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How the Cowboys can get a better return on their draft capital - in three easy steps

Get on the phone, Stephen Jones, and make some trades!

Dallas Cowboys v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images
  • Step 1: Trade your fifth-round pick for a veteran player.
  • Step 2: Trade your sixth-round pick for another veteran player.
  • Step 3: Trade your seventh-round pick for yet another veteran player.

That’s it, thank you for your attention.


There’s more to it than a three-bullet list of course, so bear with me as I try to explain my point.

Over the last ten drafts, nine of which were run by current personnel guru Will McClay, the Cowboys have drafted 39 players in the last three rounds of the draft, either with their regular draft picks or with compensatory picks they received during that time.

That list of players, as you’ll see when you look at the full list of draft picks below, is full of players that came to Dallas with high hopes but left with almost no lasting impact.

In fact, there are only two players on the list with a double-digit ”Approximate Value” (AV), CB Anthony Brown and S Xavier Woods. AV is a metric developed by Pro-Football-Reference.com and is designed to assign a specific value to any player at any position for any given year. The algorithm behind AV weights position specific metrics (i.e. yards or points scored/allowed) with an indicator for durability (total games played and seasons as their team’s primary starter) and quality (Pro Bowl and All Pro nominations), and then normalizes all this at a team level.

Year Draft Rd. Player Pos AV G GS
2016 6 Anthony Brown CB 20 82 57
2017 6 Xavier Woods S 18 60 48
2013 5 Joseph Randle RB 7 35 8
2019 6 Donovan Wilson S 6 34 13
2018 6 Cedrick Wilson Jr. WR 6 38 4
2017 7 Noah Brown WR 3 50 5
2016 6 Kavon Frazier S 3 44 2
2015 7 Geoff Swaim TE 3 37 18
2012 6 James Hanna TE 3 78 37
2021 6 Quinton Bohanna DT 2 14 1
2021 7 Matt Farniok G 1 12 0
2020 5 Bradlee Anae DE 1 11 0
2020 7 Ben DiNucci QB 1 3 1
2014 5 Devin Street WR 1 31 2
2013 6 DeVonte Holloman LB 1 9 2
2021 5 Simi Fehoko WR 0 5 0
2021 6 Israel Mukuamu DB 0 4 0
2019 5 Michael Jackson CB 0 0 0
2019 5 Joe Jackson DE 0 5 0
2018 5 Mike White QB 0 0 0
2018 6 Chris Covington LB 0 8 0
2018 7 Bo Scarbrough RB 0 0 0
2017 7 Joey Ivie DT 0 0 0
2016 6 Darius Jackson RB 0 2 0
2016 6 Rico Gathers TE 0 15 4
2015 5 Ryan Russell DE 0 1 0
2015 7 Mark Nzeocha OLB 0 7 0
2014 7 Ahmad Dixon DB 0 11 0
2014 7 Ken Bishop DT 0 5 0
2014 7 Terrance Mitchell DB 0 3 0
2012 5 Dany Coale WR 0 0 0
2012 7 Caleb McSurdy LB 0 0 0
2019 7 Mike Weber RB 0 0 0
2019 7 Jalen Jelks DE 0 0 0
2017 6 Marquez White CB 0 0 0
2017 7 Jordan Carrell DT 0 0 0
2015 7 Laurence Gibson T 0 0 0
2014 7 Ben Gardner DE 0 0 0
2014 7 Will Smith LB 0 0 0

Over the last 10 years, late-round picks have largely been an exercise in futility for the Cowboys (the table shows only the data for a player’s time in Dallas). Sure, we can hold out hope that last year’s redshirt freshman class might still pan out, but history suggests that isn’t going to happen.

Remember how “Danny Coale is always open,” how Ben Gardner was an “NFL-ready prospect with a ton of potential,” or how Bradlee Anae “could develop into the exact pass rusher the Cowboys need,” but was waived halfway through his second year?

In many ways, late-round picks are like lottery tickets - someone will hit it big with one of these picks, but mostly it’s a waste of resources.

In fact, the Cowboys have a much better track record with undrafted free agents (UDFAs) than they do with late-round draft picks - and that’s true without even having to drag out examples like Tony Romo, Miles Austin, Barry Church, or Dan Bailey. Over the last 10 years, UDFAs have generated 168 points of AV for the Cowboys, more than twice the amount we saw from the late-round picks. Here’s a table with all UDFAs signed over the last ten years with an AV of 1 or more:

Year Draft Rd. Player Pos AV G GS
2015 UDFA La'el Collins T 33 74 71
2012 UDFA Cole Beasley WR 29 103 22
2013 UDFA Jeff Heath S 23 106 54
2013 UDFA Ronald Leary OG 23 48 47
2020 UDFA Terence Steele T 15 32 27
2012 UDFA Lance Dunbar RB 9 54 0
2017 UDFA Blake Jarwin TE 7 42 17
2019 UDFA Brandon Knight T 6 21 10
2014 UDFA Keith Smith FB 5 47 4
2020 UDFA Francis Bernard LB 2 21 0
2019 UDFA Luke Gifford LB 2 30 0
2017 UDFA Daniel Ross DT 2 16 0
2016 UDFA Emmett Cleary T 2 13 1
2015 UDFA Lucky Whitehead WR 2 30 2
2014 UDFA Tyler Patmon CB 2 22 2
2017 UDFA Cooper Rush QB 1 10 1
2020 UDFA Saivion Smith CB 1 6 1
2017 UDFA Lewis Neal DE 1 7 0
2015 UDFA Ayodeji Olatoye DB 1 5 2
2014 UDFA Davon Coleman DT 1 4 1
2012 UDFA Orie Lemon LB 1 8 0

Again, the data here only accounts for the time a player spent in Dallas.

You could argue that La’el Collins shouldn’t be on this list given the non-repeatable way he arrived in Dallas, but even then the UDFAs would lead the late-round picks by 135 to 76 AV points.

So if the Cowboys can get as much (or more) production from their UDFAs than from their late-round picks, why hope against hope that this year’s late-round picks will turn out any better than the picks of the last 10 years?

And instead, why not put those picks to better use, for example by trading them for veteran players with a proven track record?

Here’s an overview of all player-for-picks trades involving 2021 late-round picks:

2021 late-round picks traded for players
Year Round Pick Team Player POS Years AV G GS
2021 5 161 Raiders Zay Jones WR 2020-21 7 43 18
2021 5 167 Seahawks Gabe Jackson OG 2021 7 16 16
2021 5 168 Steelers Chris Wormley DT 2020-21 8 28 15
2021 5 169 Rams Austin Corbett OG 2019-21 19 41 40
2021 5 170 Browns Ronnie Harrison S 2020-21 7 23 18
2021 6 185 Jaguars Kamalei Correa LB 2021 2 6 6
2021 6 185 Titans Desmond King S 2020 2 9 5
2021 6 186 Jets Demaryius Thomas WR 2019 3 11 10
2021 6 191 Broncos Teddy Bridgewater QB 2021 10 14 14
2021 6 192 Lions Everson Griffen DE 2020 1 7 2
2021 6 195 Cowboys Michael Bennett DE 2019 2 9 0
2021 6 201 Cardinals Markus Golden LB 2020-21 9 25 13
2021 6 202 Texans Ryan Finley QB 2021 0 0 0
2021 6 203 Washington David Sharpe OT 2020 1 10 2
2021 6 207 Dolphins Deandre Washington RB 2020 1 3 1
2021 6 208 Dolphins Adam Shaheen TE 2020-21 2 28 12
2021 6 216 Bucs Jerald Hawkins OT 2019 0 0 0
2021 6 223 Vikings Mason Cole OC 2021 3 14 7
2021 7 229 Jaguars Malcom Brown DT 2021 7 17 17
2021 7 232 Falcons Charles Harris DE 2020 2 13 1
2021 7 236 Panthers Marshall Newhouse OL 2018 2 11 2
2021 7 239 Giants Isaac Yiadom CB 2020 4 16 10
2021 7 244 Washington Ereck Flowers OT 2021 7 16 16
2021 7 247 Bears Eddy Pineiro P 2019 2 16 0
2021 7 253 Browns Andy Janovich FB 2020-2021 0 27 6

The data set here is limited to trades where the maximum compensation was a late-round pick, so if a player was traded for, say, a fourth and a sixth, the trade is not included here. Also worth mentioning is that not all trades listed here happened in 2021, in fact, 18 of the 25 trades listed happened before 2021, one even as early as 2018.

Also worth noting is that 22 of the 25 trades (88%) delivered a positive AV value for the acquiring team, whereas the “AV hit rate” for the Cowboys’ late-round picks since 2013 stands at an uninspiring 15 of 37 (41%).

Of course, trading for veteran players comes with its own set of risks: you’re usually getting an older player, often on an overpriced contract, and they seldom stick around for more than a year or two.

With their 2021 picks, the Cowboys have been both buyers and sellers: They made a mid-season trade for Michael Bennett in 2019, and traded Everson Griffen to the Lions during the 2020 season, both for sixth-round picks. Bennett retired after the 2019 season, Griffen played a handful of games for Detroit before moving on the Minnesota and a host of new issues.

But there are other examples in the table above that worked out much better, including Austin Corbett, whom the Rams acquired for a fifth-round pick and who has been a three-year starter and Super Bowl winner in Los Angeles.

Bottom line is, if you want to get a better return on your draft capital, trade your late-round picks for proven veterans who can have an immediate impact. Find 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 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 3 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 almost certainly do that just as effectively with UDFAs.

Don’t just sit there on Day 3 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.

The value of draft picks is always highest just before the draft. So get on the phone, Stephen Jones, and make some trades!