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Why 2020 Cowboys rookies could contribute more in their rookie year than most previous draft classes

How much can we expect the Cowboys’ 2020 rookie class to contribute this year?

NFL Combine - Day 4 Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

In August 2018, I wrote a post 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% (2,838) of all offensive and defensive snaps.

The projections for the individual players were naturally off versus their actual snaps counts, but it looks like I got really lucky with the projection for the overall snap percentage: The 2018 rookies played exactly 12.1% (2.786) of all snaps, so I got the percentage exactly right, and was off by just 52 total snaps.

Emboldened by this success/lucky guess, today I’m going to repeat the 2018 exercise for the 2020 draft class.

It’s a 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 2020 draft class hasn’t played a single snap yet, so it’s way too early to start counting potential starters from this draft class. Sure, there are reasonable expectations that CeeDee Lamb and Trevon Diggs will be immediate starters, but it quickly gets sketchy beyond that. Neville Gallimore may get a few starts this season, but is more likely to see limited snaps in a rotational role in his rookie season. And beyond those three, as much as you may like Reggie Robinson or Bradlee Anae, there aren’t any obvious future starters in this draft class, with Tyler Biadasz as the obvious wildcard.

But number of starts is a fickle metric with which to track the contribution of a draft class, which is why we’re focusing on snap counts.

We’ll start with some basic math first. Assuming all seven draft picks make the 53-man roster this year (which is by no means a given), they’d make up 13% of the players on the roster.

So how many snaps should the 2020 rookie class get? 13% 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.

2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019*
Rookie snaps 879 1,542 364 1,629 2,004 1,531 3,583 2,178 2,291 3,139 2,476 2,786 594/1.444
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% 2.4%/5.8%
Average 4.0%
(0.9 starters)
(1.6 starters)
(2.5 starters)

This short timeline of the Cowboys’ rookie classes divides into four 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. 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), delivering six years of strong rookie classes, with an average of 11.8% of the snaps in the rookie seasons, which translates to a cool 2.6 starters per rookie class.

In that overall context, 2019 has to be considered a disappointment with 2.4%, and even the inclusion of Amari Cooper in the total only lifts the class to 5.8%.

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 2020 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 not worth much. And I’m going to do it by looking at comparable rookies from the previous Cowboys draft classes.

WR CeeDee Lamb: The last wide receiver the Cowboys drafted in the first round was Dez Bryant in 2010, but his injury-marred rookie season resulted in just 431 snaps. The most successful recent rookie seasons by wide receivers in terms of snaps looked quite similar and were Terrance Williams with 700 in 2013, and Michael Gallup with 739 in 2018. Lamb my well exceed that total, but for now I’m sticking with Gallup as the equivalent player for Lamb.

CB Trevon Diggs: We don’t have to go back very far for the comparison here. Jourdan Lewis had 748 snaps in his 2017 rookie season, and Anthony Brown had 717 the year before, Again, very similar totals, so 748 is the number I’m going with for Diggs.

DT Neville Gallimore: Trysten Hill had just 121 snaps last year, that would probably be a worst-case scenario. In 2016, Maliek Collins had 656, but with veterans Dontari Poe and Gerald McCoy already on board, that might be too high for Gallimore. So I’m going all the way back to Tyrone Crawford 2013, even if he initially came in as a defensive end, but his 303 rookie snaps look like a reasonable target.

CB Reggie Robinson: Robinson will likely see a lot of snaps on special teams, but I’m not sure that he’ll be a strong first-year contributor on defense. There may be better comparisons, but the best I came up with for a rookie in a limited role is 2008 fifth-round pick Orlando Scandrick, who notched 395 snaps in his rookie season, even if that seems quite high for Robinson.

OC Tyler Biadasz: This one is even more difficult. There is some hope that Biadasz will step in as the starter immediately. which would result in about 1,000 snaps. But the Cowboys’ history of fourth-round lineman suggests that number is unrealistic. David Arkin (2011) had zero snaps, Doug Free (2007) had 17.

DE Bradlee Anae: The best comparison here might be 2018 fourth-rounder Dorance Armstrong. He tallied 273 snaps in his rookie season in a rotational role.

QB Ben DiNucci: Mike White in 2018 saw zero snaps, Cooper Rush saw 17 in 2017. DiNucci will be lucky to be the third QB on the roster, he shouldn’t see any snaps.

Here’s what all of that adds up to:

2020 Draft Class Snap Count Projection
Round Name POS Equiv. Player Projected Snaps
1 CeeDee Lamb WR Michael Gallup ('18) 739
2 Trevon Diggs CB Jourdan Lewis ('17) 748
3 Neville Gallimore DT Tyrone Crawford ('13) 303
4 Reggie Robinson II CB Orlando Scandrick ('08) 395
4 Tyler Biadasz C David Arkin ('11) 0
5 Bradlee Anae DE Dorance Armstrong ('18) 273
7 Ben DiNucci QB Mike White ('18) 0
Total Rookie snaps 2,458
Rookies in % of total snaps (est.: 23,500) 10.5%

Obviously, the “equivalent players” are equivalent for the purposes of the snap count only. This projection also assumes this draft class remains largely healthy, and you may want to reduce the total number of projected snaps if you assume differently.

Overall, the 2,458 snaps projected here would be roughly equivalent to the 2017 and 2018 draft classes, which would be a positive for the Cowboys, and that’s not yet accounting for some additional contribution from one of the recently signed UDFAs.

The big unknown here is Tyler Biadasz. If he were to become the starter and log around a thousand snaps, this draft class could approach 3,500 snaps, which would make it one of the best draft classes since 2005. That draft class, led by DeMarcus Ware, Marcus Spears, Jay Ratliff, and Chris Canty, totaled 3,910 snaps.

And even Jerry Jones couldn’t help but think back to the 2005 draft recently, wondering whether 2020 could be the best draft class since 2005:

“Seriously, this is really one of the best,” Jerry Jones said. “You just have to look at what’s up there, and you can figure it out.”

With all of that in mind, what’s your take? How much do you think the 2020 rookie class will contribute this year?

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