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Dallas Cowboys led NFL by wide margin in own drafted talent taking the field in 2021

Putting some numbers on the Cowboys “we like our guys” mantra.

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Avid fans of the Dallas Cowboys are all too familiar with this team putting their faith in draft picks and homegrown talent, foregoing the first wave of free agency to prioritize their own. The Cowboys have certainly built a strong core of players using this method, but their inability to find playoff success has made this team-building strategy questionable.

Even Jerry Jones said during Super Bowl week that he was “screaming into his pillow” about not representing the NFC in Los Angeles. The hometown Rams took home the Lombardi trophy instead, confirming their unconventional “all-in” approach can yield results. Fast forward to this current offseason, and the Rams have been re-signing their stars in hopes of a repeat, while the Cowboys have lost several key starters for various reasons.

Thanks to NFL Data Analyst Tom Bliss, we can put some more concrete numbers behind just how dependent the Cowboys are on homegrown talent, and how much this differs from other teams around the league.

Bliss calculated the percent of snaps from last season that each team received from either drafted or UDFA players. There is a ton of interesting data that can be gathered here, as the small-circle nature of NFL front offices is on full display. A look at where most team’s get the second-highest density of snaps shows the connections, as the Giants targeted former Patriots players under Joe Judge, and the Titans had an astounding number of snaps from former Texans - where HC Mike Vrabel coached from 2014-17.

The Cowboys horizontal line here puts this same trend on display, but it starts with a staggering 73.9% of drafted or UDFA talent. This mark led the league, with the Ravens and Saints being the only close followers. The Cowboys also dominated the NFC East in this category, which at least in the short term led to an easy win in the division, where they went 6-0 last year.

The rest of the Cowboys roster makeup being linked to the Falcons, Colts, Vikings, and Raiders also shows their tendency to favor scheme fits and familiar faces. Current DC Dan Quinn was the Falcons head coach before coming to Dallas, the Colts had former passing game coordinator Matt Eberflus on staff from 2018-21, the Vikings played their final season under Mike Zimmer this year, while the Raiders employed longtime Cowboys coaches Rod Marinelli and Rich Bisaccia.

The Cowboys have to go back to the 2018 draft class to find the start of this roster density. With a general rule of thumb being that draft classes take two or three years to fully develop, this should be good news that they’re still firmly in contention. Instead, it shows a recurring problem in Dallas.

Leighton Vander Esch, Michael Gallup, Dorance Armstrong, and Dalton Schultz are the remaining 2018 draft picks on this Cowboys team. If this class really is at or near their ceiling, the Cowboys are asking a lot of players they’ve already seen for some time. Armstrong has big shoes to fill with Randy Gregory now in Denver, Gallup’s return from ACL surgery will be expected to ease the loss of Amari Cooper, and Schultz is virtually the Cowboys only receiving threat at tight end.

The Cowboys 2019 class should have slightly more time to develop, but only Tony Pollard was a real contributor in 2021. Trysten Hill has been just a rotational player at defensive tackle, Connor McGovern projects to be a backup guard, and Donovan Wilson has started just 13 games in three seasons.

NFL: JAN 16 NFC Wild Card - 49ers at Cowboys Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This puts much of the Cowboys faith in 2020 and 2021 rookies, though their trends suggest that fielding homegrown talent just for the sake of it doesn’t guarantee results. Trevon Diggs and CeeDee Lamb are high-end starters from the 2020 class, and a case can be made for all eleven 2021 picks to contribute in some way going forward. Led by Micah Parsons with promise from Osa Odighizuwa, Chauncey Golston, Nashon Wright, and Jabril Cox, the Cowboys are looking for more from Josh Ball, Simi Fehoko, Quinton Bohanna, and Israel Mukuamu. Add in the promise of Tyler Smith at left guard and Jalen Tolbert at wide receiver from this year’s draft, and it’s easy to see where the Cowboys are playing their cards for the present and future.

Former Cowboys draft picks also aren’t well represented here, putting further merit to the fact they overvalue internal free agents when these picks have expiring deals. The Texans saw 5.9% of their snaps come from Cowboys draftees, with this third place ranking being the highest Dallas gets on any roster.

The Cowboys current dependency on very recent draft picks has given pause for some of the fanbase because this has gone on for a while. While a gaudy 73.9% number here should mean they have late-round picks from years past still holding down starting spots, that simply hasn’t been how the Cowboys have drafted at any recent point. Landing just a few starters from each draft class doesn’t account for the rapid pace that team complexion changes from year to year.

Even just repeating as NFC East winners will be no easy task for the Cowboys in 2022, as no team has done so since 2004. The Giants, Eagles, and Commanders will also be relying on draft picks to compete with the Cowboys, but Dallas is putting even more trust in their drafted roster to hold them off.