In the NFL Draft we trust. Or at least Jerry and Stephen Jones, assisted by Will McClay, do. The Dallas Cowboys brain-trust has long had a preference for leaning much more heavily on drafting than on free agency, and given the history of the Green Bay Packers in recent years, that looks like a place where Mike McCarthy is fully in tune with them.
Fans of the team certainly hope that they will do well this year, and look to the recent past as evidence that they should. However, there is always a tendency to be more favorably inclined towards your team’s players. While there is certainly a case to be made that the Cowboys’ fan base is harsher in judging their team’s players, homerism is certainly not nonexistent.
Given that, let’s look for outside views that will validate or discredit our own takes. Last week, one such article cropped up on PFF. While the site has its critics, this looked like a well-reasoned effort by the author, Timo Riske. To keep things relevant, he only looks at the last four years, starting in 2017. That includes all the players that are still on their first contracts, or would be in the case of those who have already signed an extension. It is worth your time to click the link and peruse this one, but for the tl;dr crowd, here is a summation and how it applies to our favorite team.
He started with the basics, looking at the performance of all 32 teams based on a PFF metric called wins above replacement (WAR). Just using that, Dallas ranks a respectable ninth. If you are wondering about the validity of this approach, consider that the two Super Bowl teams from last month came in first and second.
But Riske looks for other ways to drill down on just how effective teams were in the draft. Next, he expresses the value of drafted players in terms of their percentile, or how they stack up against all others at the same position. This weights the value of true standout players like Patrick Mahomes, while keeping things to their position helps account for how there is just more WAR for some of those than others.
For example, Mahomes landed in the 99.9th percentile of outcomes for a quarterback selected with the 10th overall pick, as he was the most valuable player we’ve ever measured after four years of play, with 11 WAR. The same is true for Quenton Nelson, as his projected WAR of 1.6 after four years is the 99.9th percentile of outcomes for offensive guards selected within the top 10.
By accounting for the position and measuring the percentile instead of the WAR difference between outcome and expectation, we measure draft success in the same way teams might think about it. For instance, due to the high value of wide receivers, Calvin Ridley and Quenton Nelson are projected to have the same WAR above expectation after four years. Still, Ridley’s outcome falls “only” in the 80th percentile for wide receivers drafted at the end of the first round. This reflects that most people would consider Nelson as the better pick, as he became a perennial All-Pro player while Ridley is just a “good” wide receiver.
Riske finds this a measure of draft consistency, and this is even better for the Cowboys. On this scale, they shoot up to third in the NFL.
Next, he takes into account that a first-round pick is normally expected to have much more impact than a seventh-rounder. With that weighting, Dallas slips a bit, sliding down to the five hole.
But there is one more refinement, that of positional value overall. He uses Nelson again to illustrate his point.
As I have already mentioned, we described draft success as teams might think about it. When a guard at No. 6 becomes a three-time All-Pro player after three years, it’s as good a pick as one could imagine.
However, since offensive guards have relatively low value compared to other positions, Nelson lands in “only” the 93rd percentile when compared to the full distribution of all players selected in his range. Of course, this is still exceptional, but it’s a small difference and illustrates that the absolute ceiling for a top-10 guard seems to be the 93rd percentile. After all, it’s hard to imagine a better guard than Quenton Nelson.
If you immediately respond with “but Zack Martin,” then you may be letting some of that homerism creep in. Besides, Martin was long before the period being examined here.
And that last adjustment puts the Cowboys right back at number three, trailing the best overall Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the runner-up New Orleans Saints. I will refrain from gloating that the Philadelphia Eagles landed fourth from the bottom here.
Third overall is rather elite. And the timeframe involved is also a reason to be encouraged, because it leaves out the lottery winner that is Dak Prescott. He was a result of almost pure luck, given that Dallas wanted both Paxton Lynch and Connor Cook before being forced to “settle” for Prescott. Given that both of those alternatives are now out of the league, his inclusion in this analysis would have skewed things in the Cowboys’ favor despite how close they came to blowing this one.
Additionally, our own Danny Phantom has just taken a look at how the first year of Riske’s analysis, 2017, was actually rather poor in some measures. That speaks to a recent trend of hopefully significant improvement.
This is encouraging on the face of things, but there is also a very disappointing aspect to it. Clearly, drafting better than the vast majority of teams has not paid off. If you are indeed drafting this well, you should not be holding the tenth overall pick after such a dismal season.
Here is where we should hope that injuries were indeed the underlying cause of that meltdown, particularly Prescott’s devastating one. If the Cowboys can have another good draft class, perhaps some better luck on that front will lead to the success that we long for.