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Was the 2016 Cowboys’ draft the best in team history?

Smith, Tapper & Frazier make big contributions in victory over Giants.

NFL: NFC Divisional-Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Prior to Monday night’s emphatic 19-3 victory over the New York Giants, the Dallas Cowboys’ 2016 draft was widely recognized as one of the best in team history (as noted by VAFan). Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliot, Maliek Collins and Anthony Brown all played major roles in the team’s march to 13 wins and an NFC East division title in 2016. Elliott and Prescott started from day one and combined to win Rookie-of-the-Year, All Pro and Pro Bowl honors. On the defensive side of the ball Collins and Brown each earned starting positions by mid-season. Starts, snap counts and Approximate Value all demonstrate the major contributions the four made to the Cowboys’ 2016 success:

Summarizing, the four:

  • Started 55 of 63 possible games (Elliott was voluntarily held out of the week 17 contest against the Eagles)
  • Played 73% of all possible snaps
  • Earned 43 AV

A good NFL draft for any team will usually yield 2 “core” starters and maybe a couple of additional contributors. My series chronicling the History of the Dallas Cowboys included draft analysis of each season and I was surprised how often entire drafts would yield only one or two players who made any impact. The early 80’s, for example, was a dark period for Cowboys’ drafts:

For those counting, of more than 70 players selected over those five years only three became “core”, long-term contributors for the Cowboys. So we see, having four rookies starting, playing significant roles and contributing to a high quality team is a home run in terms of draft success.

Going into the 2017 season, however, many were hoping for even more from the Cowboys’ 2016 draft class. That’s because the team essentially red-shirted three players; Jaylon Smith, Charles Tapper and Rico Gathers combined for zero snaps while sitting on injured reserve or the team’s practice squad. In addition Kavon Frazier, who played only 36 snaps in 2016, was expected to play a bigger role in 2017.

BTB’s own Dawn Macelli was so bold as to speculate the Cowboys’ 2016 draft could be better than the team’s legendary “dirty dozen” draft from 1975:

For Dallas it could mark the return of glory in the same way that the group that preceded them by 41 seasons marked the transition for Landry’s Cowboys. If they deliver on multiple championships they will have exceeded the standard set by the ‘Dirty Dozen’.

There were some (ahem) who weren’t quite so enthusiastic:

Well, if the preseason and week one of the regular season are an indication of things to come, I’ll soon be dining on crow. Sunday night, all four players who contributed in 2016 again contributed. In addition, two of the red-shirt players from last year (Jaylon Smith and Charles Tapper) played their first NFL games and contributed 7 tackles and a sack. Finally Kavon Frazier, who totaled only 36 snaps all season in 2016, played half that number (18) in the week one tilt against the Giants. Combined, that’s seven players accounting for 299 of a possible 428 snaps:

Pro-rated over a 16-game schedule the seven who played Sunday would play a total of 4,784 snaps. That would be a 54% increase in snaps over 2016, which was already regarded as the most productive rookie class in Cowboys’ history.

This is a single draft class that is populating almost every position group on the field:

  • Quarterback: Prescott
  • Running back: Elliott
  • Defensive line: Collins and Tapper
  • Lineback: Smith
  • Cornerback: Brown
  • Safety: Frazier

And the amazing thing is there’s likely more to come. Rico Gathers has yet to see the field. I was highly skeptical of Gathers’ prospects as recently as the beginning of training camp. But we all saw what he did in the preseason when the converted basketball player caught seven balls for 106 yards and two big touchdown passes in only two games of work. There’s no question now that Gathers is an enormous talent and represents a matchup nightmare. Gathers, of course, suffered a concussion and was placed on injured reserve. He’s eligible to return for the week 9 game against Kansas City.

It’s not at all hard to envision Gathers playing a significant role in the latter half of the 2016 season and eventually becoming the full-time replacement for future Hall of Famer Jason Witten. Right now I’d say a reasonable expectation for the 2016 draft class is six long-time starters, a defensive line rotational piece and a third safety. And at least five of the players (Prescott, Elliott, Gathers, Smith and Collins) have Pro Bowl-caliber potential.

So....I’m not dining on crow just yet, but I did pick some up at the grocery store and it’s in the freezer, waiting to be thawed and thrown on the grill.

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