It feels like every offseason the Dallas Cowboys are up to their old tricks. Chicanery that includes being super thrifty in free agency while at the same time investing in their own guys. This offseason in particular feels a little different as the front office took a slightly different approach. Rather than spending sizeable money on a few players, the team spread the wealth and re-signed several of their own guys, including re-investing in some of last year’s outside free agent signings who were brought to Dallas on one-year deals. Players like Jayron Kearse, Malik Hooker, Bryan Anger, and Carlos Watkins all took on big roles last season and played themselves into a second contract with the Cowboys.
The team also re-signed a good portion of their 2018 draft class who entered free agency this year. Six of their draft picks from this class played through their rookie deals, with four of them returning for at least one more season with the Cowboys. Only Connor Williams and Cedrick Wilson Jr. left for bigger money with another team (Miami) whereas Leighton Vander Esch, Michael Gallup, Dorance Armstrong, and Dalton Schultz are sticking around.
The contribution of the 2018 draft class got us thinking about how they compare to previous draft classes. Today, we’re going to run through ten of the Cowboys' previous drafts where players have had a chance to play through their rookie deal (drafts include 2009-2018). Ten years is a nice sampling, plus the 2009 season also serves as the first year Will McClay came on board as the Cowboys Pro Scouting Coordinator. The reason we are stopping at 2018 is that none of the other draft classes have made it through their rookie deals just yet.
We are interested in comparing how many total games were played by each of these draft classes, how many players played through their rookie deals, and how many of those players were brought back on a second contract. Here is the raw data from these drafts with players who made it through their rookie deal highlighted in blue.
We have found this to be a very underrated draft class. Initially, it was the Wolf-Hunter Leighton Vander Esch who was the prize of the draft, but strangely he’s the cheapest of the four players the Cowboys brought back from this group. The team got contributions across the board from key starters to valuable role players/special teamers.
While the team did have four players who were serviceable through their rookie deal, they were lacking any big splash makers. The disappointment of Taco Charlton highlighted this class as he didn’t even make it into his third season with the team. Jourdan Lewis and Noah Brown are still around, Lewis a starter and Brown a reserve at their respective positions.
One of the best draft classes in Cowboys history, the 2016 group is quite impressive. Starting with landing your new franchise quarterback in the fourth round, the team acquired quite the list of key starters, including Ezekiel Elliott and Anthony Brown who are still with the team. Even players who didn’t re-sign with the team provided valuable contributions during their rookie deal.
This is a weird class as there were good players selected, but the team never was able to maximize their value. With Byron Jones misused his first few years in the league, the team only benefited from two strong seasons at cornerback. Randy Gregory also missed a lot of time including two full seasons where he was suspended. Both Jones and Gregory left for a bigger payday in free agency.
The Cowboys didn’t get a lot of players in this draft, but they got some good quality. After “settling” for Zack Martin in round one, they moved up to snag DeMarcus Lawrence early in round two. Both these players have been fantastic players for the Cowboys.
The team got a lot of games from this draft class but didn’t get much else after their rookie deals. Only Travis Frederick and Terrance Williams got second contracts, but even those were cut short, each for different circumstances.
The Cowboys traded away their second-round pick so they could get LSU star cornerback Morris Claiborne and that didn’t turn out so great. Not only did he underperform, but it’s been mentioned repeatedly that the Cowboys would have used that second-round pick to select eventual All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner. The team re-upped Tyrone Crawford and got some quality special teams play from James Hanna and Kyle Wilber.
The Cowboys got some good contributions from the first couple of days of this draft that featured two All-Pros in Tyron Smith and DeMarco Murray. Smith was the only one from this class who was given a second contract with the team as he signed an eight-year deal with the team when he was just 24 years old. Murray and Dwayne Harris left for more money to play with NFC East rivals.
The Cowboys got Dez Bryant and Sean Lee from this draft and that’s all. Both players earned All-Pro honors although it didn’t happen until after their rookie deals. Health was a big issue for both of them and eventually shortened their careers. This draft class has the fewest contribution of games which isn’t all that surprising considering they only selected six players.
Known as the “special teams draft” there is not much to see here. Only Victor Butler (shout out to Oregon State!) survived his rookie deal with the team. Even though this draft class has 12 total picks (three more than the next highest), they still only managed 177 games of contribution which is second-worst from this 10-year list, ahead of the 2010 class who selected half as many players.
How do these draft classes stack up? Let’s first take a look at the total games played through their rookie deal for each year.
Not surprisingly, the 2016 draft class is the cream of the crop; however, 2018 is not that far behind.
Looking at the number of total players who played through the entirety of their rookie deal shows both the 2016 and 2018 draft classes ahead of the pack with six players.
Finally, if we examine how many of these draft picks were signed to second contracts, again the 2016 and 2018 draft classes are atop the list. The 2012 draft class also comes away with four players here, but it’s important to note that the only real investment went into Tyrone Crawford as Claiborne, Hanna, and Wilber all got cheap short-term extensions.
When you look at all of this collectively, it highlights further how well the Cowboys did in the 2018 draft. Even the players they lost in free agency, Connor Williams and Cedrick Wilson Jr., got healthy second contracts that should yield some compensatory draft picks.
And when you look at players like Gallup and Armstrong who could benefit even more after some key players left this offseason, or what could become of Schultz, we could still be talking about this draft class being even more valuable years down the road.