Cowboys' rookie class set itself apart in 2016, gives hope for future

The Cowboys had the fifth-most snaps by rookies in 2016 and the most by a playoff team. AP Photo/Ron Jenkins

FRISCO, Texas -- So what should give you real hope about the Dallas Cowboys as the page turns to 2017?

Without question it has to be the draft class of 2016.

On Monday, ESPN Insider Bill Barnwell tweeted a chart with the snaps played by rookies in 2016. The Cowboys were fifth with 3,003. They were the highest playoff team in his list. The Cleveland Browns' rookies played 4,390 snaps, which might be one of the thousand reasons they won one game.

The Indianapolis Colts (3,342) were second, followed by the Tennessee Titans (3,329) and Chicago Bears (3,214). The Colts were 8-8; the Titans were 9-7 and the Bears were 3-13.

Bob Sturm of 1310 AM The Ticket in Dallas went more in depth with a story on Tuesday. In 2015, the Cowboys had nine rookies play at least one snap and finished 4-12. In 2016, the Cowboys had four rookies play at least 500 snaps, the most by a Cowboys rookie class since 2013.

For some reason snap counts aren't uniform. In the list furnished by the NFL that takes into account all snaps, whether there was a penalty or not, the Cowboys' rookies played 3,136 offensive or defensive snaps. Dak Prescott led the way with 1,011 snaps, followed by Anthony Brown at 715, Ezekiel Elliott at 712 and Maliek Collins at 662 snaps. Kavon Frazier played 36 defensive snaps.

At some point in the offseason we will hear Jerry Jones and/or Stephen Jones talk about the draft being the lifeblood of an organization. It's a tradition like no other, but it's also true. And it's not just the draft. It's also undrafted players, although the Cowboys did not have an undrafted player earn a spot on the 53-man roster.

The Cowboys knew what they were getting from Elliott, the fourth overall pick, and he still over-delivered by leading the NFL in rushing with 1,631 yards. They were higher on Collins, their third-round pick, more than other teams, but he was able to start 14 of 16 games. He finished second among defensive lineman with 31 tackles, according to the coaches' count, and his five sacks were second-most on the team.

Nobody could have expected Prescott to do what he did as a fourth-round pick. He finished with 23 touchdowns, four interceptions, 3,667 passing yards and six rushing touchdowns. Brown had one interception but showed versatility in playing in the slot as well as outside during the absences of Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne.

The rookie snap count does not include two of their top-four picks. Jaylon Smith, their second-round pick, missed the season, as expected, because of a serious knee injury. Charles Tapper, their first fourth-round pick, missed the season, unexpectedly, because of a back injury. Both will be available in 2017, which could take an excellent draft class to an over-the-top draft class.

The last time the Cowboys could feel this good about a draft class after a rookie season was in 2005.

DeMarcus Ware started every game and finished with eight sacks, setting up a run that saw him become the franchise's all-time leader in sacks. Marcus Spears, the Cowboys' second first-round pick, started 10 of 16 games and was a dependable defensive end. Linebacker Kevin Burnett, the second-round pick, played in 13 games and was a versatile asset. Before Prescott, running back Marion Barber and defensive end Chris Canty were the best fourth-round picks and they contributed five rushing touchdowns and two sacks. Rob Petitti started every game at right tackle as a sixth-round pick, which said more about the state of the offensive line, and seventh-rounder Jay Ratliff went from practice squad to starter to Pro Bowler by 2008.

Of the seven draft picks, six went on to earn substantial second contracts from either the Cowboys or other teams. Petitti went from starting every game as a rookie to not making the roster in 2006.

The 2005 class was never able to close the deal, missing out on a potential Super Bowl run with homefield advantage in 2007 with a loss to the New York Giants.

The 2016 class could have a better chance to finish what it started.