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What the “Top 50 percent” rule says about the Cowboys roster and what it means for the draft

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The draft is the perfect vehicle for bringing in talented and cheap labor to replace old and expensive employees.

NFL: MAY 08 National Football League Draft Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon SMI/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

yoAs the draft draws ever closer, I find myself constantly oscillating between euphoric hope that my big, dumb team will do the right thing in the draft, and utter panic at the thought it will do something exceedingly stupid.

A few days before the 2016 NFL Draft, my good friend rabblerousr explained the three circles that made up his first-round Venn Diagram:

  1. Blue-chip
  2. Durable position (no RB/ LB)
  3. Money 5 (QB, WR, LT, CB, DE)

Imagine his delight when the Cowboys drafted the one-two punch of Ezekiel Elliott and Jaylon Smith that year!

Judging by the contracts the Cowboys handed to Elliott and Smith, they seem to be pretty happy with both selections, but they did get lucky with both picks. What happened to Todd Gurley and the Rams could just as easily have happened in Dallas, and Leighton Vander Esch’s neck issues highlight the issues with durability at the linebacker position.

So when I recently read about the Cowboys’ purported interest in drafting another linebacker in the first round, I immediately curled up in a fetal position. Thankfully, Stephen Jones cleared that up (or did he?) when asked about whether linebacker could be a need for the Cowboys entering the NFL Draft. “That’d be news for me in terms of a heightened need for the linebacking position.”

Hopefully, that takes care of one of rabblerousr’s bubbles; with linebacker out and a running back completely off the table, at least the first-round pick looks safe for now. But there’s still a lot that can go wrong with that pick regardless, even if the Cowboys have been fairly successful with their first-round picks recently, the whiffs on Taco Charlton and Morris Claiborne notwithstanding.

Conventional wisdom suggests that when you draft a player in the first round, you’re expecting an immediate starter (except in a unique situation, i.e. behind a veteran starter) and a player with the ability/intangibles to develop into a Pro Bowl player. And just as importantly, you expect that player to earn a second contract with the team.

This was a main point of contention for many Cowboys fans in 2016, when the Cowboys drafted Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick: It meant that the team would eventually offer a player at a largely commoditized position a megabucks contract. That’s exactly what happened.

And while we will continue to debate the merits of that move for years to come, the Cowboys have done well with their first-round picks, and rewarded most of them with second contracts. Add in a sprinkling of successful later-round picks, and the Cowboys have apportioned a large part of their salary cap to players they drafted themselves.

In fact, of the seven players making up 50 percent of the 2020 salary cap, six were drafted by the Cowboys, and one was added via trade. A look at that “50 percent rule”, which I first came across in an article by Dan Durkin of The Athletic, can be quite instructive with regard to how a team is constructed, and here’s how the Cowboys compare the other NFC East teams in that regard.

Durkin explains the rationale of the 50 percent rule:

Metrics like the number of players it takes to reach the 50-percent threshold shine light on the overall star power of the team. How the player was acquired indicates how well the team has drafted, and typically those with more drafted players have more roster stability.

When a team reaches double digits before hitting the 50-percent threshold, this typically indicates a lack of difference makers at the top of the roster.

Here’s a breakdown of the Cowboys players in the chart (per Spotrac.com):

  • Dak Prescott ($28.7 million) | 13.2% | Draft
  • Demarcus Lawrence ($21.9 million) | 10.1% | Draft
  • Zack Martin ($15.0 million) | 6.9% | Draft
  • Tyron Smith ($13.5 million) | 6.2% | Draft
  • Ezekiel Elliott ($10.9 million) | 5.0% | Draft
  • Tyrone Crawford ($9.1 million) | 4.2% | Draft
  • Amari Cooper ($12.0 million) | 5.5% | Trade

We need to understand, of course, that the cap hits used here are flexible numbers; contract restructuring or bonus proration can push a part of the contract volume into future years for accounting purposes. But the cap is the tool of choice used by the NFL to manage its rosters, so it is what we’ll look at in terms of roster construction. Also note that if Prescott does sign his exclusive franchise tender, his cap hit will be $33 million. If he signs a contract, his annual contract value will likely be close to $36 million, but his cap hit will likely be quite a bit lower (bonus proration again).

But back to Durkin’s three points:

Star Power

There is no doubt the Cowboys have a lot of star power. With the exception of Crawford, all other players in the list above have been to the Pro Bowl. With seven players in their top 50, the Eagles have a similarly stacked roster, even if they had to rely a bit more on free agency (Alshon Jeffrey, DeSean Jackson, Brandon Brooks) to build their 2020 roster. The Giants are already stretched a little thinner with nine players, and the Redskins appear to lack true difference makers with 11 players in their top 50, a number which will go up even more once Trent Williams is gone, and Alex Smith’s status for 2020 remains unknown.

Draft success

No point belaboring the point, the Cowboys have been successful at that draft thing, the other teams less so. But that does not automatically invalidate the roster building strategies of the other teams.

Roster stability

It’s not clear that roster stability (at least in the top 50%) is necessarily a success driver, but it is a logical consequence of drafting well. Teams tend to sign their own draft picks to longer contracts than they do free agents, hence the stability.


With four quite different ways to build a roster (and that’s just within one division!), is there a “right” way to build a roster?

There probably isn’t that one single correct way, but there seems to be a consensus about some of the key building blocks. Those building blocks probably extend well beyond the draft, because while the draft is nominally all about talent acquisition, there’s no denying that it’s also an integral part of salary cap management. The draft is the perfect vehicle for bringing in talented and cheap labor to replace old and expensive employees.

Rabblerousr mentioned the need to focus on the “Money 5” (QB, WR, LT, CB, DE), and Aditi Kinkhabwala of NFL Network quoted an NFL exec with a similar line of thinking a while back:

I’d like to use Kinkhabwala’s tweet as a starting point for a little cap exercise that I’ll then ultimately use to tie in back to the 2020 NFL draft.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that you’re a team that’s drafting fairly well, you draft one standout player per year on average and you reward that player with a contract extension at a franchise-tag rate once his rookie deal is up. Let’s further assume that the average career of those standout picks is 10 years, so that at any point in time you’ll have 10 such players on your roster.

If we build such a hypothetical roster, starting with Kinkhabwala’s Top 5 and assign each player the 2020 franchise tag value (per OverTheCap.com), this is what you’d pay for your top 5 guys:

Position Franchise Tag
Quarterback $26.8 million
Defensive End $17.8 million
Wide Receiver $17.9 million
Cornerback $16.3 million
Offensive Linemen $14.8 million

If you’re a team like the Cowboys, with a focus on offense, you’re going to want some more offensive players in your top 10, so add a second offensive lineman and a second wide receiver, and - much to the chagrin of some - a running back. Two spots left, those will go to the defense. You’ve already got DE and CB covered, so add a DT and an LB. This is what your team now looks like, assuming your paying them all top dollar:

Position Franchise Tag
Quarterback $26.8 million
Defensive End $17.8 million
Wide Receiver $17.9 million
Cornerback $16.3 million
Offensive Linemen (LT) $14.8 million
Offensive Linemen $14.8 million
Wide receiver $17.9 million
Running back $10.3 million
Defensive Tackle $16.1 million
Linebacker $15.8 million
Grand Total $168.5 million

So you now have a team where the top 10 guys cost you $168.5 million out of a $198.2 million salary cap, or 85% of your cap. That’s probably not going to work.

But if you had four of those top 10 guys playing on their rookie contracts, at say $3 million each, you’d be shaving about $50 million off your cap commitment for your top 10 guys. That’s the value your top picks are expected to bring to your roster. And if your rookies fail to live up to expectations, you may have to replace them with much more expensive free agents (if you want to maintain the quality of your roster), which in turn will cut into your cap space and limit your options for the rest of the roster.

Here’s how the Cowboys currently match up against that Top 10 player template:

Position Franchise Tag Player 2020 Cap Hit
Quarterback $26.8 million Dak Prescott $33.0 million
Defensive End $17.8 million Demarcus Lawrence $21.0 million
Wide Receiver $17.9 million Amari Cooper $12.0 million
Cornerback $16.3 million Chidobe Awuzie $1.3 million
Offensive Linemen (LT) $14.8 million Tyron Smth $13.5 million
Offensive Linemen $14.8 million Zack Martin $13.5 million
Wide receiver $17.9 million Michael Gallupp $1.0 million
Running back $10.3 million Ezekiel Elliott $10.9 million
Defensive Tackle $16.1 million Tyrone Crawford $9.1 million
Linebacker $15.8 million Jaylon Smith $7.7 million
Grand Total $168.5 million $125.4 million

At first glance, the Cowboys look to be in good shape with a $125 million cap commitment for their Top 10 positions. This is of course helped by the having Chidobe Awuzie and Michael Gallup on rookie contracts, which shaves about $32 million off the cap compared to the tag levels for their positions.

At the same time, because the Cowboys have pushed some cap chargers into later years, some players here have a lower cap hit in 2020 than the annual average value (AAV of their contracts, which is why Amari Cooper ($12 million cap hit vs $20 million AAV), Ezekiel Elliott ($10.9 million vs $15 million), or Jaylon Smith ($7.7 million vs $11.4 million) look cheaper than they actually will be. Add that “saved” $15.8 million to the tally, and you’re at $141.2 million. Add the “luxury” of paying your right tackle Top 10 money ($10 million) and you’re at $151.2 million. And if the Cowboys had kept Byron Jones, that would have added an extra $15 million per year to that total, leaving the Cowboys hard up against the cap with around $166 million tied up in their top 10 guys (plus La’El Collins).

Not a sustainable situation, which is why it is critical that the Cowboys find players in the draft that can be immediate contributors and provide cap savings starting in 2021. And as we look to 2021, here’s where cap decisions need to be made:

  • At cornerback, both Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis will hit free agency, and both will be looking for big paydays. The Cowboys did not want to invest in Byron Jones, they likely won’t invest in Awuzie and Lewis at top market prices either, so it’s imperative that they get their replacements in place, or the Cowboys could face an upcharge of $10-12 million at the position, which they’d likely have to save somewhere else.
  • At offensive tackle, Tyron Smith is entering his 10th season and has been plagued by recurring back issues. Add in Travis Frederick’s surprise retirement, and the Cowboys would be wise to anticipate another such surprise at left tackle. Having a successor in place who could replace Smith (or replace one of the other lineman who could move to LT), could save the Cowboys $10-12 million.
  • At defensive tackle, Tyrone Crawford will hit free agency next year. That could be an option to re-sign him to a (much) cheaper contract, or to replace him with a player on a rookie contract. Cap savings potential: $7-8 million.
  • At safety, both Xavier Woods and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix will be free agents after this year, but seeing as safety is not a premium position in our top 10 list, you probably don’t want to invest premium draft capital at the position.

They say you can’t have All Pro’s at every position in the NFL. The data here suggests you’ll already have a hard time paying just 10 (potential) Pro Bowlers at market rates. Which 10 positions make up your Top 10 is debatable of course, but you’ll always have to make some kind of trade-off: You think the team needs a top TE? You probably can’t have that and two top WRs unless you make significant concessions somewhere else. Want a top safety? Get yourself some cheap linebackers, or forget about paying top rates at DT. Want two top cornerbacks? Better hope they can cover really, really well, because you may not have any money left to invest in pass rushers.

And if you don’t want to make any of those choices?

Draft well.