After every season, the coaching and front office staffs around the league spend the first couple of weeks grading the performances of the past season, and it's no different for the Cowboys, who have just started this process.
We are not privy to the process going on behind closed doors at Valley Ranch, but we'll try to do a similar job here on BTB of quantifying and assessing the Cowboys performances of the last season. We'll start today by looking at 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 for the 2012 season.
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 (no grades in this post - promised) they assign to the players, I'm going to look at where a given player is ranked relative to the other players in the league at his position .
Example: PFF ranks 3-4 defensive ends by the cumulative grade they have received so far this season. That ranking lists all 34 defensive ends playing in a 3-4 scheme who played at least 25% of the snaps for their team in 2012. Jason Hatcher is ranked as the 4th best 3-4 DE in the league, Tyrone Crawford is 17th and Marcus Spears is 25th.
Because each positional group has a different number of qualifying players (e.g. the ILB list contains 53 players, others have more, others 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, Hatcher gets an 88 positional ranking [(1-4/34)*100], Crawford gets a 50 and Spears gets a 26.
I repeated that calculation for all Cowboys players based on the overall ranking scale provided by PFF, with the exception of tight ends and wide receivers where I only used PFF's ranking by receiving grade, not the overall grade. And finally, I divided the 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 32 Cowboys players who've played on at least 25% of the snaps in 2012.
|2012 Cowboys Positional Rankings
|Marcus R. Spears||34DE||394||25/34||26|
This table is built using the PFF player grades. As such, many of the individual rankings are debatable, and there are probably good arguments to be made why a given player should be ranked higher or lower, and this is especially the case for borderline players who are just short of the next quintile. But overall, I think it's a good approximation of where the team stands - based on the performance over the entire 2012 regular season.
You may also want to look at the same table for the 2011 team to get a better feel for how the team has developed.
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, and the players listed as red flags this year could face a similar situation. Danny McCray was already relegated back to special teams duty at the end of the year. Mike Jenkins is a free agent and wants a starting opportunity - he's not going to get that in Dallas. Doug Free will probably have to renegotiate his contract if he wants to stay in Dallas, although in fairness, his second half performance would give him a positional ranking of 47. Even Gerald Sensabaugh is not sure to be back, even though as it looks like he may have had an off year (as did most of the secondary), as he's had strong positional rankings the last three years ('09: 74, '10: 88, '11: 71).
Underperformers: I'm guessing that we'll see a lot of turnover in this group during the offseason. Jones, Sims, Phillips and Ogletree are all free agents. The Cowboys may keep Jones and perhaps one or two others if they agree to very reasonable contracts.
It's a little disappointing to see four players in this group who were signed just last offseason (Connor, Bernadeau, Vickers and Spears) along with Claiborne, but at least Claiborne has upside. Last season, this group contained six players, three of which are not with the Cowboys anymore (Bennett, Elam and James). This year, Spears already found himself a healthy scratch on gameday, Connor was outplayed by a street free agent, Bernadeau has been a big question mark at right guard and Vickers didn't improve the ground game much.
Because Sean Lissemore played both DE and NT, he doesn't have enough snaps to qualify for either ranking. In 2012, Lissemore appears to have struggled trying to juggle both positions: His PFF grade would give him a positional ranking of 26 as a DT and 35 as a DE.
Average Players: With the way the PFF grading works, many of the players in this quintile are just a few positive plays away from moving up into the next group, the starter-quality players. Much as I would have liked Carr and Scandrick to be in a higher quintile, you can't allow the fourth worst defensive passer rating and expect to be ranked any higher, an issue that affects the entire Cowboys secondary.
The are whispers behind closed doors that Jay Ratliff may be fast approaching the end of his career as a Cowboy. His 2012 injury-hampered performance may be one reason among many others for that.
Starter-Quality: It's nice to see players this far up the rankings that many would not have expected here, like Butler and Brent. Unfortunately, Butler is a free agent and Brent likely won't be playing a lot of football in the coming years.
A note on the two wide receivers: Dez Bryant (2 INTs, 11 dropped passes) and Austin (4 INTs, 6 DPs) both would likely be considered blue-chip players based only on their production. But the PFF graders take a pretty dim view of dropped passes and INTs and penalize them quite strongly.
DeMarcus Ware's ranking shouldn't come as a great shock, as his performance in 2012 wasn't up to his usual blue-chip standard, and his multiple injuries didn't help either.
The positive surprise in this quintile is how high Livings is ranked, not necessarily something most fans would have expected at the start of the season, and probably not even now. But the graders at PFF saw things in his play that might have gotten overlooked in only cursory examinations of his performance.
Blue-Chips: This quintile is populated by the usual suspects, with Hatcher being perhaps the only surprise in this group - if you haven't been watching his play this season. DeMarcus Ware is missing from this category, and coupled with Sean Lee's absence for the latter half of the season, this drives home a powerful message about your blue-chip players:
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.
Which brings us to Anthony Spencer. Spencer had easily his best season as a Cowboy last season, and PFF graded him as the best 3-4 OLB in the league. If you're Jerry Jones, or any other GM in the league for that matter, can you afford to let what was arguably your best defensive player in 2012 hit free agency?
Summary: Overall, I don't think these rankings provide any radical new insights, but they can provide a visual template for the Cowboys' offseason activities, much as they did last year. I'd expect that the Cowboys will probably focus most of whatever cap-room they have left on addressing positions and players that graded out below average. As you look at the red, orange and yellow quintiles, you'll see that the offensive line remains a weakness for the Cowboys, but you've got to be happy about the passing game overall. On defense, you've got to like the ILB duo when they come back healthy, but you've got to be worried about the situation at nose tackle, the pass rush (both inside and outside), and you've got to wonder what the Cowboys' plan is at safety.