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2018 Dallas Cowboys rookie class is one of the best in recent memory

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

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

In late August last year, I wrote an article titled “Why 2018 Cowboys rookies may contribute more in their rookie year than most previous draft classes.” In the article, I looked at how much the 2018 rookie class could be expected to contribute to the Cowboys’ 2018 season in terms of snaps played, and concluded that the rookie class would play 12.1% of all offensive and defensive snaps, which would make it the third-best rookie class since 2008 - at least in terms of first-year snap counts.

The projections for the individual players were naturally off versus their actual snaps counts, but the projection for overall snap percentage proved to be remarkably close to the actual snaps: I had projected the rookies to play on 12.1% of snaps and they ended up playing that exact percentage of snaps.

Here are the regular season snap counts for the 2018 rookie class in detail:

2018 Rookie Class
POS Name Total Snaps Total Starts
LB Leighton Vander Esch 784 11
OT Connor Williams 689 10
WR Michael Gallup 739 8
DE Dorance Armstrong 273 1
TE Dalton Schultz 300 7
QB Mike White - - - -
LB Chrs Covington 1 - -
WR Cedric Wilson - - - -
RB Bo Scarbrough - - - -
Rookie totals 2,786 37
In % of team total 12.1% 10.5%

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.

The Cowboys got at least three, maybe four starters out of this draft class, and that’s with almost half the rookie class never playing a snap. That’s a success any way you look at it.

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 used two sets of data. For 2007-11, I used the numbers from Pro Football Focus, and for 2012-2018 I 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 12 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 2018
Rookie snaps 879 1,542 364 1,629 2,004 1,531 3,583 2,178 2,291 3,139 2,476 2,786
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% 12.1%
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. 2009 is widely seen as the worst draft in recent memory, but the 2008 draft may ultimately 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 (2013 coincidentally was also the year Will McClay was promoted to assistant director of player personnel). 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 more strong rookie classes after that and the last six 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.

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 consistent 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.

Class 1st year 2nd year 3rd year 4th year 5th year
2005 - - - - 16.9% 16.3% 11.7%
2006 - - 8.8% 3.6% 7.7% 7.6%
2007 3.8% 7.1% 9.3% 13.0% 10.8%
2008 6.7% 10.9% 11.9% 9.4% 4.6%
2009 1.5% 0.9% 3.6% 4.6% 0.0%
2010 6.9% 14.2% 11.7% 11.3% 7.9%
2011 8.5% 10.9% 11.6% 10.9% 4.5%
2012 6.5% 11.5% 12.5% 11.7% 11.3%
2013 15.3% 14.8% 14.1% 11.9% 11.3%
2014 9.5% 12.8% 9.0% 10.3% 7.0%
2015 10.0% 10.8% 14.2% 15.4% - -
2016 13.5% 17.2% 19.3% - - - -
2017 10.6% 13.4% - - - - - -
2018 12.1% - - - - - - - -
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 largely due to the way most rookie contracts are structured. Most players reach free agency after four years and can then 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.

But all that young talent is beginning to pay off in front of our very eyes, as David Moore of the DMN explains:

The significance of the Cowboys 24-22 victory over Seattle at AT&T Stadium is difficult to overstate. A franchise that has endured a prolonged blue period since its last Super Bowl title has reason for hope.

The youngest team in the NFL playoffs went toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the conference over the last seven seasons and didn’t blink.

All of this should put the Cowboys in a position to succeed for a long time, because as Doug Farrar pointed out in Sports Illustrated a while back, “when it comes to team-building in the long term, football is for the young.

Teams drafting well will find success year after year, while teams more interested in spackling their woebegone rosters with overpriced free agents will pay with implosion season after season. That’s not exactly news to anyone in the game not named Dan Snyder ... but when looking at the youngest Super Bowl teams of all time, it’s amazing how valuable it is to get things right, right from the start.

If you want to start an NFL dynasty, it’s generally best to do it young. And in this regard, the 2013 Seattle Seahawks are in remarkably good shape -- they’re the second-youngest team ever to reach the Super Bowl. According to data compiled by Chase Stuart of Pro Football Reference and Football Perspective, the Seahawks’ roster had an average age of 26.4 years, putting them a few hundredths of an aggregate year younger than the 1971 Miami Dolphins, the youngest Super Bowl team ever. And in looking at all the great dynasties that have spanned the Super Bowl era, youth is the common characteristic. The 1992 Dallas Cowboys, who went on to win three Super Bowls in a four-year stretch, tied for sixth-youngest ever (27 years) with the 1999 St. Louis Rams, who made two Super Bowls in three years and featured one of the greatest offenses of all time.

In 2011, Seattle was the second-youngest team in the NFL. Two years later, the Seahawks had built a championship team whose average age was the fourth-lowest in the league.

In 2019, the Cowboys are the youngest team in the playoffs and just mopped the floor with the Seahawks. The championship window is open.