American Football

Using the ‘Consensus Big Board’ to evaluate the Cowboys recent 1st-round picks


NFL: NFL Draft
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Who would the Cowboys have drafted in the first round of the last seven drafts if they had gone by the consensus big board?

He was the best player on our board” – how often have you heard an NFL GM say that after the draft? Quite often, I’d imagine, as this is a pretty common way of justifying a pick after you made it. But unlike the Cowboys, who leak draft boards left and right, we have no way of checking those GM’s big board to verify their claim.

What we do have, however, is a consensus big board, which makes it fairly easy to check how a given team did in the draft versus the consensus. And while it’s easy to poo-poo a consensus big board (“how is aggregating Kiper, McShay, Cowherd, and Florio going to give you insight into anything?”), PFFs Timo Riske (@pff_moo) has shown that the consensus big board matches the actual draft quite well.

Unfortunately, the article is behind a paywall, but Riske shows that apart from some noise within the first 18 picks, the consensus big board and the actual NFL draft are pretty well matched. That is, “until the end of the third round, at which point the draft starts pulling away again,” mainly because players that are actually drafted get more opportunities to play than those ranked higher on consensus boards but go undrafted. curates just such a consensus big board by compiling hundreds of big boards, first-round mocks, and team-based mocks into one giant big board. We’ll use their big board to figure out how the Cowboys did versus the consensus big board, and we’ll use the following parameters to do that:

  • To evaluate picks, we’ll use Weighted Career Approximate Value (wAV) from Pro Football Reference.
  • The board data goes all the way back to 2016, so that’s where we’ll start our journey.
  • For each Cowboys pick, we’ll look at the five players still available the time of the Cowboys pick that would have been the best player available (BPA) according to the consensus big board.
  • QBs are excluded from the five BPAs. QB wAV can sometimes skew the comparison, and the Cowboys were never in the market for a QB with their top pick to begin with, at least not since 2016 (it only affects Lamar Jackson in 2018, Mac Jones in 2021, and Will Levis in 2023, so it’s no biggie anyway).
2016 – No. 4 – Ezekiel Elliott

We know from the Cowboys’ leaked 2016 draft board that the Cowboys had Ezekiel Elliott at the very top of their board. So when Jerry Jones said right after the draft that Ezekiel Elliott had the highest grade of any player on their draft board, we now know that that was one GM who wasn’t lying when he said “He was the best player on our board.

The consensus big board had Ezekiel Elliott ranked 10th overall, so who should the Cowboys have drafted had they gone by the big board?

2016 – 5 Best Players available at #4
Round Pick Consensus Rank Tm Player Pos AP1 PB wAV G
1 5 3 JAX Jalen Ramsey CB 3 7 73 118
1 13 5 MIA Laremy Tunsil T 0 4 49 108
1 6 6 BAL Ronnie Stanley T 1 1 49 87
1 7 7 SFO DeForest Buckner DE 1 3 70 129
2 36 8 JAX Myles Jack OLB 0 0 42 106
1 4 10 DAL Ezekiel Elliott RB 1 3 67 120

As many, many, many Cowboys fans screamed at the time, Jalen Ramsey (#3 consensus rank) would have been the better pick, and Jerry Jones admitted as much recently when he said that using the No. 4 overall pick on a running back might have been a misallocation of resources.

In terms of wAV, there really isn’t much of a difference between Elliott (67) and Ramsey (73) or Buckner (70), and you can’t really fault the Cowboys for taking the top player on their board, though you’ve got to wonder about the process that landed a running back at the top of the team’s board.

2017 – No. 24 – Taco Charlton

No contest here. Nobody is arguing (anymore) that Charlton was a good pick, but who would have been the alternatives? The consensus board has the answer, and that answer does not include T.J. Watt!

2017 – 5 Best Players available at #24
Round Pick Consensus Rank Tm Player Pos AP1 PB wAV G
1 31 9 SFO Reuben Foster LB 0 0 8 16
2 41 18 MIN Dalvin Cook RB 0 4 52 88
2 38 21 LAC Forrest Lamp G 0 0 8 26
1 29 20 CLE David Njoku TE 0 1 24 95
1 32 23 NOR Ryan Ramczyk T 1 0 65 101
1 28 24 DAL Taco Charlton DE 0 0 9 60

Consensus BPA would have been Reuben Foster, and that would not have been a good pick either. Dalvin Cook wasn’t an option after the Elliott pick the year before. As it stands, Ryan Ramczyk would have been the best option among those listed here.

The Cowboys were hot for a pass rusher, and in hindsight, T.J. Watt would have been a vastly superior choice, but he was “only” ranked 36th on the big board at the time.

2018 – No. 24 – Leighton Vander Esch

Hard to argue against the Vander Esch pick. It’s very unfortunate that his career was cut short by injuries, but when he was on, the “Wolf Hunter” was worth every bit of the draft capital invested in him. I’m typically not a fan of drafting a non-money 5 position (QB, DE, OT, WR, CB) in the first round, but Vander Esch’s value became most evident when he was out: the decline of the defense in the second half last year is arguably a result of the Cowboys’ inability to find an adequate replacement for Vander Esch.

But could the Cowboys have done better by going consensus BPA? Here are the consensus BPA players that would have still been available with the 24th pick in the 2018 draft:

2018 – 5 Best Players available at #24
Round Pick Consensus Rank Tm Player Pos AP1 PB wAV G
1 26 14 ATL Calvin Ridley WR 0 0 33 66
2 41 15 TEN Harold Landry OLB 0 1 33 81
2 45 16 GNB Josh Jackson CB 0 0 8 49
1 22 19 TEN Rashaan Evans ILB 0 0 32 85
2 59 23 WAS Derrius Guice RB 0 0 2 5
1 19 24 DAL Leighton Vander Esch OLB 0 1 35 71

Despite the amount of missed time due to injuries, Vander Esch comes out on top in this comparison, even if it’s not by much. And yes, Calvin Ridley also missed time, so there’s that. You could make a case for Harold Landry and Rashaan Evans as well, but the Cowboys did well with their pick here.

We’re skipping 2019 (the Cowboys traded their pick for Amari Cooper) and going straight to 2020.

2020 – No. 17 – CeeDee Lamb

The Cowboys hit a home run with this pick, and many Cowboys fans felt that way already on draft night when Lamb inexplicably dropped all the way to No. 17.

But what does the consensus board say?

2020 – 5 Best Players available at #17
Round Pick Consensus Rank Tm Player Pos AP1 PB wAV G
1 17 9 DAL CeeDee Lamb WR 1 3 50 66
1 20 17 JAX K’Lavon Chaisson DE 0 0 8 57
1 22 18 MIN Justin Jefferson WR 1 3 46 60
1 23 19 LAC Kenneth Murray LB 0 0 23 59
1 28 20 BAL Patrick Queen LB 0 1 39 67
2 36 21 NYG Xavier McKinney S 0 0 17 49

The consensus board had Lamb ranked No. 9, and he was easily the best player left when the Cowboys were on the clock. His subsequent performance has validated the pick.

Justin Jefferson would have been an interesting option as well, but K’Lavon Chaisson shows you the pitfalls that lurk even on the consensus big board.

2021 – No. 12 – Micah Parsons

Going by wAV, by the number of All Pro nods, and by the number of Pro Bowl honors, Micah Parsons is the best player to emerge from the 2021 draft.

The consensus board at the time had him ranked 11th, and like CeeDee Lamb the year before, he was the best pick when the Cowboys were on the clock at No. 12 – and he would have been the best pick at the No. 1 spot as well.

The alternatives naturally pale in comparison.

2021 – 5 Best Players available at #12
Round Pick Consensus Rank Tm Player Pos AP1 PB wAV G
1 12 11 DAL Micah Parsons LB 2 3 50 50
1 13 14 LAC Rashawn Slater OL 0 1 23 36
1 21 15 IND Kwity Paye DL 0 0 20 43
1 22 16 TEN Caleb Farley DB 0 0 1 12
1 23 17 MIN Christian Darrisaw OL 0 0 18 41
2 52 18 CLE Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah LB 0 1 18 41

On to the next draft.

2022 – No. 24 – Tyler Smith

The Tyler Smith pick was criticized quite a bit at the time, in large part because many observers felt he had been drafted too high by the Cowboys, and the consensus big board bears this out: Smith was ranked just 46th on the consensus big board.

The Cowboys, bless their draftboard-leaking hearts, had Smith ranked 16th overall, and after just two years it looks like their evaluation was much better than the consensus evaluation.

Here are the consensus BPA players that would have still been available with the 24th pick in the 2022 draft:

2022 – 5 Best Players available at #24
Round Pick Consensus Rank Tm Player Pos AP1 PB wAV G
1 26 10 NYJ Jermaine Johnson II LB 0 1 13 31
1 27 18 JAX Devin Lloyd LB 0 0 15 32
1 30 20 KAN George Karlaftis III DE 0 0 15 33
2 42 23 MIN Andrew Booth CB 0 0 2 23
1 28 24 GNB Devonte Wyatt DT 0 0 4 33
1 24 46 DAL Tyler Smith OL 0 1 19 31

Looks like the Cowboys scored big again with this pick. Sure, it’s just two years, but the Cowboys and Smith are off to a rocket start.

2023 – No. 26 – Mazi Smith

Regardless of whether expectations for Mazi Smith were realistic or not, there is no question that his rookie season was disappointing. Could the Cowboys have done better if they hadn’t been so focused on a big run-stuffer?

2022 – 5 Best Players available at #26
Round Pick Consensus Rank Tm Player Pos AP1 PB wAV G
2 32 14 PIT Joey Porter Jr. CB 0 0 4 17
1 30 16 PHI Nolan Smith OLB 0 0 1 17
1 28 17 CIN Myles Murphy DE 0 0 1 17
2 35 21 LVR Michael Mayer TE 0 0 3 14
2 45 24 DET Brian Branch DB 0 0 4 15
1 26 35 DAL Mazi Smith DL 0 0 2 17

It’s early days for this draft class, but in this exercise there is no clear winner. Sure, Smith didn’t light up the league last year, but neither did the guys the consensus considered better alternatives.

PFF recently concluded that the Cowboys were the best team in the NFL over the last ten years at picking in the first round, so the data above shouldn’t come as a big surprise. But what is interesting is that outside of Taco Charlton the consensus big board did not show an alternative that would have been significantly better than the Cowboys pick, at least not in terms of wAV.

Captain Hindsight and his powerful sidekicks Shoulda, Coulda and Woulda are a fearsome team. They pop up unannounced on message boards and blogs like BTB and tell us who they would have drafted instead of who their team actually drafted. That hindsight pick inevitably ends up being the two or three superstars of that draft class.

But reality is not that clear cut. The consensus big board is a good approximation of the public sentiment at the time, and at least in the Cowboys’ case, it’s not clear that drafting from the consensus board would have yielded better results, in fact, quite the opposite. But that’s only true for the first round. If we were to look at the second round with the same approach, I’m guessing the picture would be much bleaker.

If only the Cowboys could figure out how to translate their success in the first round to the second round!

PFF has a free hint for the front office:

“The Cowboys seem to draft extremely well when they don’t reach to fill a need.”

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