The Right Way (And Right Time) To Evaluate An NFL Draft

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As of this writing, we are nearing the end of Day 3 (rounds 4-7) of the NFL’s Annual Selection Meeting for 2021, otherwise known as the 2021 NFL Draft.

I will spare my readers unnecessary explanations on how the NFL Draft works because I assume anyone reading this post already knows how the NFL Draft works, either because they follow the league, or are a diehard fan of the NFL.

Today’s post will examine a phenomenon that I observe and note every draft weekend…

The overwhelming overreaction by fans over every pick their favorite team makes, especially in the early rounds (rounds 1-3).

Whether that reaction is one of joy or angst, it’s rather shortsighted and a little silly to judge a slate of draft picks during the conduct of the draft, much less passing judgment on a pick by pick basis.

Typically, fans will get overly excited, overly disappointed, or overly critical about the picks their favorite team makes, either because they heard of the player picked and think he is great because he played great in college, or get upset and accuse their favorite team of “reaching”, meaning the team took a player too early in the draft, usually to fill a perceived need. This sentiment is usually expressed by fans via the oft-stated comment “I never heard of him”, implying the player taken must not be very good or will not make an impact on the field right away, if ever.

The video below from the YouTube channel of a Dallas Cowboys fan that I follow illustrates this point rather succinctly:

The video captures the overreaction, hopeful judgment, and pessimistic criticism by fans in every draft.

While it’s fun to speculate and argue with friends over adult beverages about every draft choice, the day of the draft, or even the day after a draft ends, is the wrong time to evaluate whether a team had a good draft.

The best time to evaluate a draft class is three years later.

Three years is roughly the average length of an NFL player’s career. If that player is still on the roster of the team that drafted him three years earlier and is still contributing or had a great career during his run with the team, then the team drafted well that given year.

Let’s examine three draft classes by the Dallas Cowboys for 2018, 2017, and 2016, so three years ago all the way back to five years ago.

2018 Dallas Cowboys draft class:

1. Leighton Vander Esch LB. Still on roster as a starter

2. Connor Williams OT. Still on roster as a starter

3. Michael Gallup WR. Still on roster as a third WR. Major contributor to team offense.

4. Dorance Armstrong, Jr. DE. Still on roster as a backup player

5. Dalton Schultz TE. Still on roster. Contributing. Starting TE during 2020 season.

6. Mike White QB. On New York Jets roster as a backup.

7. Chris Covington LB. On Indianapolis Colts practice squad. Release by Cowboys in 2019.

8. Cedrick Wilson, Jr. WR. Still on active roster.

9. Bo Scarborough RB. Released by Cowboys in 2018. Currently on Jacksonville Jaguars practice squad.

2018 draft yielded three starters still on the team, one major contributor still on the team, and only three players no longer on the team, all of whom are still in the league in some capacity.

2017 Dallas Cowboys draft class:

1. Taco Charlton DE. Released by the Cowboys in 2019. Currently on roster of the Kansas City Chiefs.

2. Chidobe Awuzie CB. Released this offseason by the Cowboys. Currently on the roster of the Cincinnati Bengals.

3. Jourdan Lewis CB. Currently on the Cowboys active roster and just signed to a new three year contract.

4. Ryan Switzer WR. Traded away by Dallas in 2018. Currently on the active roster of the Cleveland Browns.

5. Xavier Woods S. Not resigned in the 2021 offseason. Signed by the Minnesota Vikings.

6. Marquez White CB. Waived by the Cowboys in 2018. Currently out of the NFL.

7. Joey Ivie DT. Waived by the Cowboys in 2017. Released by the Cleveland Browns in 2021. Currently out of the league.

8. Noah Brown WR. Currently on the Cowboys active roster. Contributing on offense and special teams.

9. Jordan Carrell DT. Waived at the end of the 2017 season. Out of the league.

This draft can be considered a minor bust as only two players out of nine are still with the Cowboys (neither are starters), but seven of the nine players taken are still in the league.

2016 Dallas Cowboys draft class:

1. Ezekiel Elliott RB. Starting running back, signed to mega deal in 2019.

2. Jaylon Smith LB. Starting outside linebacker, signed to mega deal in 2018.

3. Maliek Collins DT. Left Dallas as a free agent in 2020. Currently on a one-year deal with the Houston Texans.

4. Charles Tapper DE. Released by the Cowboys in 2018. Retired from football in 2020.

5. Dak Prescott QB. Starting quarterback. Signed to mega deal in 2021.

6. Anthony Brown CB. Still on Cowboys active roster.

7. Kavon Frazier S. Released by the Cowboys in 2019. Currently with the Miami Dolphins.

8. Darius Jackson RB. Currently an unsigned free agent. Last on Indianapolis Colts practice squad. Frequently invited to Cowboys training camps at various positions.

9. Rico Gathers TE. Released by the Cowboys in 2018. Released by the Cleveland Browns in 2019. Currently out of the league.

The 2016 Cowboys draft yielded three starters who are each still major contributors to the team and one contributor on defense still on the roster. This is a successful draft.

This kind of examination is far more revealing than the instant response and analysis we get from fans, the media, and sports experts alike on draft day.

I wonder what fans thought about the 199th pick in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft back then and what they think about that pick now?

-The Rational Ram

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