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Dallas Cowboys recent rookie classes with strong playing time contributions

A look at the playing time of the last 11 rookie classes shows the Cowboys have been drafting well recently.

NFL Draft Max Faulkner/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS via Getty Images

2017 Cowboys first-round pick Taco Charlton played sparingly in his rookie season as he got acclimated to the NFL. Second-round pick Chidobe Awuzie spent almost as much time in the trainers room as on the playing field. Fourth-round pick Ryan Switzer saw a lot of action on special teams but wasn't used much on offense. Three draft picks never made the 53-man roster.

Doesn't sound like an auspicious start for the 2017 rookie class, does it?

Yet thanks in part to a strong second half of the season, the 2017 rookie class accumulated 2,476 snaps, which is 10.6% of the total amount of snaps the Cowboys played on offense and defense last year. That may not sound like much at first glance, but those 10.6% are the equivalent of 2.3 starters, and surprisingly, the third-highest value of any Cowboys rookie class since 2007.

Here are the snap counts for the 2017 rookie class detail:

2017 Rookie Class
POS Name Total Snaps
DE Taco Charlton 401
CB Chidobe Awuzie 312
CB Jourdan Lewis 748
WR Ryan Switzer 91
S Xavier Woods 550
CB Marquez White - -
DT Joey Ivie - -
WR Noah Brown 158
DT Jordan Carrell - -
DE Lewis Neal 140
DT Daniel Ross 57
QB Cooper Rush 15
TE Blake Jarwin 4
Rookie totals 2,476
In % of team total 10.6%

It's widely held that a good draft class yields two solid starters. Two starters may not be a great draft, but it is certainly a solid draft. However, those two starters are not necessarily expected to be starters in their first season.

It's still early, but the Cowboys look to have gotten at least three future starters out of last year's rookie class: Chidobe Awuzie (6 starts in 2017), Jourdan Lewis (7), and Xavier Woods (4), all look to figure prominently on next year's team, as does Taco Charlton, even if he only had one start in 2017.

Number of starts can be a fickle metric to track over time, so I'll stick with the number of snaps as they are easier to compare over the years. To compare this year's rookie class to previous classes, I've used two sets of data. For 2007-11, I've used the numbers from Pro Football Focus, and for 2012-2017 I've used the official league numbers as recorded by Football Outsiders. There are minor technical discrepancies between the two sets of numbers, but for our purposes the two data sets are sufficiently comparable.

Here's an overview of the previous 11 rookie classes and their total number of snaps. The snap numbers in the table are the offensive or defensive snaps, special teams snaps are not included. Where applicable, undrafted rookies are included in the rookie class totals.

2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
Rookie snaps 879 1,542 364 1,629 2,004 1,531 3,583 2,178 2,291 3,139 2,476
In % of total 3.8% 6.7% 1.5% 6.9% 8.5% 6.5% 15.3% 9.5% 10.0% 13.5% 10.6%
Average 4.0%
(0.9 starters)
7.3%
(1.6 starters)
11.8%
(2.5 starters)

This short timeline of the Cowboys' rookie classes divides neatly into three parts.

From 2007-2009, the Cowboys got almost nothing from their rookie classes. The 2009 draft was particularly disappointing for many exhaustively discussed reasons, but the 2008 class may have been even more disappointing considering that the Cowboys had two first-round picks and a second-rounder in that draft. Over the three years, these three rookie classes averaged 4.0% of the snaps in their rookie seasons, the equivalent of 0.9 starters per rookie class.

Things started looking up a little between 2010-12, though those rookie classes saw a lot of injuries to players in their rookie seasons, which affected their overall numbers. Dez Bryant and Sean Lee both missed significant time in their 2010 rookie seasons, as did Bruce Carter and DeMarco Murray a year later. In 2012, the trade-up for Morris Claiborne cost the Cowboys their second-round pick, which potentially could have given the Cowboys some extra snaps if they had kept it. But despite the injuries, these three rookie classes averaged 7.3% of the total snaps, or about 1.6 starters per rookie class.

The Cowboys finally hit their stride with the 2013 rookie class. That year's snap count is very high in part due to the quality of the rookies, in part also because the Cowboys traded down for an extra pick that netted them Terrance Williams. They followed that up with two solid classes in 2014 and 2015, before cleaning up the 2016 draft by selecting four immediate starters in Ezekiel Elliott, Maliek Collins, Dak Prescott, and Anthony Brown (never mind that Jaylon Smith didn't play a single snap that year). Add a strong 2017 draft class and the last five years have been very good for the Cowboys, with an average of 11.8% of the snaps in the rookie seasons, which translates to a cool 2.6 starters per rookie class.

In the early parts of the last decade, the Cowboys have struggled with depth across the entire roster, and the weak rookie classes described above are a key driver of that. Over the last few years, that depth has improved significantly.

There are Cowboys fans who will look at this data (and any other analysis showing the Cowboys doing something well) and gleefully point out since it didn't help the Cowboys win a Super Bowl, it can't be important. But that's not the point.

The point here is that the Cowboys have been building a solid foundation of young talent that should make them contenders again, even if it takes a lot more than just a few strong rookie classes to win the Super Bowl. But from a talent perspective, the Cowboys are on the right track.

But it's not just the strong rookie seasons that show the Cowboys are on the right track.

Three years (and sometimes even more) is the standard usually used to fully evaluate a rookie class. Which is why we're now going to look at how the snap percentages of each season's rookie class have progressed over the years.

The snap data I have available only goes back to 2007, so I don't have snap numbers for the rookie seasons of rookie classes prior to 2007. But I do have the second year of the 2006 class and the third year of the 2005 class, which is about as far back as we want to go anyway.

What this allows me to do is to show how different rookie classes performed in terms of snap percentage in each of their first five years in the league, which I've summarized in the table below. To make the table easier to read, it is color-coded as follows:

Blue = 3 or more starters

Green = 2-3 starters

Orange = 1-2 starters

Red = less than 1 starter

For this analysis, let's assume that adding the equivalent of two starters (or 9.0% of all snaps) to the roster is a good target for a rookie class, and getting the equivalent of three starters (13.5% of all snaps) is outstanding.

1st year 2nd year 3rd year 4th year 5th year
Class of 2005 - - - - 16.9% 16.3% 11.7%
Class of 2006 - - 8.8% 3.6% 7.7% 7.6%
Class of 2007 3.8% 7.1% 9.3% 13.0% 10.8%
Class of 2008 6.7% 10.9% 11.9% 9.4% 4.6%
Class of 2009 1.5% 0.9% 3.6% 4.6% 0.0%
Class of 2010 6.9% 14.2% 11.7% 11.3% 7.9%
Class of 2011 8.5% 10.9% 11.6% 10.9% 4.5%
Class of 2012 6.5% 11.5% 12.5% 11.7% 11.3%
Class of 2013 15.3% 14.8% 14.1% 11.9% 11.3%
Class of 2014 9.5% 12.8% 9.0% 10.3% - -
Class of 2015 10.0% 10.8% 14.2% - - - -
Class of 2016 13.5% 17.2% - - - - - -
Class of 2017 10.6% - - - - - - - -
Red = 1 starter, Orange = 1-2 starters, Green = 2-3 starters, Blue = >3 starters

How to read the table:

  • Take the 2013 rookie class as an example, which started out very strong with 15.3% of all snaps. Travis Frederick, Terrance Williams, and J.J. Wilcox were strong early contributors, but also UDFA Jeff Heath, who was pressed into a starting role in his rookie season due to injuries and ended up starting nine games.
  • In 2014 and 2015, the percentages dropped slightly as Heath was relegated to a backup role.
  • In 2016, Wilcox lost significant snaps to Byron Jones, which dropped the snap count to 11.9%.
  • In 2017 Heath was back as a starter and compensated the departures of Wilcox and Gavin Escobar, who both left Dallas after their rookie deals were up, leaving the rookie class with a solid 11.3% of all snaps.

From the data accumulated above, it looks like adding the equivalent of two starters (about 9% of all snaps) to the roster is a good target for the first year of a rookie class. The Cowboys had missed that mark for six straight years from 2007-12, but have hit it every year since.

The numbers get better in the second year, where the Cowboys have hit the 2+ starter mark every year since 2010. Also since 2010, the rookie classes show a sea of green and blue in years two, three, and four, which is exactly how you want it to be.

The fifth-year drop in playing time contribution is partly due to the way many rookie contracts are structured. Most players reach free agency after four years and move on to other teams, so a drop in snaps is to be expected to some degree. But that drop can also mean that the players from that rookie class simply weren't good enough to warrant a second, and bigger, contract, or turned out to be too expensive to retain.

The data in the color-enhanced table above provides a nice visual representation of the turnaround the Cowboys have made in the Garrett era in terms of talent acquisition, even if it may not have been enough to secure them a postseason berth every year.

When a team fails to hit on at least two starters in each rookie class, it will have issues with depth. And when you have issues with depth, free agency becomes an absolute necessity as you'll need to plug holes all over the roster (often at high cost to your salary cap).

If you draft or recruit better, as the Cowboys have done over the last seven years, free agency becomes more of a luxury, and you can use it to selectively sign players that can elevate the overall talent level of your roster or plug very specific holes. Plus the pressure on your salary cap decreases.

And when you draft well, you’ll eventually have an abundance of starter-level players, and since you can't re-sign all of them to second contracts, you'll have to allow them to leave in free agency for greener pastures, which in turn will land you more and more compensatory draft picks that could in turn could help you draft even more starters. Which is exactly what happened when the Cowboys let Jeremy Parnell leave to sign a contract in Jacksonville, for which they received a fourth-round compensatory pick that eventually allowed them to draft Dak Prescott.

In the NFL, the draft is where depth is built. When you fail to draft sufficient depth, you must address this via free agency. When you draft successfully, you create a surplus of talent that will in turn further generate additional draft picks. Used well, those draft picks generate even more talent and even more depth, and before you know it you're in a virtuous cycle.

And perhaps then you can regularly enjoy Cowboys postseason football again.