Re-Grading Dallas Cowboys' Past 5 Drafts
The Dallas Cowboys take a lot of heat for turning in poor drafts. While they are far from the cream of the crop, forgoing analytics and instead drafting based on “the eye test,” the Cowboys have been far from the NFL’s worst drafting team, even in the past few years.
There are really two ways that we can grade drafts. The first is to do so immediately following the draft. Most people argue that’s shortsighted and that we need to see the prospects on the field.
However, that concept ignores the fact that the NFL draft is governed by probability. In the same way that it’s dumb to hit on 18 in blackjack even if you got 21 the last time you hit on 18, it’s not wise to repeat an action simply because it worked once or twice in the past.
If the Cowboys did everything right with a particular pick—bringing in the player who had the highest probability of producing and just not having it work out—we can’t say that they made a mistake. That’s like saying the person who stayed on 18 in blackjack but got beat made a mistake.
Sometimes, teams do everything right and have a “poor” draft, and sometimes they do everything wrong and happen upon a couple of Pro Bowl players. Thus, grading drafts immediately based on the probability of success makes some sense.
The other way to grade drafts, of course, is to analyze the actual careers of the players. Again, this doesn’t have much merit on the level of an individual draft because there’s so much inherent variance. But after awhile, teams start to accumulate enough data that we can actually use player performances to determine how well the teams are drafting.
The Cowboys might be lousy in the draft and still have an awesome class, or they might be awesome and turn in a stinker, but over the course of multiple seasons, they’ll come close to showing their true colors in the same way that the house always wins as you play more blackjack hands.
This article is meant to help determine if the Cowboys’ front office—the “house”—is a long-term winner.
Round 3: Jason Williams, LB, Western Illinois
Round 3: Robert Brewster, OT, Ball State
Round 4: Stephen McGee, QB, Texas A&M
Round 4: Victor Butler, DE, Oregon State
Round 5: DeAngelo Smith, CB, Cincinnati
Round 5: Michael Hamlin, S, Clemson
Round 5: David Buehler, K, USC
Round 6: Stephen Hodge, S, TCU
Round 6: John Phillips, TE, Virginia
Round 7: Mike Mickens, CB, Cincinnati
Round 7: Manuel Johnson, WR, Oklahoma
You know it’s a poor draft when you have 11 picks, and the best one turns out to be a kicker who doesn’t even kick field goals. In 2009, the Cowboys turned in one of the worst drafts in NFL history.
The team was hampered by not picking in the first or second round of the draft, but the fact that it basically missed on 11 straight selections is incredible.
The one player who could have been something special—Victor Butler—rarely saw playing time in Dallas. He was ultra-productive while on the field but was never really given an opportunity behind DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer.
Every player from the Cowboys’ 2009 draft class has been off of the team for a long time, and most are now out of the NFL.
Round 1: Dez Bryant, WR, Oklahoma State
Round 2: Sean Lee, LB, Penn State
Round 4: Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, CB/S, Indiana (PA)
Round 6: Sam Young, OT, Notre Dame
Round 6: Jamar Wall, CB, Texas Tech
Round 7: Sean Lissemore, DT, William & Mary
The Cowboys hit on their first two selections in the 2010 draft in a big way with wide receiver Dez Bryant and linebacker Sean Lee. Both players had concerns at the time—one with his character, and one with injuries—allowing them to represent value in the first and second rounds, respectively. Even though Lee hasn’t been able to remain healthy in the NFL, few would change that pick if they could go back in time.
The Cowboys missed on their other four selections, including on two cornerbacks. They moved Akwasi Owusu-Ansah to safety, although you have to wonder if he would have been better served staying at cornerback. The team has long been fascinated with undersized players at the position (Jamar Wall in this draft, DeAngelo Smith and Mike Mickens the season prior, Terence Newman years earlier, Orlando Scandrick in 2008, B.W. Webb in 2013 and so on) when they probably should be emphasizing size like they do with wide receivers.
Nonetheless, when you hit so well on your first- and second-rounders, you get a good grade.
Round 1: Tyron Smith, OT, USC
Round 2: Bruce Carter, LB, UNC
Round 3: DeMarco Murray, RB, Oklahoma
Round 4: David Arkin, G, Missouri State
Round 5: Josh Thomas, CB, Buffalo
Round 6: Dwayne Harris, WR, East Carolina
Round 7: Shaun Chapas, FB, Georgia
Round 7: Bill Nagy, C, Wisconsin
The 2011 NFL draft was one that suggested perhaps the Cowboys were on the right track. Yes, they hit on Bryant and Lee the previous year, but Bryant was a clear-cut talent, and Lee dropped too far because of his injury history.
In 2011, the Cowboys jumped on three players in offensive tackle Tyron Smith, linebacker Bruce Carter and running back DeMarco Murray who were favorites of stat geeks. Smith entered the NFL at age 20, so the fact that he dominated at USC at such a young age was a really strong sign he’d be a great pro. Carter and Murray were both weight/speed freaks; Murray in particular possessed all the signs of NFL success at the running back position—good straight-line speed and the ability to catch passes chief among them. Even the selection of cornerback Josh Thomas, although it didn’t work out, seemed like a good one.
Round 1: Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU
Round 3: Tyrone Crawford, DE, Boise State
Round 4: Kyle Wilber, DE/OLB, Wake Forest
Round 4: Matt Johnson, S, Eastern Washington
Round 5: Danny Coale, WR, Virginia Tech
Round 6: James Hanna, TE, Oklahoma
Round 7: Caleb McSurdy, LB, Montana
The Cowboys’ 2012 draft is a difficult one to grade because we’re still at the point where we’re trying to determine if a lot of these players are busts or not. Certainly, it seems like the trade for cornerback Morris Claiborne won’t work out in Dallas’s favor; not only did it give up its second-round pick, but it also drafted yet another undersized cornerback who was kind of doomed from the start. Everyone is hoping Claiborne can return to his college form, but what’s really special about him to suggest he’s going to break out?
Defensive ends Tyrone Crawford and Kyle Wilber, along with safety Matt Johnson, are all players the Cowboys are hoping make significant strides in 2014. It might be tough to jump on their bandwagon after seeing relatively nothing from them through two years, but all three players possess the traits you’d like to see at their respective positions. Crawford (size, length) and Johnson (size, speed) in particular are two big-time 2014 breakout candidates for Dallas.
Round 1: Travis Frederick, C, Wisconsin
Round 2: Gavin Escobar, TE, San Diego State
Round 3: Terrance Williams, WR, Baylor
Round 3: J.J. Wilcox, S, Georgia Southern
Round 4: B.W. Webb, CB, William & Mary
Round 5: Joseph Randle, RB, Oklahoma State
Round 6: DeVonte Holloman, LB, South Carolina
The smartest thing the Cowboys did in 2013 was trade down in the first round. Whether or not they reached on center Travis Frederick, the Cowboys were able to acquire an additional third-round pick. In any environment that possesses a lot of randomness, like the draft, the best course of action is to maximize opportunities. More picks typically equate to better drafts.
Not many people were thrilled with the selection of tight end Gavin Escobar, but he was pretty effective when he played in 2013 and has the potential to be dominant in the red zone. He should make large strides this season.
The pick that should have Dallas fans scratching their heads is that of running back Joseph Randle. Yes, Randle was a fifth-round pick, but running backs who weigh around 200 pounds with 4.63 speed shouldn’t really be drafted at all. Randle’s chances of NFL success, while not nonexistent, are slim, and Dallas should have known that.
Again, this is a wait-and-see draft class, but the overall early signs are positive.