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Why the Cowboys poor recent track record with 5th-round picks could change this year

Nobody in the league is worse at drafting fifth-rounders than the Cowboys.

UFC Fight Night: Maia v Shields Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

The Cowboys have had starters emerge from the ranks of their late-round picks in the past. In fact, since Will McClay took over as Director of Player Personnel after the 2013 draft, the Cowboys have had five late-round picks (Rounds 5-7) emerge as eventual starters in the NFL (nine starts or more in one season), as the table below shows.

Cowboys Late-rounders since 2014
Drafted Round Player Starter
2014 7th CB Terrance Mitchell 2016 (3rd season, with KC)
2015 7th TE Geoff Swaim 2018 (4th season)
2016 6th CB Anthony Brown 2016 (1st season)
2017 6th S Xavier Woods 2018 (2nd season)
2019 6th S Donovan Wilson 2020 (2nd season)

Most late-round picks need two or three years before they finally emerge as starters in the NFL, and Anthony Brown looks like the exception that proves the rule - and he’s an even rarer exception in Dallas: a late-round pick signed to a contract extension.

The 2021 late-round draft class (Simi Fehoko, Quinton Bohanna, Israel Mukuamu, Matt Farniok) may eventually add a starter to the Cowboys’ tally, though they are all probably long shots at this point.

But if you look at the list above closely, you’ll notice it does not include a single fifth-round pick. Here’s a look at how successful the Cowboys have been per round in drafting eventual starters (9+ starts in one season) and their cumulative weighted Approximate Value (wAV).

Cowboys Draft Classes 2014-2021
Round Players Starters wAV
1st 7 6 254
2nd 8 6 158
3rd 9 5 102
4th 12 5 189
5th 7 -- 9
6th 11 3 60
7th 16 2 36
Total 70 27 808

Even the most analytically challenged will recognize that the fifth round does not look good for the Cowboys. Seven picks, not a single starter, and a woeful wAV of 9.

Are other teams doing better? Yes, they are. Here’s a look at how the Cowboys’ fifth-round picks in Will McClay’s tenure compare to the rest of the league:

5th-round picks by Team, 2014-2021
Rank Team Picks Starters wAV Rank Team Picks Starters wAV Rank Team Picks Starters wAV
1 GNB 13 7 148 12 BAL 11 3 73 23 CAR 10 5 50
2 CHI 8 6 111 13 WAS 10 4 67 24 DEN 10 3 45
3 SFO 14 8 109 14 NYG 9 5 65 25 NYJ 10 4 44
4 MIN 13 6 105 15 DET 9 7 64 26 HOU 8 3 42
5 ATL 11 6 104 16 LAC 8 4 64 27 NWE 6 2 41
6 MIA 11 6 94 17 PHI 9 5 63 28 PIT 8 4 39
7 TEN 8 4 93 18 JAX 8 2 62 29 ARI 8 4 34
8 IND 11 4 89 19 CLE 11 7 58 30 NOR 6 1 34
9 KAN 9 4 88 20 LVR 8 3 56 31 LAR 4 1 32
10 SEA 10 3 84 21 CIN 10 5 54 32 DAL 7 -- 9
11 BUF 10 4 74 22 TAM 9 3 51

The Cowboys’ track record in the fifth round from 2014-21 is terrible. They are the worst in the league at getting a return on their fifth-round picks, and by quite a margin.

The Cowboys would have been better off trading every single one of their fifth-round picks for a veteran player, who would at least have provided some marginal return on their draft capital. But that’s hindsight talking (even though we’ve advocated that point ad nauseam over the years).

This year, the Cowboys once again held on to all of their fifth-rounders and brought in four rookies. Are they destined to wash out, just as the recent fifth-rounders did?

There may be reason for hope yet, for two very specific reasons:

Sample size effect: Keying in on just the fifth-round picks, and only for eight drafts, may have narrowed the scope of the data to such an extent as to create extreme outliers. Broadening the scope to more picks (e.g. all Day 3 picks) will undoubtedly reduce the outliers in the sample size. In the Cowboys’ specific case, this would catapult them to eighth overall in terms of wAV if we look at their numbers for rounds 4-7 over the same period. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but it also doesn’t change the fact that the Cowboys suck in the fifth round.

The volume effect: To a large extent, the draft is driven by luck. Your odds of hitting on a pick increase with the number of picks you have. On average, the NFL got an eventual starter on 44% of their fifth-round picks (133 of 297) over the period. The Cowboys took four players in the fifth round this year. They are bound to get lucky eventually, and one or two of those picks could pan out.

So there is some statistical basis for hope, but you’ve got to wonder what’s going on in Dallas that has them whiffing on every pick in the fifth round.

Are they perhaps overconfident in their ability to identify talent late in the draft, perhaps fixating on “safe” or “can’t miss” prospects late in the draft, when the entire history of the draft proves that there is no such thing as a “safe” or “can’t miss” prospect late in the draft?

Or perhaps it’s that they overestimate the ability of their coaching staff to develop prospects. This is probably taken out of context, but here’s a war room shot of when the Cowboys drafted DT Joey Ivie in the seventh round of the 2017 draft:

Ivie was waived before the 2017 season started.

NFL teams often believe their coaching staff can coach up just about anybody. And if you’re the Cowboys and think one, or perhaps both, of your coordinators are head coaches in waiting, you my be prone to that type of thinking. Again, the history of the draft is proof positive that not even the greatest NFL coaches can coach up every player.

With all of that out of the way, here’s our question to you: Which 2022 fifth-rounder has the best chances - against the recent trend - of becoming an eventual starter?

Poll

Which 2022 fifth-round player do you think will eventually emerge as a starter for the Cowboys?

  • 8%
    T Matt Waletzko
    (192 votes)
  • 4%
    CB DaRon Bland
    (107 votes)
  • 56%
    LB Damone Clark
    (1243 votes)
  • 30%
    DT John Ridgeway
    (666 votes)
2208 votes total Vote Now