The Cowboys are fast approaching the halfway point of their season, and with seven games played, now is a good time to see how the individual Cowboys players have performed relative to the other players at their position in the NFL. To do that, we'll look at their positional rankings over the first seven weeks.
The idea behind positional rankings is to find a metric that makes all players in the league comparable. Currently, the only service that offers a metric for every single player in the league is Pro Football Focus (PFF), but instead of looking at the grades (I'll try to keep the grades out of this post as much as I can) they assign to the players, I'm going to look at where a given player is ranked at his position.
Example: PFF has ranked the inside linebackers by the cumulative grade they have received so far this season. That ranking lists all 50 ILBs who played at least 25% of the snaps for their team this year. Sean Lee is ranked as the 5th best ILB on that list, Bruce Carter is 16th.
Because each positional group has a different number of qualifying players (e.g. the WR list contains 107 players, others have more, most have less players ranked), to make the rankings comparable across all positions, I've converted all positional rankings to a scale of 0 - 100. The highest ranked player at a position gets 100 points, the lowest ranked player gets 0. By that logic, Lee gets a 90 positional ranking [(1-5/50)*100] and Carter gets a 68.
I did the same calculation for all the Cowboys players. For tight ends, I only used PFF's ranking by receiving grade, not the overall grade. Also, I've divided the results into quintiles, which results in the following positional ranking groups:
|100-81||Blue-Chip Cowboys Players
|80-61||NFL starter quality at position
|60-41||Average to slightly below average player
A player marked in blue is ranked in the top 20% of players at his position group, a player marked in green is ranked in the top 40% of players at his position, and so on. In the next table, I've summarized the results for all 29 Cowboys players who've played on at least 25% of the snaps this season.
|2012 Cowboys Positional Rankings
|Marcus R. Spears||DE||124||15/34||56|
Obviously, the rankings are based on the PFF player grades, and I'm sure many of the individual rankings could be argued endlessly, and there are probably valid arguments to be made for any player and why he should be moved up or down this list. But as an overall picture, I think it's a good approximation of where the team stands.
Red Flags: After the 2011 season, there were four players listed as red flags. Of those four (Newman, Fiammeta, Brooking and Costa) only Costa remained with the team. Unless the players listed as red flags significantly improve their performance in the remaining nine games, they may not be playing for the Cowboys in 2013. Ogletree and Jones are on expiring contracts anyway, Bryant is skating on very thin ice on and off the field as it is, and how much longer will the Cowboys tolerate Free's performance if it doesn't improve markedly?
One word on the wide receivers: Dez Bryant (2 INTs, 7 dropped passes) and Ogletree (4 INTs, 2 DPs) both are ranked so low because the PFF graders take a dim view of dropped passes and INTs and penalize them quite strongly.
Underperformers: It's still early in the season, and like the red flag group, the players in the underperformer group still have time to move up in the rankings. What's particularly disappointing is that three free agent acquisitions (Carr, Bernadeau and Cook) are listed in this group. Last season, this group contained six players, three of which are not with the Cowboys anymore (Bennett, Elam and James), one (Free) was moved from left tackle to right tackle, another (Spears) has already found himself a healthy scratch on gameday this year and the final one (Scandrick) may have simply had an off year in 2011. Whatever the reason may be for finding yourself in this quintile, there must be a sense of urgency here to get back on track or these players' Cowboys careers may come to a premature end after the season.
Average Players: The good news here is that most of the players in this quintile are just a few positive plays away from moving up into the next group, the starter-quality players.
Also, all the players on this list have missed playing time due to injury or are rotational players anyway, and of the six, only Lissemore has a slightly negative overall grade. It's therefore reasonable to expect that with increased playing time, each of these players would move up their positional rankings.
Starter-Quality: It's nice to see players this far up the rankings that many would not have expected here (Butler, Brent, McCray, Livings ... and even Romo) but the graders at PFF saw things in the play of those players that might get overlooked in only cursory examinations of their performance.
The positive surprise in this quintile is how high Hatcher and Livings are ranked. Both are close to entering the blue-chip quintile, not necessarily something most fans would have expected at the start of the season.
Blue-Chips: This quintile is populated by the usual suspects, with Spencer being perhaps the only surprise in this group - if you haven't been watching his play this season. Sean Lee's ranking here also illustrates how much of an impact his season-ending injury will have on the Cowboys: You may be able to scheme around the gap left by a starting-quality player on this list, you'll probably be able to adequately fill the spot of a player in the average group and any group below that; but there is no way you can replace a blue-chip player.
Overall, these rankings don't provide any radical new insights, but they do visualize some of the issues the Cowboys have been battling with.
Despite some positive play by the offensive line recently, it remains a weakness in the Cowboys' game, and that weakness carries over to the rankings of the running backs. In the passing game, the Cowboys can rely on Witten and Austin, but Bryant and Ogletree still have work to do, and they may not have much more time to do that.
On defense, only the 49ers have a better ranked ILB duo - and the Cowboys will struggle to fill the gap left by Lee. A couple of interceptions would do wonders for the rankings of the defensive backs, and it's no surprise that the two highest ranked DBs (Claiborne and McCray) are the only ones with interceptions to their names.