Being in Houston for Super Bowl week is a time to get ready for the big game, but it is also a chance to reflect a little more on the Cowboys season that was (and get that 2017 draft notebook prepared).
So with Senior Bowl tape and prospects waiting, I wanted to use today to evaluate the 2016 rookie class a bit, now that is has a year's worth of miles on the tires.
Let's start here: I have spent 19 years covering the Dallas Cowboys and I have never seen a draft like this. I am reminded to not use superlatives when discussing this compared to great drafts in Cowboys history, or even NFL history, but we have to be honest -- this one seems historic. Time will be required for us to know where some of these guys go in their careers and we certainly have to consider that two of the top four picks have yet to play a single snap, but the excitement level from the 2016 draft is incredibly high.
Not only that, but as you watch the Pro Bowl festivities, or even just your random NFL Films summaries of what this season brought us, it seems pretty clear that the league is infatuated with Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott. They not only play well, but they play with an attractiveness that suggests people are tuning in for them. They are interesting and have something extra that makes them, potentially, the next big thing in the NFL. They are at least the flavor of the month, for sure. We can only imagine how nuts Super Bowl week would have been had they gone all the way to that point as rookies.
Instead, the playoff one-and-done will have to serve as the opening chapter of their book and the adversity that drove them to greater heights in the seasons to follow. (We think.)
But sometimes, we need to look at raw numbers. And that is why snap counts are a statistic that is very useful these days. The first time I remember them cited was less than a decade ago, but it is certainly incredibly useful information when you consider what NFL teams deal with to make sure they have quality on the field.
Each game averages out to about 65 offensive snaps. So, 65 on offense and 65 more on defense is 130 plays per game. Then you multiply it by 11 players on the field for each snap and 16 regular season games, and you arrive at a number between 45,000 and 50,000 snaps per season each team needs to have accounted for.
Consider that some years you don't draft rookies who are good enough to play right away. You have developmental players -- or, perhaps you are lucky enough to have a roster with no vacancies, so rookies are all drafted as backups or special team players (the disaster that was the 2009 draft).
But in 2016, the Cowboys drafted so well that they had instant starters at some of the most important positions, including, of course, the most important position. I cannot stress how much the development of Dak Prescott will affect every thought about this draft. Let's be honest, Zeke at No. 4 is exactly the type of player you would want to get at No. 4. If you got ordinary at that spot, you would hear about it for years. But they got extraordinary.
Now, with Prescott and the huge potential of linebacker Jaylon Smith, the sky seems like the limit for this group, to perhaps do something like the Seahawks' drafts of 2010-2012, when they basically built a multiple-Super Bowl team by hitting on guys in April at key positions, well past the first round, for three straight years.
And when you fill in the other spots with guys like Maliek Collins, Charles Tapper and Anthony Brown, you might actually get six key players from one draft. That would be an amazing haul. And you still have a few late-round lottery tickets, like tight end Rico Gathers, to wait and see on heading into camp next season.
But this post is about raw numbers, as opposed to judging quality. As in, how much did your rookie class help you?
First, we need to know how many players are contributing. Again, this will never be on equal footing, because every year brings challenges. Bad teams play more rookies and so do injured teams. Good teams don't need them as much, in general. So we can't always throw a parade for using rookies. It generally means your year is going poorly.
ROOKIES WHO PLAYED 1 SNAP EACH YEAR: 2012-16
So here is the quantity-versus-quality argument. Playing nine rookies means the wheels on your season fell way off. You get tons of total snaps from rookies, but did you build your next foundation? Doubtful. This season, the Cowboys weren't pulling rookies off the street just to play them. They played just five of them.
Now let's measure 500-snap rookies:
ROOKIES WHO PLAYED 500 SNAPS EACH YEAR: 2012-16
This is the list you should care about. These are guys who became starters. In 2012, it was Morris Claiborne. In 2013, Travis Frederick, Terrance Williams, J.J. Wilcox and Jeff Heath all broke 500 snaps. In 2014, it was Zack Martin and Anthony Hitchens. In 2015, it was Byron Jones and La'el Collins.
But, in 2016, you had Elliott, Prescott, Collins and Brown. Kevon Frazier was the only rookie to play but not reach 500 snaps. That is astounding.
So let's circle back to the very top and find out how many total snaps are being handled by the rookie class:
TOTAL SNAPS BY ROOKIE CLASSES FROM 2012-16
So, you see, in a year when the Cowboys had very few injuries, they also had a ton of rookie snaps played. Not as many as in 2013, but in 2013, the injuries were everywhere.
The takeaway? This draft was amazing. You already knew that, but the idea that Smith and Tapper didn't play at all has you wondering if the 2016 class would have easily cleared 4,000 snaps this season and still helped put together a 13-3-type of year.
Play the rookies a ton and still win all the games? That makes you think 2017-20 could be pretty a special time around here.