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Recent history of league-wide draft successes offers insight on Cowboys’ strategies

The Cowboys certainly do things their way when it comes to the draft.

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Dallas Cowboys v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The NFL Draft can be best described as a total crapshoot. Each team has their own strategy for how they evaluate players and their positional values, but in the end it always requires at least some amount of dumb luck. Still, trends do form over time, and the Cowboys are one team that’s received some pretty positive attention for their drafting since Will McClay took a more direct role in the process.

Recently, Bo Wulf of The Athletic conducted some research that looked at all 348 players over the last 10 years who were selected to the Pro Bowl or All-Pro team. Wulf compiled the data into this chart below, sorted by position and draft status. It offers a fascinating look into where teams across the league are finding the most success in landing certain types of players.

Where do the best players come from? courtesy of Bo Wulf and The Athletic

Wulf offers the caveat that Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections don’t always indicate success in a complete way, nor do the lack of such designations mean a player is not good. However, there’s a bit of correlation to be had there when trying to determine something as subjective as hitting on a draft pick.

The first takeaway from this chart is that only five positions have had 50% or more of their Pro Bowl or All-Pro players taken in the first round. That is the quarterback, offensive tackle, edge defender, interior defensive line, and cornerback. In other words, those are the five positions where spending a first-round pick seems to greatly increase a team’s chances of having success with the pick.

Well, the Cowboys haven’t exactly done that for any of these positions. The last time they drafted a quarterback in the first round was 1989 when they selected Troy Aikman first overall. Similarly, Russell Maryland in 1991 was the last time Dallas used a first-round pick on an interior defensive lineman. As for tackle, Tyron Smith is literally the only time the franchise has selected that position in the first round since Jerry Jones bought the team.

To the Cowboys’ credit, though, they have allocated a fair amount of first-round resources to cornerback and edge. Within the last decade, they drafted both Morris Claiborne and Byron Jones and really wanted to do it again last year. They also drafted Taco Charlton, and Micah Parsons sort of counts as an edge player. Going further back, the Cowboys used first-round picks on Terence Newman, Mike Jenkins, DeMarcus Ware, Marcus Spears, and Anthony Spencer.

The next thing that jumps out from this chart is that there is exactly one position that has a 50% or higher hit rate in the second and third round: running back. That’s right, the last decade has provided ample evidence that teams can find highly productive running backs on the second day of the draft, and it’s where the majority of Pro Bowl and All-Pro backs are coming from now.

The Cowboys are, of course, an exception. They spent the fourth overall pick in 2016 on Ezekiel Elliott over the likes of Jalen Ramsey, DeForest Buckner, and Laremy Tunsil. On the second day of the draft, Derrick Henry was drafted; Henry has been named to the All-Pro team as many times (2) as Elliott.

Two other positions that stand out on this chart are safety and linebacker. Safety has been a position of emphasis among the Cowboys fanbase, largely because the team continues to ignore it. Roy Williams in 2002 was the last safety the team took in the first round. The only other safety they’ve drafted in the first three rounds since then was J.J. Wilcox, taken in the third round in 2013.

According to this chart, 46.9% of Pro Bowl or All-Pro safeties over the last decade have been first-round picks, and 71.9% of them have been taken in the first three rounds. While other teams have found impact players at safety early on in the draft, Dallas has refused to do the same. They’re certainly bucking the trend here.

As for linebacker, the league as a whole is starting to realize that it’s not as premium a position as other spots on defense. Teams are finding Pro Bowl or All-Pro linebackers in the first round at a 48.3% rate, compared to a 41.4% rate in the second or third round. Some of the league’s best linebackers - such as Bobby Wagner, Fred Warner, and Darius Leonard - were taken on Day 2 of the draft.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys have spent first-round picks on the position twice in the last decade. That’s equal to the amount of linebackers they’ve drafted on Day 2 in that same span. Bruce Carter and Jaylon Smith are the two examples here, though only Smith was named to a Pro Bowl.

None of this is to say the Cowboys haven’t had any success in the draft, as they’ve actually been quite good in this regard specifically in the last decade. But Dallas has succeeded in spite of their draft strategies and positional valuations often flying in the face of league trends, which suggests they could theoretically get even better at drafting if they were to adapt a little bit.

As we think about this upcoming draft in particular, the debate seems to be between taking a receiver or interior offensive lineman with the 24th overall pick. According to the chart, teams actually find productive guards at a higher rate on Day 2 than in the first round, while the success rate at receiver is pretty close. Productive centers, however, are much more likely to be found in the first round. With that in mind, it will be interesting to see what Dallas does: will they continue to buck the trend, or will they adapt?