The Dallas Cowboys made nine selections in the 2017 NFL Draft this past weekend, with seven of those being on the defensive side of the ball. What the front office was saying in the lead up to the draft rang true; this draft set up well for them to draft defense.
With the additions of the nine draft picks, there will be some pretty great training camp competitions this year. While many think as many as three of the new rookies will start come week one of the NFL season, I think it’s more likely that it doesn’t happen.
In Jason Garrett’s tenure as head coach, rookie draft picks rarely show up for week one as the starters. The exceptions to that rule are Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and the offensive line.
Pro Football Reference lists each team’s starters year by year, based on who started the most at a given position. Based on that reference material, let’s look at how often a Jason Garrett-coached team has started a rookie.
2016 – Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Anthony Brown, and Maliek Collins
Ezekiel Elliott was a day one starter because he was the best option for the job coming out of training camp. Incumbent Darren McFadden was on the Non-Football Injury list and had he been healthy, would have likely been a reserve anyway. Alfred Morris didn’t and doesn’t have the same ability as Elliott. That one was a no-brainer.
Dak Prescott, Anthony Brown, and Maliek Collins all are listed as players that started for the Dallas Cowboys in 2016 and all were due to injury.
Prescott took over for the now-retired, but then injured, Tony Romo.
Anthony Brown filled in for Orlando Scandrick in the slot and for Morris Claiborne on the outside throughout the season.
Collins didn’t start the season as the starter and only saw 17 snaps (30%) in the opener against the New York Giants. By the end of the season though, he was seeing greater than 60% of the snaps on a regular basis.
2015 – La’el Collins
La’el Collins was the only rookie to start for the Dallas Cowboys in 2015, according to Pro Football Reference, but again, he didn’t begin the season as the starter. He actually didn’t even play in the season opener.
It wasn’t until week two that he was inserted into the starting lineup, for Ronald Leary.
2014 – Zack Martin and Anthony Hitchens
2014 marked the beginning of a career that is going to be littered with 1st Team All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors; that was when Zack Martin was inserted as a day-one starter on the Dallas Cowboys offensive line.
This was just a continuation of the rebuild of the offensive line that had been taking place over the previous several years. He was a no-brainer day-one starter then.
Anthony Hitchens was the other rookie considered a starter. A closer look at his game-by-game snap counts reveal that he didn’t start until week 3. The first two weeks of the season, he only played 8.6% and 16.3% of the defensive snaps respectively. Eventually he became a regular player for the defense, but he still wasn’t THE established middle linebacker for another season or two.
2013 – Travis Frederick and Jeff Heath
Travis Frederick, like Zack Martin above, earned his starting job during training camp and became a week one starter and the team hasn’t looked back since. He’s been everything they hoped he’d be when the team selected him in the first round in 2013.
Frederick has brought an intelligence, leadership, and stability to the offensive line that has allowed them to become the best unit in the league.
Jeff Heath was also listed as a starter for the Dallas Cowboys, according to Pro Football Reference. Heath, though he is the GOAT, struggled to find regular playing time until midway through the 2013 season.
Heath didn’t see more than 30% of the defensive snaps until week eight of the season and that was related more to the ineffectiveness of the defensive backfield that gave Heath a shot.
Heath is now getting a chance to compete for a starting safety spot in this, his fourth year.
2012 – Morris Claiborne
Morris Claiborne was the lone rookie from the 2012 draft class to be a full-time, day-one starter.
I think it’s safe to say that his draft position helped during that season, because in 2013 we saw Orlando Scandrick become the other starting corner in base situations — alongside Brandon Carr — and Claiborne was brought in during nickel situations.
Claiborne was the beneficiary of being the sixth overall pick and, while his game got a lot better as his time with the Cowboys went on, it was rough in those early years. He struggled with confidence and injuries. Perhaps he was forced into the lineup a bit too soon.
2011 – Tyron Smith and Dan Bailey
In Jason Garrett’s first campaign as the head coach for America’s team, two players started for them as rookies. Those two players have the look of being potential Hall of Famers: Tyron Smith and Dan Bailey.
Tyron Smith’s selection in the top-10 of the 2011 NFL Draft started the overhaul of the Cowboys offensive line that is now the best in the NFL. Smith started on the right side of the line, then in his second year switched with Doug Free to the left tackle spot.
Dan Bailey has been darn near automatic for the Cowboys through the years and has been either #1 or #2 in the HISTORY of the NFL in field goal percentage.
What It Means for the 2017 Rookie Class
There has been an infusion of talent on both sides of the football. Taco Charlton, Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Xavier Woods, and Marquez White are all set to compete for defensive snaps for the Dallas Cowboys.
The problem is where are they going to get them?
Charlton could be a day one starter along the defensive line, but I think he is going to have to earn it. The line is deep with veterans and second year player Charles Tapper is coming back as well.
The defensive backfield may have some turnover this year, but if we know anything about the current group, it’s a competitive bunch.
Anthony Brown, Orlando Scandrick, and Nolan Carroll make up a solid veteran group that isn’t going to give anything to anyone. Jeff Heath has been solid throughout his career and has experience. The coaching staff and front office are hoping Heath will seize the safety spot alongside Byron Jones.
While it’s easy to begin penciling rookies into the starting lineup, as Coach Garrett told each rookie, there’s a lot of work to do.
They’re gonna have to earn everything.