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2023 Cowboys rookie class snap counts fell way short of most previous rookie classes

This season’s rookie class was... not great.

NFL: AUG 15 Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Photo by Brandon Sloter/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A few days ago, our own David Howman posted his 2023 Cowboys rookie report in which he took a look at the contribution of the 2023 rookie class. And I’m not spilling any secrets when I say that that contribution was nothing to write home about.

There are many different ways of evaluating the impact, success, and quality of a rookie class, though most of them in some form or another revolve around early impact and the number of starters drafted.

In any rookie class, you’re looking for immediate contribution from your early picks, and perhaps hoping for some additional contribution from your late-round picks. In the medium term, it’s widely held that a good draft class yields two solid starters, even if they are not necessarily expected to be starters in their first season.

For our purposes today, we’ll use the 2023 rookie class snap count to evaluate their first-year contribution and to compare this class to previous rookie classes.

2023 Rookie Class
POS Name Total Snaps Total Starts Drafted
DT Mazi Smith 308 3 1st
TE Luke Schoonmaker 387 -- 2nd
LB DeMarvion Overshown -- -- 3rd
DE Junior Fehoko -- -- 4th
OL Asim Richards 39 -- 5th
CB Eric Scott Jr. -- -- 6th
RB Deuce Vaughn 61 -- 6th
WR Jalen Brooks 77 -- 7th
OG T.J. Bass 343 2 UDFA
FB Hunter Luepke 154 -- UDFA
LB Tyrus Wheat 16 -- UDFA
Rookie totals 1,385 5
In % of team total 5.2% 1.3%

The 2023 draft class combined for 1,385 snaps on offense and defense over 18 games, which adds up to 5.2% of all Cowboys offensive and defensive snaps over those 18 games. That’s pretty low, even accounting for the season-ending injuries suffered by some of the draft picks. But the number of starts is eyebrow-raisingly low for this draft class, with just five starts across all rookies.

So how do the snap counts above compare to those of previous rookie classes? The title of this post already gave it away, the snap counts for the 2023 rookie class fall way short of most previous rookie classes. Here are the Cowboys rookie class snap percentages since 2007:

'07 '08 '09 '10 '11 '12 '13 '14 '15 '16 '17 '18 '19 '20 '21 '22 '23
Rookie snaps in % 3.8% 6.7% 1.5% 6.9% 8.5% 6.5% 15.3% 9.5% 10.0% 13.5% 10.6% 10.2% 2.4% 14.0% 9.7% 12.5% 5.2%

For this analysis, let’s assume that adding the equivalent of two starters (or 9.0% of all snaps) to the roster is a good target for a rookie class. By that measure the data here suggests the Cowboys had some really bad draft classes between 2007-2012, but things started looking up in 2013, and have been mostly green since Will McClay took over the Cowboys drafts in 2014, the occasional glitch (2019) notwithstanding.

But the 2023 draft class is the worst since at least 2019 and possibly the worst since the infamous “special teams draft” of 2009. The Cowboys gave up their 2019 first-round pick for Amari Cooper, and if I were to add his snaps to the 2019 total, that snap percentage would climb to 5.8%. Not much better than the 2023 class, but better. So does the 2023 class still count as a glitch, or is it more than that?

It’s not looking good so far, but it’s still too early to tell of course. It takes more than a weak rookie season to determine the value of a draft class. Three years (and sometimes even more) is the standard often used to fully evaluate a rookie class. Which is why we’re now going to look at how the snap percentages of each season’s rookie class have progressed over the years.

The snap data I have available only goes back to 2007, which leaves some gaps in the table below, but that’s probably as far back in Cowboys history as we’d want to go anyway.

What this allows us to do is look at how different rookie classes performed in terms of snap percentage in each of their first five years in the league, which I’ve summarized in the table below. To make the table easier to read, it is color-coded as follows:

Blue = 3 or more starters (>13.5% of all snaps)

Green = 2-3 starters (9.0%-13.5%)

Yellow = 1-2 starters (4.5%-9.0%)

Red = less than 1 starter (<4.5%)

Class Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 Year 5
2005 - - - - 16.9% 16.3% 11.7%
2006 - - 8.8% 3.6% 7.7% 7.6%
2007 3.8% 7.1% 9.3% 13.0% 10.8%
2008 6.7% 10.9% 11.9% 9.4% 4.6%
2009 1.5% 0.9% 3.6% 4.6% 0.0%
2010 6.9% 14.2% 11.7% 11.3% 7.9%
2011 8.5% 10.9% 11.6% 10.9% 4.5%
2012 6.5% 11.5% 12.5% 11.7% 11.3%
2013 15.3% 14.8% 14.1% 11.9% 11.3%
2014 9.5% 12.8% 9.0% 10.3% 7.0%
2015 10.0% 10.8% 14.2% 15.4% 7.8%
2016 13.5% 17.2% 19.3% 16.8% 11.0%
2017 10.6% 13.4% 12.3% 10.0% 5.3%
2018 12.1% 10.4% 16.7% 16.1% 11.3%
2019 2.4% 10.5% 5.4% 10.2% 6.4%
2020 14.0% 16.7% 18.0% 16.1% - -
2021 9.7% 11.0% 7.7% - - - -
2022 12.5% 21.9% - - - - - -
2023 5.2% - - - - - - - -
Red <= 1 starter, Yellow = 1-2 starters, Green = 2-3 starters, Blue = >3 starters

The first thing you may notice as you scan the colors is that rookie season snap counts fluctuate wildly. We see the pre-McClay sea of yellow and red from 2007-2012, and then things start to solidify from 2013 onward, with two glaring exceptions in 2019 and 2023.

You may also notice a similar fluctuation in year five. The fifth-year drop in playing time contribution is largely due to the way rookie contracts are structured. Most players reach free agency after four years and can then move on to other teams, so a drop in snaps is to be expected. But that drop can also mean that the players from that rookie class simply weren’t good enough to warrant a second contract, or turned out to be too expensive to retain.

And look at that 2022 rookie class: The second year of the 2022 rookie class is the first to exceed the 20% mark in the entire matrix above. Some observers were poo-pooing the Cowboys draft class at the time, but it delivered two All-Pros and four starters for the Cowboys last year in Tyler Smith, DaRon Bland, Jake Ferguson and Damone Clark, and there’s hope yet for Jalen Tolbert and Sam Williams (outside of special teams, all hope is lost there). Add UDFA Markquese Bell and the Cowboys came away with quite the rookie class.

But of special interest for us today is year two in the table above. What we see there is that the numbers overall get better and more consistent in the second year of each rookie class, where the Cowboys have hit the 2+ starter mark every year since 2010 (even in 2019!). Also since 2010, the rookie classes show a sea of mostly green and blue in years three and four, which is exactly how you want it to be.

Does that mean there’s hope for the 2023 class yet?

  • The data here says “yes”, so that’s one reason for optimism.
  • Injuries are another: DeMarvion Overshown, Junior Fehoko, and pre-season standout UDFA TE John Stevens all should be back from injury in 2024 and should add to the snap total.
  • Another one: Despite his high draft pedigree, nobody expected Mazi Smith to be an immediate starter, but he could be a candidate for that famous year-two leap.

Will that be enough to pass the three-starter threshold in 2024? Tell us in the poll below.

Poll

How many starters will Cowboys eventually get out of the 2023 rookie class?

This poll is closed

  • 6%
    4 or more
    (28 votes)
  • 28%
    3
    (113 votes)
  • 37%
    2
    (150 votes)
  • 27%
    Less than 2
    (110 votes)
401 votes total Vote Now

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