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What the Cowboys can expect to get from their 2020 draft class

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The 2020 Cowboys have more draft capital than they’ve had in the previous three drafts. Will that pay off?

NFL: DEC 22 Cowboys at Eagles Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The notion of draft capital is a very simple one. You add up the value of each team’s picks on the Trade Value Chart to arrive at a total value for each team’s draft picks.

The 2020 Cowboys hold the following picks with the corresponding draft value:

Rd Pick Origin Value
1 17 Original pick 950
2 51 Original pick 390
3 82 Original pick 180
4 123 Original pick 49
5 164 Original pick 24.6
5 179 Compensatory pick 18.6
7 231 Original pick 1
Total Draft Capital 1,613

As far as draft capital goes, that’s a pretty average value - as you’d expect from a team with the 17th selection in the 32-team draft order. Still, those 1,613 draft value points are more than the Cowboys have had in any of the last three drafts, so that’s something. But over the last 20 years, it ranks as just the ninth-highest total for the Cowboys, as the table below illustrates.

Year Draft Capital - Year Draft Capital
2016 2,779 2013 1,555
2005 2,717 2006 1,517
2003 2,597 2015 1,192
2002 2,527 2010 1,188
2011 2,221 2017 1,143
2012 1,945 2007 1,142
2008 1,902 2004 1,131
2014 1,655 2001 962
2020 1,613 2009 796
2018 1,610 2019 570

So what does that mean for the 2020 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 ”Approximate Value” (AV) that was originally developed by Doug Drinen at Pro-Football-Reference.com and is designed to assign a specific value to any player at any position for any given year. The algorithm behind AV weights position specific metrics (i.e. yards or points scored/allowed) with an indicator for durability (total games played and seasons as their team’s primary starter) and quality (Pro Bowl and All Pro nominations) and then normalizes all this at a team level.

Career AV (CarAV) computes a weighted sum of the seasonal AV scores: 100% of the player’s best season, plus 95% of his second-best season, plus 90% of his third-best season, plus 85% of his fourth-best season, and so on.

If we use CarAV as a measure of draft success and plot it against the draft capital of each draft class, we get the following graph:

I cut off the graph in 2011, because the younger a draft class, the more its CarAV will continue to increase in the coming years, and while the Cowboys still have players on their roster from 2010 (Sean Lee) and 2011 (Tyron Smith) the CarAV for the entire draft class isn’t likely to increase much more over the coming years. The cutoff is admittedly a bit arbitrary, but we’ll look at 2012-2019 later anyway.

What this chart shows is that the success of the Cowboys drafts between 2000 and 2011 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 0.77, which tells us that historically the Cowboys have drafted better the more draft capital they’ve had. And while the correlation here seems surprisingly high to me (I haven’t checked what that correlation looks like for other teams), it doesn’t feel intuitively wrong: You’re likely going to have more draft success picking at the top of each rand than you will drafting at the bottom of each round.

“But wait”, you might argue, “haven’t things changed since Will McClay took over the drafting process in Dallas?”.

In the next chart, I plotted the same data for the years 2012-2019, but keep in mind that the more recent draft classes will likely see a significant increase in their CarAV over time. Still, the graph is pretty clear:

The correlation here is not quite as strong as in the historical graph, but it is still pretty impressive at 0.62, even if the CarAV values for some draft classes are bound to change in the coming years, but 2013 and 2015, for example, are already locked - none of the players drafted is still active.

Over the last decade, the Cowboys have not done particularly well in drafts where they haven’t had a lot of draft capital. But then again, nobody said you weren’t allowed to pick multiple future Pro Bowlers and multi-season starters when you’re drafting at the bottom of each round.

But back to the question at hand: What does that mean for the 2020 draft?

With 1,613 draft value points, 2020 is sandwiched between 2013 (1.555) and 2018 (1,610) on the one side and 2014 (1,655) on the other.

  • 2014 delivered three starters, two Pro Bowlers and one All-Pro in Zack Martin, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Anthony Hitchens. Nothing noteworthy beyond the fourth round, but still a pretty impressive haul.
  • 2018 is still a very young draft class, but already delivered three starters and one Pro Bowler in Leighton Vander Esch, Connor Williams, and Michael Gallup. Still a lot of potential for this group, but again nothing of note beyond the fourth round.
  • 2013 looked to be off to a great start with Travis Frederick, and two third-rounders in J.J. Wilcox and Terrance Williams. But all three are retired or out of football right now. Plus, there was the big whiff on Gavin Escobar in the second round. And again: nothing beyond the fourth.

How the 2020 draft class ultimately turns out is anybody’s guess right now, but if the Cowboys have done their homework on each prospect and stick to their draft board, then they have a chance of having a good draft. And that seems to have been their approach in the past, as Will McClay explained on a Hangin’ with the Boys show on DallasCowboys.com during 2017 training camp.

When you go into a draft, you kind of get a feel for where the strength of the talent coming in is. And it just so happened that [in 2017] our needs matched the strength of the draft in the secondary. There were a lot of secondary players, there were a lot of defensive players that we felt, for the right price, up front and linebackers, that could fit and help us fill the void.

But really, you just have to pick the best players that are there is the philosophy that we apply, because if you go chasing players, and if you give away something to get something, well you’re giving something up. Especially if players are in the same range. So what we try and do is value players properly, then you’re going to pick the player at the right value and hopefully get him to supersede that value.

So we didn’t go into it with the philosophy “we’re going to address the secondary”. If there weren’t secondary people there, there’s still other parts of the team to fix. Then you’ve got to find another way to fix what you’re missing.

That patience with the secondary players netted the Cowboys Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Xavier Woods, which is a good reward for their patience. At the same time, the team arguably did chase a pass rusher and ended up with Taco Charlton, a first-round pick with a second-round grade.

Everybody will draw their own conclusions from the comparison with the three previous draft classes highlighted above. My expectation would be for three eventual starters, and a future Pro Bowler with either of the first two picks if they are lucky - and nothing beyond the fourth round. And I don’t expect that chasing a player will serve them well. In any case, the 2020 draft capital suggests the 2020 draft class should be better than the last three draft classes, so there’s that.

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 four comp picks (and the associated draft capital) expected for 2021, why not trade some of that 2021 draft capital to boost your 2020 draft capital? Because in addition to draft capital, there is always this universal truth: