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2020 Dallas Cowboys rookie class played more snaps than any other in recent memory

The 2020 Cowboys rookies got more playing time than any rookie class since at 2005.

Philadelphia Eagles v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

In late April last year, just three days after the draft, I penned an article titled “Why 2020 Cowboys rookies could contribute more in their rookie year than most previous draft classes.” At the time, I wondered if “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.”

The 2020 rookie class played 3,770 snaps, so my optimistic projection turned out to be correct. Unfortunately, this was not because I have been blessed with the gift of prophecy. Instead, a promising draft class got extended playing time when injuries to starters forced the team to play the rookies more than they might have in a normal season, especially on the offensive line.

Here are the regular season snap counts for the 2020 rookie class in detail (offense and defense only, no special teams):

2020 Rookie Class
POS Name Total Snaps Total Starts Drafted
OT Terence Steele 1,045 14 UDFA
CB Trevon Diggs 757 11 2nd
WR CeeDee Lamb 730 14 1st
OC Tyler Biadasz 426 4 4th
DT Neville Gallimore 416 9 3rd
CB Reggie Robinson II 186 0 4th
QB Ben DiNucci 94 1 7th
TE Sean McKeon 64 1 UDFA
DL Ron'Dell Carter 26 0 UDFA
RB Rico Dowdle 13 0 UDFA
LB Francis Bernard 7 0 UDFA
DE Bradlee Anae 6 0 5th
Rookie totals 3,770 54
In % of team total 15.1% 15.3%

It’s widely held that a good draft class yields 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 Cowboys got at least two (CeeDee Lamb, Trevon Diggs), probably four (Tyler Biadaz, Neville Gallimore) and perhaps more (does Terence Steele have a future beyond a backup role, what’s in the cards for Bradlee Anae, is Reggie Robinson a potential starter at safety?) starters out of this draft class. That’s a success any way you look at it, no matter the injury situation.

To compare this year’s rookie class to previous classes, I used two sets of data. For 2007-11, I used the numbers from Pro Football Focus, and for 2012-2020 I used the official league numbers as recorded by Football Outsiders. There are minor technical discrepancies between the two sets of numbers, but for our purposes the two data sets are sufficiently comparable.

Here’s an overview of the previous 13 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, and for 2019 I’m showing the numbers with and without Amari Cooper’s snap counts (the Cowboys gave up their 2019 first-round pick for Cooper).

2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019* 2020
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 4,374
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% 15.1%
Average 4.0%
(0.9 starters)
7.3%
(1.6 starters)
11.5%
(2.5 starters)

The data here suggests the Cowboys had some really bad draft classes between 2007-2012, but things have been looking much better since 2013, even with the occasional glitch (2019). Consider for example that the team had two first-round picks and a second-rounder in 2008, but that draft class is one of the lesser classes of the last 14 years.

But it takes more than a strong rookie season to determine the value of a draft class. Three years (and sometimes even more) is the standard often used to fully evaluate a rookie class. Which is why we’re now going to look at how the snap percentages of each season’s rookie class have progressed over the years.

The snap data I have available only goes back to 2007, so I don’t have snap numbers for the rookie seasons of rookie classes prior to 2007. But I do have the second year of the 2006 class and the third year of the 2005 class, which is about as far back as we want to go anyway.

What this allows me to do is to show how different rookie classes performed in terms of snap percentage in each of their first five years in the league, which I’ve summarized in the table below. To make the table easier to read, it is color-coded as follows:

Blue = 3 or more starters

Green = 2-3 starters

Orange = 1-2 starters

Red = less than 1 starter

For this analysis, let’s assume that adding the equivalent of two starters (or 9.0% of all snaps) to the roster is a good target for a rookie class, and getting the equivalent of three starters (13.5% of all snaps) is outstanding.

Class Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 Year 5
2005 - - - - 16.9% 16.3% 11.7%
2006 - - 8.8% 3.6% 7.7% 7.6%
2007 3.8% 7.1% 9.3% 13.0% 10.8%
2008 6.7% 10.9% 11.9% 9.4% 4.6%
2009 1.5% 0.9% 3.6% 4.6% 0.0%
2010 6.9% 14.2% 11.7% 11.3% 7.9%
2011 8.5% 10.9% 11.6% 10.9% 4.5%
2012 6.5% 11.5% 12.5% 11.7% 11.3%
2013 15.3% 14.8% 14.1% 11.9% 11.3%
2014 9.5% 12.8% 9.0% 10.3% 7.0%
2015 10.0% 10.8% 14.2% 15.4% 7.8%
2016 13.5% 17.2% 19.3% 16.8% 11.0%
2017 10.6% 13.4% 12.3% 10.0% - -
2018 12.1% 10.4% 16.7% - - - -
2019 5.8% 14.2% - - - - - -
2020 15.1% - - - - - - - -
Red <= 1 starter, Orange = 1-2 starters, Green = 2-3 starters, Blue = >3 starters

The data accumulated above shows that the Cowboys missed the 9.0% threshold (adding the equivalent of two starters) for six straight years from 2007-12.

The team finally hit its stride with the 2013 rookie class. 2013 coincidentally was also the year Will McClay was promoted to assistant director of player personnel, which gives him demi-god status among a part of the Cowboys fan base. And perhaps 2019 was just a glitch in the matrix, a conspiracy of dunces, or a blue moon draft that proved the exception to the rule.

The numbers overall get better in the second year of each rookie class, where the Cowboys have hit the 2+ starter mark every year since 2010 (even in 2019!). Also since 2010, the rookie classes show a sea of green and blue in years two, three, and four, which is exactly how you want it to be.

The fifth-year drop in playing time contribution is largely due to the way rookie contracts are structured. Most players reach free agency after four years and can then move on to other teams, so a drop in snaps is to be expected. But that drop can also mean that the players from that rookie class simply weren’t good enough to warrant a second, and bigger, contract, or turned out to be so good they were too expensive to retain.

The data in the color-enhanced table above provides a nice visual representation of the turnaround the Cowboys have made in their draft/UDFA performance, even if it may not have been enough to secure them a postseason berth every year.

Some might be tempted to dismiss the data here out of hand by pulling the “Yeah, but INJURIES!” card. But that works both ways of course. Trevon Diggs and Tyler Biadasz both missed time with injuries, so those rookie snaps could conceivably have been even higher.

In any case, the 2020 rookie class looks promising going forward, and if the Cowboys find a way to secure a similar rookie class this year, we can confidently start talking about the postseason around these parts again.

And it looks like the Cowboys will have enough ammunition in the 2021 draft to secure just such a rookie class, thanks to what will likely be four comp picks this year:

Round Origin
1 Original pick
2 Original pick
3 Original pick
3 Comp pick (Byron Jones)
4 Original pick
4 Comp pick (Robert Quinn)
5 From Detroit (Everson Griffen trade)
5 Comp pick (Randall Cobb)
6 Comp pick (Jeff Heath)
7 Original pick

Tell us in the poll or in the comments below, how many starters you think the Cowboys will eventually get out of the 2020 rookie class?

Poll

How many starters will Cowboys eventually get out of the 2020 rookie class?

This poll is closed

  • 14%
    5 or more
    (67 votes)
  • 76%
    3-4
    (352 votes)
  • 8%
    2
    (37 votes)
  • 0%
    Less than 2
    (2 votes)
458 votes total Vote Now