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Do the Cowboys fall asleep on the third day of the draft?

The Cowboys have an unflattering success rate on the third day of the draft.

Queens Park Rangers v AFC Bournemouth - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Offside via Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys have done fairly well in the first three rounds of the draft over the last five years. From 2016-20, 12 of the 14 players they drafted in the first three rounds developed into primary starters, i.e. a player that started at least eight games in at least one of the last five seasons.

Outside of 2017 first-round pick Taco Charlton, who lasted only two years in Dallas, defensive tackle Trysten Hill is the only player not to have started at least eight games in a season, and his second season ended on injured reserve after starting the first five games. Overall, that’s a pretty good track record.

But today we’re going to focus on what happens on the third day of the draft in rounds four through seven, where the odds of landing a starter get progressively lower, as the table below illustrates.

Primary Starters by round, 2016-2020 Drafts
Round 1 Round 2 Round 3 Round 4 Round 5 Round 6 Round 7
No. of Players 159 160 194 191 181 200 186
Primary Starters 133 95 86 56 49 29 12
In % 84% 59% 44% 29% 27% 15% 6%

Over the last five drafts, only 19% of the prospects drafted on the third day of the draft have become starters. That number will likely rise a little as the more recent draft classes eventually find their way into starting roles, but for now let’s assume that only every fifth player taken on the third day turns into a primary starter.

Over the last five drafts, the Cowboys have drafted 28 players on Day Three of the draft. Assuming a league average hit rate where every fifth draft picks eventually turns into a primary starter, the Cowboys should have gotten about six primary starters out of their 28 picks. So how many did they get?

Four.

Dak Prescott is the fourth-round prize that could easily make us overlook the Cowboys’ late-round futility, Xavier Woods, and Anthony Brown were two other late-round finds, and TE Dalton Schultz was pressed into a starting role last year after an injury to presumptive starter Blake Jarwin.

Of course, there’s always the chance that last year’s late-rounders like center Tyler Biadasz, cornerback Reggie Robinson, or defensive end Bradlee Anae could emerge as starters, but outside of maybe Biadasz, the Cowboys recent track record with these late picks makes this a long shot.

You could always argue that you get your starters in the first three rounds, and that the later rounds are where you get your bottom-of-the roster guys, your backups, and your special teams regulars. And if one of them turns into a starter, you simply got lucky.

And if you’ve been a Cowboys fan long enough, perhaps you even buy into this absurd line of thinking.

Or you could argue that the Cowboys are already so stacked with talent that barring injury, it’s almost impossible for third-day picks to become starters. Granted, even dyed-in-blue Cowboys fans probably don’t think that right now.

And this late-round futility isn’t just a recent thing, or the product of an arbitrary cut-off at the five-year mark. If we look back all the way to 2010, we find that only eight out of 57 (14%) Day Three picks started eight or more games in one season for the Cowboys.

Where the Cowboys have a 14.3% (4 out of 28) success rate for Day Three starters over the last five years, other teams are much more successful. The Colts have the highest success rate in the league with 32.1% (9 out of 28), the Patriots rank second with 30.4% (7 out of 23).

So who said you can’t go looking for starters on the third day of the draft? Here’s how the Cowboys compare to the other 31 teams in the league:

Success rate for Day Three picks, 2016-2020
Team Picks Primary Starters Success rate Team Picks Primary Starters Success rate Team Picks Primary Starters Success rate
IND 28 9 32.1% MIA 22 5 22.7% NOR 13 2 15.4%
NWE 23 7 30.4% ATL 18 4 22.2% DAL 28 4 14.3%
WAS 29 8 27.6% DET 27 6 22.2% NYG 21 3 14.3%
CLE 26 7 26.9% HOU 18 4 22.2% NYJ 22 3 13.6%
GNB 29 7 24.1% SFO 27 6 22.2% JAX 23 3 13.0%
LAR 29 7 24.1% BAL 28 6 21.4% CAR 18 2 11.1%
SEA 29 7 24.1% PHI 24 5 20.8% TEN 18 2 11.1%
LAC 21 5 23.8% BUF 21 4 19.0% MIN 41 3 7.3%
TAM 17 4 23.5% DEN 22 4 18.2% ARI 22 1 4.5%
CHI 22 5 22.7% CIN 30 5 16.7% PIT 21 0 0.0%
LVR 22 5 22.7% KAN 19 3 15.8%

First, the “good” news: the Cowboys are not the worst team in the league; also, the small sample size here means that one or two extra starters would make the Cowboys an average or above average team.

But a look at the teams at the top of this chart has got to leave you wondering whether the Cowboys consistently fall asleep on the third day of the draft. At the very least, you’ve got to wonder whether the Cowboys are doing something fundamentally different (and wrong) than some of the other teams.

This year, the Cowboys have six picks on the third day of the draft and they are almost certainly hoping that their string of bad luck will come to an end.

But that is nothing more than gambler’s fallacy, perhaps best illustrated by the “Monte Carlo fallacy,” an event that famously took place at the Monte Carlo Casino in 1913. On August 18 of that year, the roulette wheel had landed on black for the last 10 spins, and because the assembled gamblers thought red was long overdue, they started placing their chips on red.

But the ball kept on landing on black, and because the crowd became more convinced at each turn that the ball would land on red, the wagers increased, and so did the losses. It wasn’t until the ball had landed on black 26 consecutive times that it finally landed on red.

Needless to say, the casino made a fortune on gamblers who thought their luck would somehow turn.

That doesn’t mean Day Three picks are worthless. But they might be put to better use by packaging some of them to trade up in the draft, thus increasing your chances of landing a starter. Or perhaps trading some of them for future picks for similar effect. And the best bet would be to trade those picks for a proven starter from some sucker team that thinks it can beat the odds with a late-round pick and is willing to gamble a starter on that.

Problem is, teams and fans are so invested in the scouting departments, the scouting process, and the NFL draft, that acknowledging the draft as a crap shoot is diametrically opposed to the entire scouting mythology that has grown over time (and the millions invested in it).

Trade your Day Three picks for established veterans, or use them to trade up in the draft, but don’t just pick players because you have to fill up the roster, you can probably do that just as effectively with UDFAs.

Don’t just sit there on Day Three and pick a bunch of players who’ll never amount to anything, just because you have no better idea of what else to do with those picks.