A few weeks ago, BTB’s Danny Phantom pointed out that the Cowboys’ last five first-round draft picks have never missed a game due to injury.
Resilient First Rounders - here are the first-round draft picks for each NFC East team over the last five seasons. Players that have never missed a game due to injury are identified in blue. pic.twitter.com/UOCNaMfG8I— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) June 30, 2018
But did you know that the five players drafted by the Cowboys in the first round since 2013 have played in 233 of a possible 240 regular season games?
Well, now you do.
In fact, the only missed games by those five first-round picks are Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension in 2017 and the 2016 Week 17 game in Philly that Elliott was kept out of. All other first-round picks, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Byron Jones, and Taco Charlton played in every single possible regular season game.
After reading Phantom’s article, I started wondering, how the Cowboys compared to other NFL teams in regards to games played by their first-round picks.
Turns out, 233 out of 240 games is an availability rate of 97%, the highest rate of any team in the NFL - and that’s despite Elliott’s suspension last year. Here’s how the other teams fared:
|Availability Rates, 1st-round picks 2013-2017|
|Team||1st rd. Picks||Avail. Games||Games played||Availability %||Team||1st rd. Picks||Avail. Games||Games played||Availability %|
If it’s true that “the best ability is availability,” then the Cowboys have done remarkably well with their first-round picks over the last five years.
First-round picks are the NFL’s primary tool for acquiring top-tier talent, even if that pool of top-tier talent is not immune to the occasional bust. And while the first round is not the exclusive round for finding top-tier talent, it is still the best place to find it. And as such it should be in every team’s best interest to have those first-round picks provide the best value (in terms of games played) possible.
Failing to get even a modest return out of your early picks, be it due to poor selections, poor health, poor luck, or simply the commissioner’s arbitrary decision-making, can set a team back significantly.
The data above shows that a high availability rate is a not a prerequisite for success (Pittsburgh and New England are doing just fine with a subpar rate), and neither is having a lot of first-round picks (see Seattle and New England are doing okay with just one and two first-round picks each over the last five years), but it certainly doesn’t hurt. And it certainly hasn’t hurt the Cowboys, even if it hasn’t resulted in sustained post-season success (yet).
Those 2nd rounders though...
If you’ve been reading through the post and are just itching to tell me just how badly the Cowboys suck in the second round, nobody is disagreeing with you. The Cowboys have had mediocre results from their second-round picks, DeMarcus Lawrence notwithstanding. But that doesn’t invalidate their success in the first round in any shape or form.
Still, the second round is where the Cowboys need to improve.
|Availability Rates, 2nd-round picks 2013-2017|
|Team||2nd rd. Picks||Avail. Games||Games played||Availability %||Team||2nd rd. Picks||Avail. Games||Games played||Availability %|
The same caveats apply here as they did for the first-rounders: a high availability rate for your second-rounders is a not a prerequisite for success (New Orleans and, once again, New England are doing just fine with a subpar second-round rate), and neither is having a lot of second-round picks (Kansas City and the LA Rams both made the playoffs last year with just three second-round picks in five years), but it certainly doesn’t hurt.
That doesn’t make the second-round picture for the Cowboys any prettier, but perhaps this is the year they reverse the trend: Barring injury and/or suspension, the Cowboys should be able to count on a lot of games in 2018 from DeMarcus Lawrence (2014), Randy Gregory (2015), Jaylon Smith (2016), Chidobe Awuzie (2017), and Connor Williams (2018) - even if the ship on Gavin Escobar (2013) has definitely sailed.
Surely the Cowboys must also suck in the third round ...
Well ... no.
As it turns out, the Cowboys also lead the league in the availability rate of their third rounders.
Terrance Williams (2013) played in 80 of 80 games. J.J. Wilcox (2013) missed only six games in his four years in Dallas and is 70 for 80 over his career. Maliek Collins (2016) played in all 32 games, and Jourdan Lewis (2017) only missed the first game of his rookie season. The odd man out in this group is Chaz Green, who only played in 12 of a possible 48 games.
Here’s how Dallas compares to the rest of the league:
|Availability Rates, 3rd-round picks 2013-2017|
|Team||3rd rd. Picks||Avail. Games||Games played||Availability %||Team||3rd rd. Picks||Avail. Games||Games played||Availability %|
Again, the previous caveats apply, but there’s no denying the Cowboys have done well in the third round - at least as viewed in terms of games played.
In the first three rounds of any draft, NFL teams expect to draft either an immediate starter or an eventual starter. So getting it right in the first three rounds is critical, because when teams fail to get starters in the Top 100 picks of a draft, they usually end up having to fill those voids with expensive free agents.
But “getting it right” is far from easy, even in the top three rounds.
The Cowboys had 15 picks in the top three rounds between 2013 and 2017. Combined, those 15 players have played in 600 of a possible 736 games for an availability rate of 81.5%, the second highest value in the NFL. That’s not bad for a team that some claim “sucks at drafting outside the first round.”
Also, those 600 games played are the fifth-highest total in the league.
In the NFL, the draft is where depth is built. When you get that kind of production from your draft picks, you tend to sign them to contract extensions. 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.
Here’s how the Cowboys compare to the rest of the league over the first three rounds of the draft:
|Availability Rates, Round 1-3 picks 2013-2017|
|Team||Round 1-3 Picks||Avail. Games||Games played||Availability %||Team||Round 1-3 Picks||Avail. Games||Games played||Availability %|