Right now there is talk among the Cowboys faithful that if Kyle Pitts is available the Dallas Cowboys “have” to pick him. The thought is the team can simply fill the defensive needs in the remaining rounds. Let’s dive a little into this thought and the success rate for positions of need for the Cowboys.
First, over the past decade or so, the Cowboys have let positions like defensive tackle and safety be filled with later-round picks and the lack of talent has been rather apparent. While they have invested in corner, edge, and linebacker, the defense has not come together well enough to help the team over the hump with some pretty elite offenses along the way.
Are the Dallas Cowboys going to play the odds in the 2021 NFL Draft?
Now, we won’t get into WAR (Wins Above Replacement) too deeply, which places running back and linebacker as the lowest valued positions in the NFL. But it is of note looking at how teams values certain positions.
Needless to say, many of the questions about how the front office is building the team have been raised. A focus on the middle rounds has been a key for the front office at many positions, but as we will see, it may be the wrong positions, just looking at the odds.
To understand the percentages used we are referring to starter-level players. We are not talking about the outliers or league “average” in terms of grades or rankings. Simply put, the numbers shown refer to what is considered starter quality. The higher you pick the higher the chance to find an elite player and the lower players are drafted the odds of them playing and showing their quality plummets.
Dallas Cowboys: Cornerback
The first position we will look at when it comes to defense is cornerback. To find a starter really only happens in the first two rounds. In the first round, the potential is at 75% and the second round sits at around 40%, the rate drops to the high 20s in the third, and low 20s in the fourth, and plummets after that.
That means if the Cowboys, who need a boundary corner want a higher chance at an upper-level starter, the first or second round are the rounds to pull the trigger in.
Dallas Cowboys: Safety
The next position the Cowboys might want to address is safety. Here, the rates in the first round sit at almost 60% and fall to the mid-40s to upper 30s for the next two rounds. From the fourth round on, the rates start to drop again and flatten out in the fifth round.
For a team like the Cowboys, who have been averse to drafting a safety early, they have decided to go against the odds and aim for the lower chance to hit in the fourth and fifth round.
Dallas Cowboys: Linebacker
The linebacker position is one of serious debate around the NFL. In the 80s and through the early 2000s, the linebacker position was seen as a huge key to the defense. However, over the last decade or two, the value has dropped.
When looking at the rates here, the rates stay pretty flat through the first four rounds. The first round has a rate of 47%, but rounds two through four sit fairly stagnant at 44%, 40%, and 36% with almost no difference between run and pass support. While the above-median drops into the fifth, the first four rounds show you can find a pretty similar linebacker in both run and pass support.
Dallas Cowboys: Defensive Tackle
The last position we will look at here is defensive tackle. Interestingly if a team needs more run support rather than pass rush the odds are slightly different. For pass-rushing teams can find an over 40% chance into the third round.
However, if they need run support, through the second round is where you keep your odds above 40%. So again, for a team that has decided to not look for interior run support early, this could be an indicator of some of the issues.
Dallas Cowboys: The Big Picture
Now, for reference to the discussion of tight end in regards to Pitts, the numbers tell us that in the first round a receiving tight end sits at 55%, however, the drop from the first to the third is small as in the third it is only 36%. The curve all the way through the seventh actually stays fairly flat. For a run-blocking tight end, the numbers tell us you can find one in every round with an almost flat rate.
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Now, I would be remiss if I did not say that there are absolutely players that look to be better than others. Pitts is widely considered a generational talent at the position. However, the point here is that to fill needs and raise the likelihood of certain positions being high caliber draft capital should look earlier. This is simply speaking to playing the odds of position, of course, tape and individual player evaluation matters.
So what should the Cowboys do? Well, the answer will be debated all the way up to the draft, as it is every year. What the Cowboys can not afford to do is to have a huge need heading into the draft and not allow themselves to pick the best player available and “have” to pick specific positions because they didn’t address it.
At some point, the Cowboys have to add talent to fix their defense. There is a higher chance to add that talent earlier in the draft and some positions like corner and safety rely on the first two rounds more than others. For more information on the rates brought up in this article you can find the PFF articles on offense here and defense here. There is also a great article about starting level players, positions, and rounds, here.