Projecting Rookie Season for Dallas Cowboys' Top Draft Picks
The Dallas Cowboys’ 2014 draft was unique in that the range of possible outcomes for their top draft picks is quite wide. Realistically, we could see anywhere from zero to three draft picks starting for Dallas on opening day, assuming you count the No. 3 wide receiver as a starter.
Even so, this isn’t a draft class that’s likely to produce a whole lot in 2014. Remember, the Cowboys gave up their third-round pick to move up for Boise State defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, so that took away a potential impact rookie. The Cowboys got quality production from 2013 third-round pick Terrance Williams, so that’s something they could miss this season.
Looking at a combination of draft slots and probable roles on the team, let’s examine how much the Cowboys’ top four rookies can be expected to contribute right out of the gate.
OL Zack Martin
The key for first-round pick Zack Martin is not only whether or not he’ll land a starting job, but also where it will be. The most likely outcome is that Martin will play right guard in his first season, which is where he opened up rookie minicamp, according to ESPN Dallas.
Assuming Martin wins that job, which is probable given his draft slot and the mediocrity of veteran Mackenzy Bernadeau, we can use the numbers for the Cowboys guards in 2013 to project the rookie.
Last year, Bernadeau and veteran Brian Waters combined to allow 23 pressures and four sacks in a full season’s worth of snaps at right guard, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Left guard Ronald Leary had similar numbers with 27 pressures and five sacks allowed. That’s an average of 25 pressures and 4.5 sacks from the guards.
I’ve found that sacks tend to add up to around one-quarter of all pressures over the long run, with the rate for interior linemen being a little lower. Knowing that and projecting Martin to be an immediate upgrade over Bernadeau, we can effectively project him in the range of 20 pressures and four sacks allowed.
Final Projection: 20 pressures, 4.0 sacks allowed
DE Demarcus Lawrence
At this point, it’s looking like Demarcus Lawrence is going to be a starter for Dallas on the outside right out of the gate. Anthony Spencer could start the year on PUP, according to ESPN. Even if he doesn’t, Lawrence could just win a starting job.
Lawrence should immediately be a quality No. 2 rusher for Dallas. Over the past five seasons, the No. 2 pass-rusher in Dallas has averaged seven sacks and just over 50 tackles per year, with the numbers being quite consistent each year.
We need to expect some growing pains for Lawrence, but perhaps not all that many. You could argue that he’s already as good as Spencer was in his prime. The bigger issue is that, without a true No. 1 defensive end, there’s no one to eat up double-teams to give Lawrence consistent one-on-one matchups on the opposite side.
Final Projection: 40 tackles, 5.5 sacks
LB Anthony Hitchens
The Cowboys shocked a lot of people when they drafted linebacker Anthony Hitchens in the fourth round. Hitchens is a 6’0”, 240-pound player who ran a 4.74 in the 40-yard dash and jumped 31.5" vertically, according to NFL.com. He’s not an intimidating player from a physical standpoint, but he was productive at Iowa over the past two seasons with 236 total tackles, according to Sports Reference.
Hitchens isn’t likely to start in 2014. He’s most likely going to be the backup "Mike" linebacker behind Sean Lee, which means that he’s not going to see the field much outside of an injury. That’s perhaps expected from Lee, but at this point, we need to expect the majority of Hitchens’ production to come via special teams.
Final Projection: 12 tackles, 1.0 sack
WR Devin Street
It’s really difficult to project fifth-round wide receiver Devin Street because we have no idea what role he’s going to play this year. With two talented undrafted rookies in L’Damian Washington and Chris Boyd, it could be anywhere from the No. 3 receiver to not even making the team. Even if he beats out Washington and Boyd, Street still needs to compete with Cole Beasley and Dwayne Harris for playing time.
For this projection, I’m going to assume that Street will win the third receiver job. That’s perhaps unlikely or maybe a coin flip at best, but it’s somewhat necessary since his production will be very minimal if he doesn’t win the No. 3 job.
Last year, Terrance Williams posted a 44/736/5 line as a rookie playing as the third option, but there are reasons to believe that Street won’t come close to those numbers. First, Williams was an older rookie who was more prepared to play in the NFL. Second, he effectively became the Cowboys’ No. 2 wide receiver ahead of Miles Austin, which isn’t going to happen for Street.
The fifth-round rookie is also quite lean (198 pounds) despite his 6’3” frame, doesn’t have elite speed (4.55 seconds in the 40-yard dash, per NFL.com), and wasn’t all that productive at Pitt. Street never posted a 1,000-yard season, and his career high in touchdowns was just seven.
Street could certainly contribute more down the line—it’s not like he doesn’t have enough athleticism to play well in the NFL—but he’s unlikely to even approach Williams’ rookie numbers.
Final Projection (Assuming No. 3 Duties): 25 catches, 325 yards, Two TDs