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Why 2018 Cowboys rookies may contribute more in their rookie year than most previous draft classes

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How much can we expect this rookie class to contribute to the Cowboys’ 2018 season?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

It’s widely held belief that a good draft class should yield 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.

The 2018 draft class hasn’t played a single regular season snap yet, so it’s way too early to start counting potential starters from this draft class. Sure, Connor Williams looks like he’s a lock to start at left guard, but it quickly gets sketchy beyond that. Leighton Vander Esch and Michael Gallup are likely to get some starts this season, but they will probably not be day one starters. And beyond those three, as much as you may like Dorance Armstrong’s or Dalton Schultz’s potential, there aren’t any obvious future starters in this draft class.

But number of starts is a fickle metric with which to track the contribution of a draft class. So let’s keep it simple and ask the most basic question first: How much playing time will the 2018 rookie class get this season?

We’ll start with some basic math first. Assuming all eight healthy draft picks make the 53-man roster this year (which is by no means a given), they’d make up 15% of the players on the roster.

So how many snaps should the 2015 rookie class get? 15% feels way too high, they are rookies after all. Is 10% a realistic target, or is that also too much? What about five percent, would that feel too low or still too high? Before you read on, make a mental note of what you think an appropriate percentage would be.

Here’s an overview of the previous 10 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.

2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
Rookie snaps 1,542 364 1,629 2,004 1,531 3,583 2,178 2,291 3,139 2,476
In % of total 6.7% 1.5% 6.9% 8.5% 6.5% 15.3% 9.5% 10.0% 13.5% 10.6%

In the early parts of the decade, the Cowboys struggled with depth across the entire roster, and the weak rookie classes early in the decade were 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 that since whatever data is being discussed 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.

Now that you’ve seen these numbers, how do these compare to the mental note you made earlier, and what snap percentage would you expect from the 2018 rookie class?

In the next part of this post, I’m going to take a stab at projecting the snap counts for this year’s draft class, even if we all know that preseason projections are nearly worthless. And I’m going to do it by looking at comparable rookies from the previous 10 draft classes.


Leighton Vander Esch: The Cowboys have a terrible first-year track record with linebackers drafted high. Sean Lee played just 169 snaps in his rookie season, Bruce Carter played just 41, and Jaylon Smith sat out his entire rookie season. The most successful rookie season by a linebacker in terms of snaps over the last 10 years was Anthony Hitchens in 2014, who notched 541 snaps in his rookie season as he subbed for both Sean Lee and Rolando McClain that season. That’s the equivalent player I’m going with for Vander Esch.

Connor Williams: The last time the Cowboys drafted a starting guard, they picked Zack Martin. Williams will not have the type of immediate impact Martin had, but he could have the same snap total (1,076) as Martin did, if he starts all 16 games.

Michael Gallup: The last time the Cowboys drafted a WR in the third round, that guy put up 736 receiving yards and five TDs in his rookie season. And played 700 snaps.

Question is, might Michael Gallup be even better than Terrance Williams was?

Dorance Armstrong: The Cowboys like to bring their rookie pass rushers along slowly. Taco Charlton got the most playing time of any edge rusher in his rookie season over the last 10 years, and that “only” amounted to 401 snaps. DeMarcus Lawrence (223) and Randy Gregory (245) had way less. Armstrong doesn’t have the draft pedigree of any of the three, but perhaps he’ll come close to Lawrence’s snap count as the relief guy off the edge.

Dalton Schultz: Jason Witten didn’t leave a lot of playing time for rookie TEs in Dallas. Gavin Escobar got 207 snaps in his rookie season, James Hanna had 109, Geoff Swaim had all of 24. Barring injury, Hanna is probably a good equivalent for Schultz.

Mike White: When was the last time a third-string QB got any playing time of note in the NFL ... oh wait, Dak did in 2016. But that’s not who White compares to. Maybe he’ll get the 15 snaps Cooper Rush got as a rookie last year. Maybe.

Chris Covington: He needs to make the team first to get any snaps, but if he does, Damien Wilson and his 32 rookie snaps on defense might be a good equivalent.

Cedric Wilson: Wilson is out for the season, so no snaps for him this year.

Bo Scarbrough: Joseph Randle was buried on the RB depth chart in 2013 behind DeMarco Murray, Lance Dunbar, and Phillip Tanner, yet still managed 120 snaps. Sounds like a good number for Scarbrough.


Here’s what all of that adds up to:

2018 Draft Class Snap Count Projection
Round Name POS Equiv. Player Projected Snaps
1 Leighton Vander Esch LB Anthony Hitchens ('14) 541
2 Connor Williams OT Zack Martin ('14) 1,076
3 Michael Gallup WR Terrance Williams ('13) 700
4 Dorance Armstrong DE Randy Gregory ('15) 245
4 Dalton Schultz TE James Hanna ('12) 109
5 Mike White QB Cooper Rush ('17) 15
6 Chris Covington LB Damien Wilson ('15) 32
6 Cedric Wilson WR - - 0
7 Bo Scarbrough RB J. Randle ('13) 120
Total Rookie snaps 2,838
Rookies in % of total snaps (est.: 23.500) 12.1%

Obviously, the “equivalent players” are equivalent for the purposes of the snap count only. This projection also assumes that there won’t be any further injuries to this draft class. You may want to reduce the total number of projected snaps to adjust for that. The bulk of the snaps here are projected to the Cowboys’ top three picks, which I think is reasonable at this point, but you never know who might be the next man up from this rookie class.

Overall, the 2,838 snaps projected here would be the third-most of any of the last 10 rookie classes, which would be a pretty big positive for the Cowboys.

With all of that in mind, what’s your take? How much do you think the 2018 rookie class will contribute this year?