters 2010 22 3--83 ATL 16 15 1 0 0 7
25 Gaines Adams 2007 24 1--4 TAM 16 8 1 0 0 6
26 Tyson Alualu 2010 23 1--10 JAX 16 16 1 0 0 6
27 Jamaal Anderson 2007 21 1--8 ATL 16 16 1 0 0 6
28 Ezekiel Ansah 2013 24 1--5 DET 14 12 1 0 0 6
29 Joey Bosa 2016 21 1--3 SDG 12 11 1 0 0 6
30 Michael Brockers 2012 22 1--14 STL 13 12 1 0 0 6
31 Adam Carriker 2007 23 1--13 STL 16 16 1 0 0 6
32 Glenn Dorsey 2008 23 1--5 KAN 16 16 1 0 0 6
33 Justin Ellis 2014 24 4--107 OAK 16 14 1 0 0 6
34 Sedrick Ellis 2008 23 1--7 NOR 13 13 1 0 0 6
35 Eddie Goldman 2015 21 2--39 CHI 15 12 1 0 0 6
36 Rodney Gunter 2015 23 4--116 ARI 16 11 1 0 0 6
37 Tyson Jackson 2009 23 1--3 KAN 16 14 1 0 0 6
38 Chandler Jones 2012 22 1--21 NWE 14 13 1 0 0 6
39 Chris Jones 2013 23 6--198 NWE 13 11 1 0 0 6
40 Chris Jones 2016 22 2--37 KAN 16 11 1 0 0 6
41 Kendall Langford 2008 22 3--66 MIA 16 13 1 0 0 6
42 Chris Long 2008 23 1--2 STL 16 16 1 0 0 6
43 Gerald McCoy 2010 22 1--3 TAM 13 13 1 0 0 6
44 Brandon Mebane 2007 22 3--85 SEA 16 10 1 0 0 6
45 David Parry 2015 23 5--151 IND 16 16 1 0 0 6
46 Andrus Peat 2015 22 1--13 NOR 12 8 1 0 0 6
47 Dontari Poe 2012 22 1--11 KAN 16 16 1 0 0 6
48 Sheldon Richardson 2013 23 1--13 NYJ 16 15 1 0 0 6
49 Danny Shelton 2015 22 1--12 CLE 16 15 1 0 0 6
50 Billy Winn 2012 23 6--205 CLE 16 10 1 0 0 6
51 Adrian Clayborn 2011 23 1--20 TAM 16 16 1 0 0 5
52 Mario Edwards 2015 21 2--35 OAK 14 10 1 0 0 5
53 Eric Foster 2008 23 IND 13 11 1 0 0 5
54 Lawrence Jackson 2008 23 1--28 SEA 16 14 1 0 0 5
55 Jarvis Jenkins 2012 24 2--41 WAS 16 14 1 0 0 5
56 Corey Liuget 2011 21 1--18 SDG 15 13 1 0 0 5
57 Bennie Logan 2013 24 3--67 PHI 16 8 1 0 0 5
58 Amobi Okoye 2007 20 1--10 HOU 16 14 1 0 0 5
59 Jay Richardson 2007 23 5--138 OAK 16 11 1 0 0 5
60 Akeem Spence 2013 22 4--100 TAM 16 14 1 0 0 5
61 Joe Vellano 2013 25 NWE 16 8 1 0 0 5
62 Jihad Ward 2016 22 2--44 OAK 16 13 1 0 0 5

What can we glean from this table? Let’s see:

  • There have been 62 rookie defensive linemen with AVs of 5 or above over the last 10 drafts. That’s about six per year. But it’s not equally divided. Some years are better than others, with eight in 2016, nine in 2015, two in 2014, seven in 2013, six in 2012, nine in 2011, five in 2010, three in 2009, six in 2008, and seven in 2007.
  • Before you conclude, based on this, that Dallas just has to select a defensive lineman in the first round (or later) to get someone who performs at a 5 AV or higher, please note that even first round picks don’t always pan out. 33 defensive linemen picked in the first round in this 10-year period have scored a 4 AV or below, including three who scored zeros as rookies. That compares to 34 first-rounders who have scored 5 AV or higher as rookies. And that includes all first-rounders, including any taken at the top of the draft, where hits are more likely than at the bottom of each round, where Dallas picks this year.
  • You could count DeMarcus Lawrence as among these misses. Even though he was a second-round pick, it was at the top of round two and cost Dallas its third-rounder. Lawrence rated 1 AV as a rookie.
  • 24 of the 62 defensive linemen scored a 7 AV or higher, including Maliek Collins, the only Cowboys draft pick on the defensive line to have done so in the last 10 years. Collins is the only Cowboys draft pick on this chart. 50 of the 62 defensive linemen scored 6 AV or higher.
  • It’s very hard to get a really high-value rookie, with only 11 defensive linemen over 10 years ranking 8 AV or above, although four of these were within range of where Dallas will draft this year.
  • Some teams have done better at drafting these players, or been more committed to selecting them. Cleveland and Oakland have drafted five each, Kansas City, New England, St. Louis (LA) and Tampa have drafted four each, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, New Orleans, and the New York Jets have drafted three each. That means 11 of 32 teams (one-third) have drafted 41 of the 62 linemen (two-thirds) on this list.
  • When looking at draft slot, 31 - or half - have been drafted ahead of where the Cowboys pick this year in the first round. 12 players have been taken between the 28th and 60th pick, where Dallas selects in the second round. Nine more have been taken between the 60th and 92nd pick, and the remaining 10 have been drafted in the fourth round or lower, including three UDFAs. This means you can find good players throughout the draft, but you have to be highly skilled and a bit lucky to hit on them.
  • Needless to say, the lower you go in the draft, the longer the odds of hitting on one of these picks.

Defensive Backs

What are the numbers for defensive backs? The reason I did this article was to shed some light on the comparative values of defensive linemen and backs. Here are the comparable numbers.

Rk Player Year Age Draft Tm G GS Yrs PB AP1 AV
1 Patrick Peterson 2011 21 1--5 ARI 16 16 1 1 1 20
2 Brandon Browner 2011 27 SEA 16 16 1 1 0 11
3 Devin McCourty 2010 23 1--27 NWE 16 16 1 1 0 11
4 Marcus Peters 2015 22 1--18 KAN 16 16 1 1 0 11
5 Eric Berry 2010 22 1--5 KAN 16 16 1 1 0 10
6 Tanard Jackson 2007 22 4--106 TAM 16 16 1 0 0 9
7 Eric Reid 2013 22 1--18 SFO 16 16 1 1 0 9
8 Jairus Byrd 2009 23 2--42 BUF 14 11 1 1 0 8
9 Janoris Jenkins 2012 24 2--39 STL 15 14 1 0 0 8
10 Jalen Ramsey 2016 22 1--5 JAX 16 16 1 0 0 8
11 Matt Elam 2013 22 1--32 BAL 16 15 1 0 0 7
12 E.J. Gaines 2014 22 6-188 STL 15 15 1 0 0 7
13 Charles Godfrey 2008 23 3--67 CAR 16 16 1 0 0 7
14 LaRon Landry 2007 23 1--6 WAS 16 16 1 0 0 7
15 Reggie Nelson 2007 24 1--21 JAX 16 15 1 0 0 7
16 Darrelle Revis 2007 22 1--14 NYJ 16 16 1 0 0 7
17 Harrison Smith 2012 23 1--29 MIN 16 16 1 0 0 7
18 Earl Thomas 2010 21 1--14 SEA 16 16 1 0 0 7
19 Gerald Alexander 2007 23 2--61 DET 16 16 1 0 0 6
20 Ricardo Allen 2015 24 5-147 ATL 15 14 1 0 0 6
21 Adrian Amos 2015 22 5-142 CHI 16 16 1 0 0 6
22 Mark Barron 2012 23 1--7 TAM 16 16 1 0 0 6
23 James Bradberry 2016 23 2--62 CAR 13 13 1 0 0 6
24 Bashaud Breeland 2014 22 4-102 WAS 16 15 1 0 0 6
25 Morris Claiborne 2012 22 1--6 DAL 15 15 1 0 0 6
26 Derek Cox 2009 23 3--73 JAX 16 16 1 0 0 6
27 Ronald Darby 2015 21 2--50 BUF 15 15 1 0 0 6
28 Vernon Hargreaves 2016 21 1--1 TAM 16 16 1 0 0 6
29 Mike Harris 2012 23 6-176 JAX 15 6 1 0 0 6
30 Chris Horton 2008 24 7-249 WAS 14 10 1 0 0 6
31 Kenny Vaccaro 2013 23 1--15 NOR 14 14 1 0 0 6
32 T.J. Ward 2010 24 2--38 CLE 16 16 1 0 0 6
33 Kenneth Acker 2015 23 6-180 SFO 15 13 1 0 0 5
34 Andrew Adams 2016 24 NYG 14 13 1 0 0 5
35 Al Afalava 2009 22 6-190 CHI 13 13 1 0 0 5
36 Nate Allen 2010 23 2--37 PHI 13 13 1 0 0 5
37 Johnthan Banks 2013 24 2--43 TAM 16 16 1 0 0 5
38 Artie Burns 2016 21 1--25 PIT 16 9 1 0 0 5
39 Brandon Carr 2008 22 5-140 KAN 16 16 1 0 0 5
40 Landon Collins 2015 21 2--33 NYG 16 16 1 0 0 5
41 Jonathan Cyprien 2013 23 2--33 JAX 15 15 1 0 0 5
42 Louis Delmas 2009 22 2--33 DET 15 15 1 0 0 5
43 Kyle Fuller 2014 22 1--14 CHI 16 14 1 0 0 5
44 Stephon Gilmore 2012 22 1--10 BUF 16 16 1 0 0 5
45 Michael Griffin 2007 22 1--19 TEN 16 10 1 0 0 5
46 Joe Haden 2010 21 1--7 CLE 16 7 1 0 0 5
47 Chris Houston 2007 23 2--41 ATL 16 11 1 0 0 5
48 Kareem Jackson 2010 22 1--20 HOU 16 16 1 0 0 5
49 Kevin Johnson 2015 23 1--16 HOU 16 10 1 0 0 5
50 Jacob Lacey 2009 22 IND 16 9 1 0 0 5
51 Kendrick Lewis 2010 22 5-136 KAN 12 10 1 0 0 5
52 Leodis McKelvin 2008 23 1--11 BUF 16 6 1 0 0 5
53 Dee Milliner 2013 22 1--9 NYJ 13 12 1 0 0 5
54 Josh Norman 2012 25 5-143 CAR 16 12 1 0 0 5
55 Jerraud Powers 2009 22 3--92 IND 12 12 1 0 0 5
56 Calvin Pryor 2014 22 1--18 NYJ 16 11 1 0 0 5
57 Damarious Randall 2015 23 1--30 GNB 15 9 1 0 0 5
58 Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie 2008 22 1--16 ARI 16 11 1 0 0 5
59 Aaron Ross 2007 25 1--20 NYG 15 9 1 0 0 5
60 Richard Sherman 2011 23 5-154 SEA 16 10 1 0 0 5
61 Sean Smith 2009 22 2--61 MIA 16 16 1 0 0 5
62 Desmond Trufant 2013 23 1--22 ATL 16 16 1 0 0 5
63 Alterraun Verner 2010 22 4-104 TEN 16 12 1 0 0 5
64 Melvin White 2013 23 CAR 15 10 1 0 0 5
65 Daryl Worley 2016 21 3--77 CAR 16 11 1 0 0 5
66 Eric Wright 2007 22 2--53 CLE 14 13 1 0 0 5
67 Tavon Young 2016 22 4-104 BAL 16 11 1 0 0 5

What can we glean from these numbers?

  • There have been 67 rookie defensive backs (compared to 62 DLs) with AVs of 5 or above the last 10 drafts. Again, not evenly divided by years. 2007 - 7, 2008 - 6, 2009 - 3, 2010 - 5, 2011 - 9, 2012 - 6, 2013 - 7, 2014 - 2, 2015 - 9, 2016 - 8.
  • 30 of the 67 DBs picked in round one scored grades of 5 AV or higher, compared to 26 first-rounders who scored 4 AV or below as rookies.
  • Only 18 of the 67 DBs scored a 7 AV or higher, none of them Cowboys. Mo Claiborne’s 6 AV is the only Cowboys draft pick on this chart. Only 32 of the DBs scored 6 AV or higher.
  • It’s very hard to get a really high-value rookie, with only 10 DBs over 10 years ranking 8 AV or above (it was 11 for DL), although four of these were within range of where Dallas will draft this year, just as with DLs.
  • Some teams have done better at drafting these players, or been more committed to selecting them. Carolina and Jacksonville have drafted five each, Buffalo, Kansas City, and Tampa have drafted four each, Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, NYG, NYJ, Seattle, and Washington three each.
  • When looking at draft slot, 27 - or 40% - have been drafted ahead of where the Cowboys pick this year in the first round. 14 players have been taken between the 28th and 60th pick, where Dallas selects in the second round. Seven more have been taken between the 60th and 92nd pick, and the remaining 19 have been drafted in the 4th round or lower, including four UDFAs.

Are There Any Lessons In This Data?

One thing you notice is how similar the numbers are for defensive linemen and defensive backs.

  • Overall numbers are very close: 62 v 67.
  • Slightly higher overall success rate for first round DBs - 30 of 56 (53%) score 5 AV or higher versus 34 of 67 (50%) for DLs.
  • Higher ratio of DLs scored 7 AV or above: 24 of 62 (39%) v. 18 of 67 (27%) for DBs. Much higher ratio of DLs scored 6 AV or above: 50 of 62 (80%) v. 32 of 67 (48%) for DBs.
  • Getting an 8 AV or above is just as hard with DL (11) as DBs (10).
  • The Cowboys have drafted well overall, but they have drafted poorly at these positions in recent years, with only Maliek Collins (7 AV) and Mo Claiborne (6 AV) registering as rookies in the last 10 drafts.

Finally, there is a slightly better chance of finding a performing defensive back lower in the draft than a defensive lineman. Is this the most important finding? I’m not sure you can hang much on this, but 50% of the 5+ AV defensive linemen were taken in the first round above where Dallas picks at 28th, while only 40% of the similar DBs were. And 28% of 5+ AV DBs could be found in the fourth round or lower, while only 16% of the defensive linemen could be found that far down.

Does that suggest the Cowboys should lean towards taking the defensive lineman first, because they are slightly more likely to find a good DB later? Maybe. Reinforcing this is the higher number of DLs scoring 6 AV or higher. But the limited overall success rate suggests you need to go with the player you think will provide the most value, regardless of position, as long as they fit your team.

What Do The Cowboys Need To Replace?

The free agent DBs and DLs Dallas lost scored as follows last year in AV.

  • Brandon Carr - 6 AV
  • Barry Church - 5 AV
  • Mo Claiborne - 3 AV
  • J.J. Wilcox - 2 AV
  • Terrell McClain - 7 AV
  • Jack Crawford - 6 AV

Will they be able to draft immediate upgrades? The odds are unlikely that Dallas’ picks will be immediate upgrades over Carr and Church, McClain and Crawford. On the defensive line, the Cowboys have new free agents and returning players like Irving and Lawrence they hope will fill the void. And in the secondary, Nolan Carroll scored a 6 AV last year with Philadelphia, and Anthony Brown might improve on his 4 AV. If everyone stays healthy, the Cowboys may not have to lean too much on new cornerbacks. The biggest gap may be at safety with the loss of Barry Church, with Jeff Heath and Kavon Frazier big unknowns.

Overall, there will be players to be had where Dallas selects, but they’ll have to be some combination of lucky and good to come out with the right guys.