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Charting the Cowboys ability to draft efficiently, a key to excelling in the draft

Our old friend, Michael Strawn, charts the Cowboys drafting efficiency.

NFL: NFL Draft Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

[Editor’s Note:] The following article is from former BTB front-page writer Michael Strawn. He initially placed it in the FanPosts, but due to a technical error there was a problem in commenting on the article. I have copied the content over under my byline, but all credit and comments should go to Michael Strawn. His effort in creating these charts and data points was Herculean! [End Note.]


By Michael Strawn

The Dallas Cowboys have a reputation for being a team that drafts well. Since Will McClay became involved in the team’s draft day decision-making the Cowboys have been widely lauded for quality drafts. But do the on-field results live up to the reputation?

Lucky for us, some of the advanced analytics guys at Football Outsiders have done some heavy lifting and figured out a pretty rational weigh to measure such things. Benjamin Ellinger has contributed a column at FO that looks at ten years of drafting from 2010 to 2019. It’s a terrific read and well worth your time. Today, however, we’re going to isolate the Cowboys results in particular and the NFC East results in general.

The basic idea behind Ellinger’s analysis is that each team has had a certain amount of draft capital and the players they’ve drafted have generated a certain amount of value. Using simple math we can compare the value delivered against the draft capital and make some general evaluations about which teams have drafted the most efficiently.

There are basically three metrics we’re going to look at:

  • Draft capital - the team’s share of the league’s overall draft capital (expressed as a percentage)
  • Draft value - the value of players drafted based upon Pro-Football-Reference’s “annual value” metric -again, expressed as a percentage of the league’s overall annual value from each draft
  • Draft efficiency - the relationship between a team’s draft value and their draft capital

In simple terms, the analysis determines which teams best leveraged their draft capital. The draft efficiency metric is the final arbiter, telling us who turned their draft capital into the most value.

Draft Capital

Draft capital is, of course, largely driven by a team’s success the prior year. Your team won the Super Bowl? Congratulations, you now have the least draft capital in the league for the next season. Went 0-16? Congratulations, you get to draft first the next season and have the most draft capital, by a wide margin.

Of course, teams can do things to affect these results. You can make trades that either enhance or degrade your existing draft capital. Draft picks can also be traded. Compensation picks for free agent signings can also move the needle. But in general, the better a team was the prior year the worse their draft capital and the worse a team was the prior year the better their draft capital.

Here’s the raw numbers by team for both 5-and-10-year intervals:

Let’s start by making sense of the numbers. The percentages we see are the share of league-wide draft capital that each team possessed over the 5- or 10-year period. There are 32 teams in the NFL so all things being equal every team would have exactly 3.125% of the total draft capital.

We see Dallas has had among the least draft capital, with only 2.74% of the total draft capital. This is a combination of being a fairly successful regular season team and trading away the team’s number one pick in 2019.

We also see other things:

  • Cleveland has long employed a strategy of acquiring draft capital, even at the expense of winning now.
  • The Giants have enjoyed the most draft capital among NFC East teams over both the last ten and five years; despite this they are in the middle of their worst run since the 70’s.
  • The top three teams for the last ten years are also the top three teams for the last five years (Cleveland, San Francisco and Tampa Bay). Among those teams, only San Francisco has enjoyed any on-field success.

Here’s the table showing every year for every team, sorted by the 10-year number:

Only three times in the last 10 years have the Cowboys enjoyed above average draft capital:

  • 2011 - followed the team’s 6-10 record in 2010 when Tony Romo missed much of the season.
  • 2013 - had slightly above average draft capital after finishing 8-8 the prior year.
  • 2016 - the team’s first top-five draft pick since 1990 was a result of the team’s 4-12 finish in 2015 when, yet again, Tony Romo missed much of the season due to injury.

Otherwise, the Cowboys were consistently working with below-average draft capital. Again, sometimes this was due to trades (2019) but mostly due to the team being an above average team the prior year.

Draft Value

So how did the Cowboys do in terms of extracting value from their relatively modest draft capital?

A note on understanding these numbers which are based upon PFR’s Annual Value metric: these are cumulative AV numbers, meaning recent draft results can change. For example, Dallas already ranks first in 2016 draft value due to the production from Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Jaylon Smith and Anthony Brown. All four are still Cowboys meaning their future production will continue to add AV to the Cowboys’ 2016 draft value. Thus, a team that had a great 2018 draft will see their 10- and 5-year draft value numbers increase. In short, recent drafts will carry additional weight moving forward.

Let’s look at the results. First note the accomplishments of the top 10 teams as measured by draft value:

  • Won seven of last ten super bowls. Only Denver, Philadelphia and the Giants won Super Bowls while being outside the top ten in draft value.
  • Accounted for 14 of the 20 Super Bowl appearances over the ten years.

Perhaps most frustrating for Cowboys fans is Dallas joins Cleveland as the only teams among the top ten not to make a Super Bowl appearance - every other team in the top ten at least reached the Super Bowl. The difference is Cleveland had enormous draft capital - tops in the league by a wide margin - and the Cowboys did not.

Here’s the table showing results by year:

We see the Cowboys have derived above-average value from drafts more often than not. Standout years include:

  • 2011: nine years later this draft continues to accumulate value as Tyron Smith sill mans the left tackle spot. DeMarco Murray provided great value in the third round, Bruce Carter was a solid producer and even sixth-round pick Dwayne Harris contributed on special teams.
  • 2014: another draft that continues to provide value. The team’s top two picks (Zack Martin and DeMarcus Lawrence) are still among the elite players at their position.
  • 2016: not a surprise to see this, as the Cowboys drafted two long-term stars in the first (Ezekiel Elliott) and fourth (Dak Prescott) rounds. Two other players are still contributing to the team (Jaylon Smith and Anthony Brown). Going into the 2016 draft the Cowboys had more draft value than they had had since 1991 - they put it to good use. The 6.4% value they derived from that draft ranks fifth best among all drafts in the last ten years.

On the other side of the ledger are four years where the team failed to achieve average draft value:

  • 2012: the decision to move up to select Morris Claiborne was a double whammy - it deprived the team of precious draft capital and the player they moved up to draft turned out to largely be a bust (only 16 Annual Value with the Cowboys). The only player that salvaged an otherwise disastrous draft was third-round pick Tyrone Crawford.
  • 2015: this was the year Cowboys fans celebrated the idea the team added three first-round picks: actual first-round pick Byron Jones, second-round pick Randy Gregory (who was widely considered a first-round talent) and rookie free agent La’el Collins. The evaluations of Jones and Collins proved accurate as both have become high quality starters. Gregory’s career, of course, has been derailed by a rigid, illogical NFL policy regarding marijuana (but that’s also the reason he was available).
  • 2017: the Cowboys infamously bypassed T.J. Watt for Taco Charlton. Had they made the choice that most fans and analysts wanted they would have enjoyed another homerun draft. Instead of adding an All Pro defensive end they added another defensive lineman bust. There are, however, four players from that draft still with the team: Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Xavier Woods and Noah Brown. The ability to derive significant value from the third through sixth rounds prevented this from being a truly disastrous draft, but one change would have made this another outstanding draft. Being fair, the Cowboys replaced three starters in the secondary in a single draft and that’s quite an accomplishment.
  • 2019: only one year has passed so this is a preliminary grade but it’s a poor grade. The absence of a first-round pick diminished the team’s draft capital. But first year returns from the remaining picks are disappointingly low outside of running back Tony Pollard. A surprise comeback year from Trysten Hill would help as would a return to health for third-round pick Connor McGovern.

Draft Efficiency

This is our real purpose today so let’s go straight to the 10-year results:

Dallas had the fourth least draft capital and the eighth most draft value over the last ten years, so we should expect to see them near the top of the draft efficiency rankings. Again, the frustrating reality here is the correlation between efficient drafting and success: the top eight teams are probably the most successful franchises over the last ten years - except for the Cowboys. Very surprised to see the Redskins - one of the worst teams in the league for the last ten (or 15, or 20 or 25 years, take your pick) among the top teams in this metric.

Adding to the frustration is the Eagles have only been mediocre at utilizing their draft capital but have been more successful on the field than the Cowboys. This indicates that while the Cowboys have a strong draft pedigree they must be lacking in other areas, specifically:

  • Filling out the team’s roster through non-draft resources
  • Deriving wins from the team’s talent (also known as coaching)

In many ways, this entire exercise is an indictment on Jason Garrett’s coaching regime. Despite being handed top-of-the-league draft talent Garrett and his staff failed to turn it into the same kind of success that other quality drafting teams enjoyed.

The last five years also show the Cowboys ranked third in draft efficiency. This, however, is largely influenced by the team’s outstanding 2016 draft. Remove that year and the Cowboys are below average in draft efficiency for the remaining four years. Which means for the team to maintain their high ranking they’re going to need the 2020 class to stand out. Many believe the Cowboys had one of the best drafts in the league, but many drafts rated high in April turn out to be meh three years later.

Here’s the team-by-team details:

Summary

The good news for fans is the Cowboys have an established track record of utilizing their draft capital efficiently. The team’s reputation for drafting well has been earned; it’s no fluke. The key decision-makers are still here: Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones and Will McClay. Based upon the 2020 draft there’s no reason (right now) to think the absence of Jason Garrett has negatively affected the group’s ability to continue drafting well. In fact, it’s possible McCarthy replacing Garrett will lead to even better decision-making.

The bottom line is this: drafting is still the single most important component to building an NFL roster. Drafts provide cost-controlled players for years into the future and when they contribute during their rookie contracts they provide overall salary cap flexibility, which allows for better roster building.

If the team can simply improve in filling out the roster through free agency and trades and then maximize results from the talent, the future should be bright.