Wednesday, May 04, 2016

How Are the Cowboys Drafting? A 2009-2015 Study

(from left) Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, Executive Vice President and Chief Brand Officer Charlotte Jones Anderson, Owner Jerry Jones, and Executive Vice President, CEO, and Director of Player Personnel Stephen Jones visit in the War Room before making their first pick before the NFL Draft gets underway at Valley Ranch Thursday, April 28, 2016. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News)
The Dallas Morning News
(from left) Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, Executive Vice President and Chief Brand Officer Charlotte Jones Anderson, Owner Jerry Jones, and Executive Vice President, CEO, and Director of Player Personnel Stephen Jones visit in the War Room before making their first pick before the NFL Draft gets underway at Valley Ranch Thursday, April 28, 2016. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News)
Over the weekend we had hours and hours of on-air discussions about the Cowboys' drafting acumen, which led to some rather dark places. I thought I would share with you some of the long-term data that we discovered to do with as you will. The idea is to be objective about a front office that is full of subjective takes. Everyone has an opinion on the Jones family, and in these parts it generally ranges from the Cowboys homer who will not admit anything is wrong ever, to the disenfranchised Cowboys fan who now thinks they can't do anything right no matter what.

That is why it is vital for us to find a way to take feelings out of any evaluation and just let the numbers speak for themselves.  
But, of course, that is difficult because this is football. How do we compare a QB with a guard?  How do we honestly compare a RB to a safety? This is rather impossible work, so we fall back on easy arguments which quickly dissolve into looking at the final record of each team to decide who has done everything right and who has not.
So, today, at the risk of using a methodology that may or may not pass the smell test with all involved, I wanted to try to cut through the silly arguments and just let the data speak for itself.
I started the sample at 2009 for two reasons (both of which may cause some debate). One, players drafted in 2009 are now in their late 20s, which keeps them relevant about where a team stands in 2016. If you go much earlier (2007), you will see most from that draft are no longer active -- 2009 is still plenty active in the league. The other reason is that it's the first draft that was completely comprised of a "Post-Jeff Ireland" front office.  He left in January of 2008 and the 2008 was partially using his commissioned work and a transitional stage through the draft.  I believe 2009 was the first Tom Ciskowski-only draft (which he remained "in charge" of the board through 2013 and the Sharrif Floyd incident), which preceded the Will McClay room from 2014-present.
That entire line of discussion is amusing to anyone who follows the Cowboys because we know that Tom Ciskowski and Will McClay are definitely in the room, but when it comes time to buy the groceries, they seem to get about the 5th heaviest vote behind Jerry, Stephen, Garrett, and whichever assistant coach is arguing the loudest (Somehow Rod Marinelli and Scott Linehan seem to be able to outrank McClay in the room at times, which is not something I would say is great news).
So, I used a 2009-2015 sample.  We can argue whether that is fair or not, but I had to choose something.
Then, I used two objective statistics to rank the different areas of the draft. Both are found at and are not perfect, but they have tried to figure out how to compare NFL players across positions and this is what they have come up with.  Starter seasons are calculated by basically figuring out which 22 players started the majority of the season for their given teams.  This is mostly an attendance check more than anything else, because being a starter for Jacksonville is not as difficult as being a starter in Seattle (we assume).  But, it gives us something to work with.  So, in each of these subcategories, how many "starter seasons" is this team getting from their picks?  You would like to think that early in the draft you are picking guys who will start lots of games for you (and thereby, lots of seasons). 
The other stat is more complex, but it is the football equivalent of baseball's wins above replacement (WAR). It is Career Approximate Value (CAV) and tries to calculate a player's value over the course of his career and assign a number to it.  You can read all about it here, but it is a pretty complicated theory -- but it is the best we currently have.  I used 20 as the cutoff with this complex formula as something that should denote a reasonable value for a player who has strongly contributed.  Great players exceed 100, so 20 is just the type of guy you would like to have on your team for several years.  Anthony Spencer was a 33, Anthony Fasano 22, and Bobby Carpenter finished with 10 Career Approximate Value.  So, about 20 is a multi-year starter and contributor. 
So, we are looking for SS (starter seasons) and 20+ CAV Players to measure the Cowboys success relative to the rest of the league.  I hope that makes some sense.  Also, keep in mind that someone draft in 2015 has not had enough time to build massive value.  So, everything is on a sliding scale from 2009-2015.  A team really improving in 2014-2015 may not have had time to see the results build up.
Now, let's get started.  I divided up the draft into four categories: 1st round, 2nd/3rd, 4th/5th, and 6th/7th.  You could look at it as follows:  You (I mean you) should be able to pick good players in Round 1.  Round 2 and 3 is where starters are found.  Round 4 and 5 is to build depth and special teams with the possibility of future starters.  And Round 6 and 7 is generally a long shot where shrewd teams can find value.  
Here is the full draft overview with these four categories. First, Starter Seasons. Blue is the Cowboys during this stretch and purple is the NFL average team.
So, you can see the four categories that make up the draft. Day 1 is Round 1, Day 2 is Rounds 2-3, and Day 3 is Rounds 4-5 and Rounds 6-7.  The Cowboys fan base has usually believed that the 1st round is where the Cowboys dominate with Dez Bryant, Travis Frederick, Tyron Smith, and Zack Martin.  Unfortunately, according to this, they are only hitting about average.  In Round 2-3, the Cowboys are dropping behind league average.  And Rounds 4-7 are abysmal.  The Cowboys since 2009 might as well not even draft on Day 3.  The league averages about 13 starter seasons per team on Day 3.  The Cowboys are getting 4.  
Now, let's look at how the Cowboys are collecting "CAV 20+" players against league average:
Here, they outperform the NFL in Round 1, but the rest of the league is finding 5 players per franchise in Rounds 2-7 where the Cowboys are finding just 2.  This is a problem.  
We often discuss how the Cowboys are so good at finding undrafted free agents.  Perhaps that is because it is easier to make their team because their draft picks on Day 3 are just ghosts.  
Below, please find the 38 players the Cowboys have taken on Day 3 of this era.  It gets ugly pretty fast:
Not everyone is Seattle, Green Bay, or Philadelphia on Day 3, but the Cowboys need to find a middle ground.  Interestingly enough, one of the better Day 3 teams was Jeff Ireland's Dolphins (before he got fired).  
Let's look at each group now.

Results from Round 1

Cowboys are tied for 20th best in 1st round.  And we thought they were elite.
Here, they are top 5 by finding four cornerstone players in the 1st round for this era. This is very strong work by the Cowboys.

Results from Rounds 2-3

Some good stories are in here, with solid value at times. But, they traded off too many of these picks and missed on too many more. So, the Cowboys are below league average in starter seasons from Day 2.
The two players they have drafted in this group that have exceeded 20 for CAV would be DeMarco Murray and Sean Lee.  But, the league gets more than three players here.  And, of course, DeMarco doesn't live here anymore.

Results from Rounds 4-5

Oh, boy. This is very bad. Anthony Hitchens started one season when Sean Lee hurt himself in OTAs. That is it. Not great, Bob.
So, as you might expect, if nobody is ever playing, there is no career value being built up. Complete zeros.

Results from Rounds 6-7

Here is an interesting number. The Cowboys actually have three starter seasons in Rounds 6-7. Care to guess? They are all 2nd tight end seasons. Two for James Hanna and one for John Phillips. So, basically, they really don't have any. The Cowboys will often run the first play in 12 personnel but then these guys hardly play. But, technically, these are the three "starter seasons."
Hardly anyone finds anything here, but the Eagles found Jason Kelce, the Panthers found Greg Hardy and the Seahawks JR Sweezy and Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith.


We can justify things to ourselves if we try, but the truth is that this current front office is not hitting the target often enough. I am guilty of feeling like they have improved, but we are going to need to see some more objective results before we congratulate anyone for getting this right.
The current report card does not suggest that the Cowboys are gaining ground on the powers. I know we often suggest that Jerry has a huge say on the first pick or two and then trusts his staff to fill out the draft card. That may or may not be true, but from Rounds 2-7 since 2009, the Cowboys are lagging well behind league average -- let alone the powers of the NFL draft game.
Let's hope the 2016 draft is better. 

1 comment:

Shawn said...

It seems awfully arbitrary to start your analysis in 2009, the draft handicapped by the Roy Williams trade. Your article would have been more interesting if you started in 2010, a year where the Cowboys had their full set of picks

...but I'm guessing if you started in 2010 that would have resulted in a conclusion showing the Cowboys are somewhere around league average and average doesn't move the needle in sports media.