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How much playing time will the Cowboys’ 2021 rookie class get during the 2021 season?

How much can we expect the Cowboys’ 2021 rookie class to contribute this year?

2021 NFL Draft Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

At irregular intervals over the last few years, I’ve tried to project the playing time of Cowboys rookie classes, with varying levels of success.

  • In 2015, the estimate was wildly over-optimistic in projecting 3,000 snaps for a rookie class that ended up playing just 2,291 combined snaps, or 10% of the total offensive and defensive snaps that year.
  • In 2018, the projection was the rookie class would play 12.1% (2,838) of all offensive and defensive snaps, and it was a pleasant surprise to find that was very close: The 2018 rookies played exactly 12.1% (2.786) of all snaps.
  • In 2020, the projection was 2,458 snaps (10.5%), but injuries to starters pushed the rookie totals to a staggering 3,770 snaps, or 15.5% of all snaps. 2020 UDFA Terence Steele alone accounted for 1,045 unforeseen snaps.

Today, I’ll try yet another projection, even if we all know that preseason projections are not worth much. And I’ll try to do it by looking at comparable rookies from previous Cowboys draft classes.


LB Micah Parsons: We don’t have to go back very far here, as the last linebacker the Cowboys drafted in the first round was Leighton Vander Esch in 2018, who played 784 snaps en route to a Pro Bowl berth in his only injury-free season so far.

CB Kelvin Joseph: The comparison here is even more recent. Fellow second-rounder Trevon Diggs played 757 rookie snaps last year, and that is a reasonable comparison for Joseph. It also matches previous rookie totals quite well, as Jourdan Lewis had 748 snaps in his 2017 rookie season, and Anthony Brown had 717 the year before. Very similar totals, so 757 is the number I’m going with for Joseph.

DT Osa Odighizuwa: This one is more tricky. Neville Gallimore (third round) had 416 snaps last year, the year before Trysten Hill (second) had a disappointingly low 121 snaps. In 2016, Maliek Collins (third) had 656, but that might be too high for Odighizuwa. He’s already drawn comparisons to Tyrone Crawford (third) and Crawford’s 303 rookie snaps in 2013 look like a reasonable target.

DE Chauncey Golston: Mid-round pass rushers have had an uphill battle in Dallas recently. Bradlee Anae (fifth) managed just six defensive snaps last year, Dorance Armstrong (fourth) tallied 273 rookie snaps in 2018, and Charles Tapper (fourth) sat out his 2016 rookie season with an injury. Let’s go with Armstrong’s 273 snaps for Golston, even if that may prove optimistic.

CB Nahshon Wright: Wright might see a lot of snaps on special teams, but given that Diggs and Joseph are likely penciled in as the starters, with Lewis and Brown manning the slot and nickel positions, it’s unlikely he’ll be a strong first-year contributor on defense. In 2013, B.W. Webb was taken just 15 spots below where Wright was picked this year, and notched 185 snaps in his rookie season.

LB Jabril Cox: If Cox remains stuck behind Micah Parsons, Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, and Keanu Neal on the depth chart, he will only see limited snaps. The best comp would then be Damien Wilson (fourth), who was a special teams mainstay in his 2015 rookie season with 280 snaps, but collected just 32 snaps on defense.

But if that depth chart changes, be it because of a trade, a release, a scheme change, or an injury, then Anthony Hitchens (fourth) and his 541 snaps in 2014 look like a good projection for Cox. I’ll go with the Hitchens comp.

OT Josh Ball: Barring injuries, Ball shouldn’t see any playing time in 2021, and the comp here is fellow fourth rounder David Arkin, who was inactive for every game in his 2014 rookie season.

WR Simi Fehoko: The history of late-round WRs for the Cowboys doesn’t bode well for Fehoko.

  • 2011: Dwayne Harris (sixth): 1 rookie snap
  • 2012: Danny Coale (fifth): 0 rookie snaps
  • 2014: Devin Street fifth): 150 rookie snaps
  • 2017: Noah Brown (seventh): 158 rookie snaps
  • 2018: Cedric Wilson (sixth): 0 rookie snaps

It’s likely the Cowboys will find a way to utilize his size and speed, so it’s an optimistic projection of 150 snaps.

DT Quinton Bohanna: Late-round DTs need a while to develop. Sean Lissemore (9 snaps in 2011), Ken Bishop (66 snaps in 2014), Joey Ivie (0 snaps in 2017), Jordan Carrell (0 snaps in 2017) suggest just making the team should be considered a success for Bohanna.

CB/S Israel Mukuamu: Could the lack of depth at safety lead to playing time for the rookie? The last three late-round safeties the Cowboys drafted didn’t do so bad: Donovan Wilson (sixth) became a starter last year after just 16 snaps in his rookie season, Xavier Woods (sixth) started in his 2017 rookie season and collected 550 snaps, Kavon Frazier (sixth) became a special teams mainstay and had 37 rookie season snaps in 2016. But the best comp may be 2020 draft pick Reggie Robinson (fourth), who also moved from corner to safety in his rookie season, played 65 snaps on special teams, but did not have a single defensive snap last year.

OT Matt Farniok: That is going to be a very steep climb up the depth chart.


Here’s what all of that adds up to:

2021 Draft Class Snap Count Projection
Round Name POS Equiv. Player Projected Snaps
1 Micah Parsons LB Leighton Vander Esch ('18) 784
2 Kelvin Joseph CB Trevon Diggs ('20) 757
3 Osa Odighizuwa DT Tyrone Crawford ('13) 303
3 Chauncey Golston DE Dorance Armstrong ('18) 273
3 Nahshon Wright CB B.W. Webb ('13) 185
4 Jabril Cox LB Anthony Hitchens ('14) 541
4 Josh Ball OL David Arkin ('11) 0
5 Simi Fehoko WR Devin Street ('15) 150
6 Quinton Bohanna DT Joey Ivie ('17) 0
6 Israel Mukuamu CB Reggie Robinson ('20) 0
7 Matt Farniok OT Laurence Gibson ('15) 0
Total Rookie snaps 2,993
Rookies in % of total snaps (est.: 23,500) 12.7%

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. Also, with 17 games on the schedule next year, these 16-game snap counts need to be increased accordingly, so the total projection for 2021 is 3,180 snaps

The 12.7% shown as the total snap percentage above would be slightly better than the 2018 rookie class (12.1%), and might even come close to the 2016 rookie class (13.5%) - and that is without accounting for some additional contribution from a 2021 UDFA.

The big unknown here is probably LB Jabril Cox. Some people are quite high on his potential, but whether that potential will translate into a lot of rookie snaps remains to be seen. After all, rookies have a hard time breaking through in the NFL, as the following stat illustrates:

Ultimately, the Cowboys went heavy on defense for a reason, and that could easily boost snap count totals if the Cowboys aggressively move on from veteran defenders in favor of this year’s draft class.

With all of that in mind, what’s your take? How much do you think the 2021 rookie class will contribute this year?