Dallas Cowboys Position Reviews: Running Backs

The 2010 season is behind us, and we've heard from coach Jason Garrett that the Dallas Cowboys are now busy evaluating and grading their player personnel.

The coaches have spent a lot of time coaching and developing the players in practice, they have a good grasp of the potential of each player, and they're reviewing hours upon hours of game tape - all in an effort to assign a final 2010 grade to every single player. Wouldn't it be nice if we could be privy to that grading process?

We'll never get our hands on the actual grades the Cowboys hand out for each player, but we do have access to two data sources that do a similar exercise for all NFL teams: Football Outsiders (FO) and Profootballfocus (PFF). Starting today with the running backs, we will use their statistics to evaluate every single Cowboys position group. At the end of the exercise, and once we've gone through all the position groups, we'll draw up an offseason action plan based on the player evaluations.

Because we'll be using both FO and PFF a lot in this series of articles, I want to make sure we're clear up front on what each of them brings to the table and how they work.

Pro Football Focus: In their own words: "Profootballfocus.com analyze and grade every player on every play in every game to provide you with the most in-depth statistics you can find anywhere outside the team's film room". PFF look at game tape, assign a grade for every play and then ‘normalize’ the data so that the average player for a given position is graded at zero. The higher the positive grading the better the performance and vice versa.

PFF assigns each player both an ordinal ranking (e.g., a player ranks 10th out of 100 players at the same position) and a relative value (e.g., a given player is a +10 or a -10). Using the PFF data therefore allows us to evaluate all the Cowboys players relative to each other and relative to their NFL peers at the same position. This is as close as we'll get to the coaches grades anytime soon. Minor caveat: the qualifying criteria for the rankings is for players to have played at least 25% of their team's snaps.

For the PFF tables, green is good (positive), yellow is about average and red is bad (negative). The higher the positive grading the better the performance and vice versa.

Football Outsiders: The majority of the FO ratings are based on DVOA, or Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. DVOA breaks down every single play of the NFL season to see how much success offensive players achieved in each specific situation compared to the league average in that situation, adjusted for the strength of the opponent.

FO do not have individual DVOA ratings for every single player, and where they do not, we'll use their combined numbers to evaluate the position groups.

What you'll see for each player from both PFF and FO in this series of posts is his rank relative to all other NFL players at that position, a "better than" number which tells you that the player ranks better than xx% of the players at his position in the league and his PFF or DVOA ratings.

Overall Grade / DVOA Cowboys running backs:

According to both sources, Felix Jones is in the top quarter of all running backs in the league, while Marion Barber is in the bottom quarter of the league in both rankings. Tashard Choice does not technically qualify for the ranking lists by number of snaps (PFF) or minimum number of carries (FO), so the ranking you see here is where he would rank with his 2010 grade/DVOA if he met the qualifying criteria.

Player PFF Grade Rank Better Than FO DVOA Rank Better Than
Felix Jones 16/58 72% 10/45 78%
Marion Barber 47/58 19% 36/45 20%
Tashard Choice 30/58 48% 30/45 33%

PFF grades Felix Jones significantly ahead of the other two backs in large part due to performance as a receiver in 2010. Felix Jones had the surest hands in the NFL last year, catching 48 of 52 passes thrown his way for a league best 92.3% reception rate. The positive receiving grade in the table below illustrates that:

Player # of snaps 2010 Overall Grade Pass Run Block Penalty '09 Grade 09 Snaps
Felix Jones 572 7.1 4.4 0.7 2.6 -0.4 6.3 271
Marion Barber 291 -3.3 -3.3 0.2 -0.6 -1.0 -0.2 552
Tashard Choice 220 -1.1 -1.1 -1.3 -0.8 -0.9 2.4 281

Running back coach Skip Peete saw that coming and argued in the offseason that the most visible impact of giving Felix Jones more snaps would be in the receiving game:

"You utilize him and try to create certain matchups against outside linebackers or safeties where there’s a speed factor as far as his advantage to create a mismatch. A lot of times you look at guys and 60 of their catches are on check down routes. Then they turn and create a play from a simple two-yard pass, so just trying to get him the ball any kind of way we can is obviously going to increase his receiving yards and catches."

Another factor driving Felix's grade is, lo and behold, his blocking grade. For the second year running, Felix grades out as a better blocker than Marion Barber. The myth that Marion is the best blocker of the three backs died last year and can be safely buried this year.

In comparison to last year, Felix improved his grade slightly, while Marion and Tashard both regressed. Barber lost his snaps and effectively his starter role as well to Jones this season, and it doesn't seem likely that he'll regain it. Somewhat more worrying is Choice's decline: he did not use the limited opportunities he had to underline his claim for more snaps. Choice grades out as an average back this year.

The FO stats tell a similar story. FO uses two metrics to look at halfbacks, DVOA (explained above) and DYAR or Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement. This gives the value of the performance on plays where an RB carried/caught the ball compared to a replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage. DYAR is further explained here and the table below shows how the three Cowboys backs progressed from last year:

Player '10 DVOA '09 DVOA '10 DYAR '09 DYAR
Felix Jones 8.2% (10th) 8.9% (15th) 123 (11th) 168 (10th)
Marion Barber -12.3% (36th) 17.0% (5th) -21 (35th) 115 (21st)
Tashard Choice -4.8% (- -)
24.7% (- -) 12 (- -) 92 (- -)

These stats confirm the conclusion from the PFF data: Felix Jones maintained his performance from 2009 and is a top 10/top 15 running back, while both Barber and Choice regressed.

Barber has long headed the list of players likely to be cut this offseason, in part because of his contract, in part because of his performance, and these numbers validate that. Choice has not impressed this year, and the Cowboys will likely entertain any and all offers for Tashard Choice - if any are forthcoming.

Do you feel that these ratings are an accurate reflection of how these players performed, and which position group should we continue with?

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