Based on the last five drafts, new Dallas Cowboys cornerback Byron Jones will outperform most of his late-first round peers if as a rookie he is on the field for more than half the team’s snaps. Such are the realities of picking late in the first round, according to data gleaned from Pro Football Reference.
The Cowboys hit paydirt with their past two late-first round picks, wide receiver Dez Bryant (trade up to 24th overall in 2010) and center Travis Frederick (trade down to 31st overall in 2013). Bryant has developed into an All-Pro and Frederick made the Pro Bowl his second year in the league.
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But Bryant’s contributions as a rookie were limited, making just two starts and playing only 332 snaps in an injury-shortened season. While Jones is an electric athlete and may well develop into a dependable playmaker, what should we expect from him as a rookie?
One way to guess (let’s call it what it is, y’all) is to look at the rookie contributions of other late-first round draft picks and see if there are any patterns. I went to Pro Football Reference and pulled data from the last five drafts, 2010-2014, looking specifically at players taken in the bottom third of the first round.
Of the 65 players taken with picks 20-32 in the past five NFL drafts:
- 42 started at least 4 games as a rookie (64.6 percent)
- 30 started at least 8 games (46.2 percent)
- 25 started at least 12 games (38.5 percent)
- 16 started 16 games or more (playoffs) (24.6 percent)
So fewer than half the late-first round picks started at least half their teams’ games, but about one in four started all their teams’ games.
Obviously players can contribute without starting, so I looked at rookie snap counts on Pro Football Focus to see how much these draft selections saw the field:
- 34 played 500 snaps or more (52.3 percent)
- 24 played 700 snaps or more (36.9 percent)
- 17 played fewer than 250 snaps (26.2 percent)
Consider there are roughly 1,000 snaps in a season. So more than half the players were on the field for around half the team’s snaps, and one in four saw very limited action.
Finally, how well did they play as rookies? That’s hard to quantify but we can get a general idea from this data:
- 21 ended their rookie season with a positive rating from PFF (32.3 percent)
- 18 were named to the PFWA All-Rookie Team (27.7 percent)
- Four were Pro Bowlers as rookies (6.2 percent)
The reality is that Travis Frederick is something of an outlier, and finding Day-1 starters late in the first round is hard to do. Perhaps all it really comes down to is the quality of the organization – do they know how to evaluate talent, and once they have it how well can they develop it.
New England frequently picks late in the first round, if they don’t trade out of the round altogether. In this five-year sample they took four players, and three of them started at least 14 games as rookies – cornerback Devin McCourty (2010), defensive end Chandler Jones (2012) and linebacker Dont’a Hightower (2012).
Just 21 of these 65 draft picks started at least 14 games as a rookie – 32.3 percent. Seventy five percent of New England head coach Bill Belichick’s late-round picks did so. All were valuable contributors. McCourty intercepted seven passes as a rookie and made the Pro Bowl.
He was taken with the 27th pick, just like Jones. McCourty-Jones comparisons are already popping up. This Cowboys war room may not have the street cred of Belichick’s crew, but it has earned the benefit of the doubt over the past five drafts. The data may say impact rookie starters are rare around the 27th pick, but the Cowboys are one of those teams that has shown they can find them.