Cowboys Free Agency: How The Signings Add Up

The Cowboys were unusually active in free agency this year. In total, their eight signings (seven of which were new players) was the largest haul in recent history. Earlier this week, Jason Witten remarked on how it had been "awesome"watching what the Cowboys did:

"In my nine years, this is probably the most aggressive that we've been," Witten told DallasCowboys.com's Nick Eatman. "And just filling needs, it's probably the best that we've done. As a player, not that they ask, I think it's been awesome to see the additions we have. They're the right type of guys that fit into your locker room and they're eager to work."

Ever since the signings were announced, I've been meaning to try to quantify the impact of the Cowboys' free agency moves, but the draft has kept me busy. Thankfully, I'm all drafted out for the moment, so today I'm revisiting that idea of putting some numbers to the signings.

And the way I'm going to go about assessing the impact of the free agency acquisitions is by looking at their positional rankings relative to other players at their position.

So how does positional ranking work? The idea is to find a metric that makes all players in the league comparable. I tried this earlier this year with a stat from Pro Football Reference called Approximate Value, but I felt that the numbers were not sufficiently differentiating. 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 a ranking of wide receivers. This ranking lists all 115 wide receivers who played at least 25% of the snaps for their team during the regular season last year. Dez Bryant is ranked as the 10th best wide receiver on that list. Laurent Robinson is ranked 26th, Miles Austin is ranked 37th.

The wide receiver list has 115 players, some positional rankings have more, some have less. To make the rankings comparable across all positions, I'm converting 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, Bryant gets a 91.3 positional ranking [(1-10/115)*100], Robinson gets a 77.4 and Austin gets a 67.8.

I did the same calculation for all the 2011 Cowboys. For tight ends, I only used PFF's ranking by receiving grade, not the overall grade. Also, I've divided the results into quintiles of sorts, based on their positional ranking and the following descriptions of each quintile:

Positional Ranking
Description
100-80 Blue-Chip Cowboys Players
79-60 NFL starter quality at position
59-40 Average to slightly below average player
39-20 Underperformer
20-0 Red Flag

In the next table, I've summarized the results for 28 players from last year's roster. The 28 players are either the players with the most snaps overall, or the most snaps at their position.

2011 Roster
Player POS Snaps Positional Ranking
Smith OT 1,074 94.7
Ratliff DT 750 92.0
Bryant WR 791 91.3
Ware OLB 914 89.3
Witten TE 1,074 85.7
Holland OG 641 79.2
Robinson WR 601 77.4
Romo QB 992 73.7
Lee ILB 868 72.0
Hatcher DE 429 71.9
Murray RB 389 68.7
Austin WR 571 67.8
Sensabaugh S 1,004 66.7
Spencer OLB 938 64.3
Jenkins CB 608 63.3
Jones RB 369 61.2
Coleman DE 426 59.4
Kosier OG 1,051 40.3
Elam S 1,050 36.0
Free OT 1,080 30.3
Bennett TE 428 27.0
James ILB 414 24.0
Scandrick CB 679 23.9
Spears DE 400 21.9
Costa OC 1,024 14.3
Brooking ILB 409 12.0
Newman CB 829 11.0
Fiammeta FB 227 6.9

I'm sure many of the individual ratings can 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. Especially when you match the table with the Cowboys' free agency activity so far.

Red Flags: Newman was replaced with Brandon Carr (73.6), Fiammeta was replaced with Lawrence Vickers (48.3). The combo of Brooking and James will be replaced by Dan Connor (48.0) or Bruce Carter, if Carter proves to be superior to Connor. That leaves Phil Costa as the only red flag player not to have been replaced.

Underperformers: Only two players from this group will likely remain on the squad for 2012: Orlando Scandrick will continue to man the unthankful but well-paid slot CB position and Doug Free will move to right tackle. I'm guessing that Marcus Spears will be replaced by Sean Lissemore. Lissemore played less than 25% of the Cowboys snaps last year, but if he had played those 25%, his projected positional ranking would be a 81.3. James will be replaced by Connor or Carter and Elam was replaced by Pool (65.1). That leaves Bennett's vacated role as the only unfilled spot.

Average Players: Kenyon Coleman just turned 33, and I don't think he'll be on the roster in September. I hope that Fletcher Cox will be manning that vacated spot by then, but it could just as easily be somebody else. As for Kosier, it's anybody's guess whether Nate Livings (only 27.3) or Mackenzy Bernadeau will replace him. Bernadeau, like Lissemore, didn't get enough snaps last year, but based on his very limited 124 snaps, his projected positional ranking would be a theoretical 84.6. That number is probably a stretch, but at the very least, Bernadeau will provide some significant competition at the position.

There's a common perception that Livings and Bernadeau will be the starting guards next year. I'm not sold on that yet, and the reason for that is Montrae Holland. Holland graded out as the second best Cowboys lineman last year. Holland is currently a free agent and we haven't heard as much as a peep out of valley ranch about Holland. He underwent surgery at the end of last year for a torn biceps, but is expected to be back for OTAs and training camp, at which point the Cowboys will likely take a long, hard look at Holland.

Starters: Laurent Robinson is the only player on the starter list who will not be back for the 2012 season. Kevin Ogletree (40.9 projected) is probably not going to be a suitable replacement, so the Cowboys will keep looking for their third guy.

Conclusion:

Overall, I feel that the positional rankings correspond very well with the Cowboys' offseason activities so far. Almost all of the positions and players that graded out below average have been addressed. At the same time, almost every player marked in green or blue has been retained or even extended.

The 28 players above add up to 1,526 positional ranking points in 2011. With the changes described, and bringing in Kyle Orton (39.5) for Martellus Bennett to get to 28 players again, the positional ranking points for 2012 increase to 1,773, an increase of 16%. Of course, a static model like this is not suited to describe a dynamic world, but on paper at least, and before any further additions via the draft, the signings add up.

Tomorrow, we'll use these numbers to assess the status of the various position groups and try to figure out what they could mean for the Cowboys draft priorities.

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