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Heading into 2021 draft, Cowboys could have most draft capital since 1992

The Cowboys are looking at a franchise-defining draft in 2021.

Dallas Cowboys v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The Cowboys maintained their hold on the 3rd overall pick through the bye week, but things got a little more complicated in the draft order. The Cowboys are tied with three other teams at 2-7, and hold the 3rd overall spot only by virtue of their Strength of Schedule. If the season were to end today, teams with identical records would “cycle” picks in each round. For the Cowboys, that means they have the 3rd spot in the first round, then drop to the 6th spot in the second round, move back up to the 5th spot in the third round, the 4th spot in the fourth round, and so on as the draft order for the Cowboys, Washington, the Chargers, and Miami (via Houston) cycles in each round.

Additionally, the Cowboys currently stand to receive four compensatory draft picks in the 2021 draft, per the 2021 Compensatory Pick Projection from OverTheCap.com.

Add that all up and the Cowboys currently hold the following picks with the corresponding draft value (per the Trade Value Chart):

Rd Pick Origin Value
1 3 Original pick 2,200
2 38 Original pick 520
3 69 Original pick 245
3 100 Comp pick (Byron Jones) 100
4 106 Original pick 82
4 137 Comp pick (Robert Quinn) 38
5 153 From Detroit (Everson Griffen trade) 29
5 176 Comp pick (Randall Cobb) 20
6 221 Comp pick (Jason Witten) 2
7 227 Original pick 1
Total Draft Capital 3,237

Those picks are not written in stone. We’re in the middle of the season, the Cowboys could still move up and down the draft order, the comp picks may not turn out exactly as anticipated, and that pick from Detroit might move down a round (or entirely disappear) depending on Everson Griffen’s playing time in Detroit.

But even if we understand that this is just a snapshot, as far as draft value goes, the Cowboys could end up with the most draft capital since 1992, as the table below illustrates.

Year Draft Capital - Year Draft Capital - Year Draft Capital
1992 3,477 1994 1,901 1993 1,268
2021 3,237 2014 1,655 2015 1,192
2016 2,779 1995 1,635 2010 1,188
2005 2,717 2020 1,613 2017 1,143
2003 2,597 2018 1,610 2007 1,142
2002 2,527 2013 1,555 2004 1,131
2011 2,221 1997 1,549 2001 962
1998 2,124 2006 1,517 2009 796
2012 1,945 1996 1,505 2019 570
2008 1,902 1999 1,482 2000 545

So what does that mean for the 2021 draft?

Let’s take a step back and first look at how to define “success” for a draft class. Some people might use the number of Pro Bowlers drafted, others might argue that number of starters is a better measure, others yet might use playing time as an argument.

All of that is combined in a metric called ”Career Approximate Value” (CarAV) from Pro-Football-Reference.com. If we use CarAV as a measure of draft success and plot it against the Cowboys draft capital of the last two decades we get the following graphs, starting with the data from 2000-2009

I divided the data into two parts, 2000-2009 and 2010-2019. For one thing, that gives me an even split between the two periods. But it also accounts for the fact that the CarAV for younger draft classes will continue to increase in the coming years, while the players drafted between 2000 and 2009 have all ended their careers - and we’ll look at the younger draft classes a little farther down this post anyway.

What this chart shows is that the success of the Cowboys drafts between 2000 and 2009 has largely been a function of the draft capital available. This of course runs counter to all the modern-day draft mythology about scouting prowess, insights generated from months of film study, or secret meetings with prospects.

In statistics, the relationship between two variables is called a correlation, and the strength of that correlation is measured by the “correlation coefficient”. This coefficient (r²) is expressed as a number between 1 and -1. The closer the r² number is to 1 or -1, the stronger the relationship between the two variables. The closer it is to zero, the weaker the relationship.

For the Cowboys, the correlation here is a whopping 0.79, which tells us that historically the Cowboys have drafted better the more draft capital they’ve had.

This is not rocket science: You’re likely going to have more draft success picking at the top of each round than you will drafting at the bottom of each round.

In the next chart, I plotted the same data for 2010-2019:

The correlation here is not quite as strong as in the earlier graph, but keep in mind that the CarAV values for some of the more recent draft classes are bound to increase quite substantially over the coming years. However, some of the older draft classes are pretty much maxed out. 2013 is already locked (none of the players drafted are still active), and Sean Lee (2010), Tyron Smith (2011), and Tyrone Crawford (2012) probably won’t add much more to the totals of their draft classes.

But back to the question at hand: What does the Cowboys’ draft capital mean for the 2021 draft?

With 3,237 draft value points, 2021 could end up right there with some of the franchise-defining drafts since 1992.

  • 1992 draft capital was boosted by some of the extra picks acquired in the Herschel Walker trade. The Cowboys drafted two solid starters in the first round (CB Kevin Smith, LB Robert Jones), drafted and eventually released Jimmy Smith before he went on to make five Pro Bowls for the Jaguars, and hit a home run with safety Darren Woodson.
  • 2016 is still a young draft class, but delivered Ezekiel Elliott and multiple other starters, and also saw the Cowboys luck into their franchise quarterback in the fourth round.
  • 2005 got the Cowboys DeMarcus Ware, Marcus Spears, Marion Barber, and Jay Ratliff to spearhead a turnaround that ultimately fizzled out.

How the 2021 draft class ultimately turns out is anybody’s guess, especially with half the season still to be played. Everybody will draw their own conclusions from the data above, but my expectation is that all four picks in the top 100 should deliver future starters, and they may get lucky with one of their picks in the later rounds. And if the team finds a way to increase their picks in the top 100 by either trading down or trading up (or both) that would just increase their chances of landing future contributors.

The data presented here suggests the draft is less a matter of skill and more a matter of the draft capital you’ve amassed, with some good or bad luck thrown into the mix. As such, with a potential franchise-defining draft on the horizon, is there any reason to squander that chance for some meaningless wins in the second half of an already lost season?