Impact of new analytics department felt in Cowboys’ 2024 draft haul

The Cowboys have rounded out yet another draft class with the 2024 NFL Draft over and done now. However, unlike most years where there is a level of consensus around how the team did, this year’s class has proven to be rather divisive. Even the national sites that published grades for the Cowboys’ haul were pretty split on their opinion this year.

Some of that has to do with certain draft experts just not liking the players that Dallas selected, but much of it also has to do with the perception that the Cowboys didn’t fill enough needs through the draft. That second line of thought is fully at odds with the Cowboys’ philosophical approach to the draft, especially this year.

Shortly after the conclusion of the regular season, I took a deep dive into the Cowboys’ organizational overhaul of their analytics department that took place last offseason, as the team transitioned from a small, undermanned unit led by Tom Robinson to what is now one of the largest analytics departments in the league, headed up by John Park. In the final installment of that series, an attempt to forecast what was next for Park’s team focused on the draft:

The next step in that evolution process may be about to unfold, as Park and his team now turn their attention to their first offseason in Dallas. For the first time, this group will be part of the discussion on expiring contracts, free agency evaluations, and draft preparation. How does the offseason approach change with them in the room now?

It’s unlikely that we’ll suddenly see the Cowboys go full Les Snead and trade all their draft picks for established veterans and start tweeting out references to popular poker movies. But it also wouldn’t be a surprise to see this front office – one that made uncharacteristically aggressive trades for Brandin Cooks and Stephon Gilmore last year, before Park had even been hired – become a little more aggressive in the way they do business.

There have already been hints of this change, as Jerry Jones now infamously declared the Cowboys to be going “all-in” for the 2024 season. Fan response to these comments was largely ambivalent, with little anticipation that Jones’ definition of “all in” would match the fans’ perception of the idea. However, it’s no coincidence that Jones made this comment after having seen some of the work from his new analytics team, nor is it a coincidence that the team has handled the running back position the way they have and, soon, will.

Ultimately, the Cowboys did not make any huge moves or anything that could be characterized as aggressive. In fact, they’ve been the opposite of aggressive as it relates to their managing of the salary cap and contract extensions for their biggest stars.

However, one of the biggest supporters of Park’s hiring, and the subsequent expansion of the analytics department, was Will McClay. So it’s no surprise to see the Cowboys coming out of this draft with a result that is viewed very favorably by the analytics community.

Take, for example, these analytically-driven draft grades from Kevin Cole, formerly a data scientist at Pro Football Focus who now runs his own Substack, Unexpected Points. Cole’s formula takes into account the value that each team derived in the draft via trades, draft position, and how many of their picks were reaches relative to the consensus draft board.

Using Cole’s methodology, the Cowboys came away with the fourth best draft this year. Much of their value was derived from the trade down in the first round, which netted them an early third-round pick. Dallas was also helped by drafting several players well past their consensus ranking, such as Marshawn Kneeland, Cooper Beebe, and Caelen Carson. The only real reach was Marist Liufau, though that pick can largely be chalked up to the Cowboys not having another pick until late in the fifth round.

Cole even joked about the Cowboys’ very analytically-friendly draft in his NFC draft grades write-up:

Have the Cowboys gone analytics-woke as Jerry Jones is phased out of the decision-making and his son Stephen takes more control? I wouldn’t go that far yet, but the Cowboys gained material value through all three phases of the draft. They gained the entire $13.4 million in surplus value on a single trade-back in the first round, the point in the draft where value is to be made.

It should be noted that the three teams ahead of the Cowboys in Cole’s draft rankings were the three teams who picked in the top three of the first round, and all three drafted quarterbacks there. Given that there is no more valuable position to draft, it shouldn’t be a surprise that those three teams rated so highly here.

However, the fact that the Cowboys were right behind them is a testament to how much value they derived from this haul. And while they never selected a running back, a decision that’s come under plenty of scrutiny in the days since, the Cowboys did so because they were sticking to their draft board.

That kind of discipline is what comes from a more analytically-inclined approach to the draft, and the Cowboys displayed that to a tee this year. Depending on how this draft class pans out, this could serve as a turning point for Park’s team gaining even more trust from Jerry and Stephen Jones as it relates to the overarching plans for the Cowboys organization.


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