In yesterday's post, 2012 Positional Rankings: Comparing Dallas Cowboys Players To Their NFL Peers , we used positional rankings to get a better feel for where individual players stand relative to their NFL peers.
Based on those individual assessments, we found that for the most part, the rankings roughly matched the consensus assessment of team strengths and weaknesses: the offensive line remains a weakness for the Cowboys, the passing game and the inside linebackers look to be a strength and there are questions about the pass rush and safety play.
In today's post, we'll use the positional ranking numbers to assess the status of the Cowboys' different position groups and try to figure out what they could mean for the Cowboys' draft and free agency priorities.
Just as a brief reminder, the positional rankings are derived from the Pro Football Focus rankings and are adjusted so that the best player in the league at his position gets 100 positional value points and the worst at his position gets zero points. Overall, those rankings result in the following five tiers or quintiles:
|100-81||Blue-Chip Cowboys Players
|80-61||NFL starter quality at position
|60-41||Average to slightly below average player
A guy marked in blue would be ranked in the top 20% of players at his position group. The size of these position groups varies of course. In 2012, the cornerback ranking has 113 players in total, so each tier or quintile would contain 23 players. Fullbacks on the other hand have only 25 ranked players, so each tier would only contain five players.
To get a better feeling for how the different position groups progressed or regressed in 2012, we'll compare them to the 2011 Cowboys team. For this comparison, we'll look at five different position groups, the secondary, linebackers, defensive line, offensive line and receiving corps. This should allow us to do two things: see how much the individual units improved on paper and understand where the biggest holes in the roster could be.
For the sake of convenience, all position groups will feature five players, as this will make the comparison across position groups easier.
|Total||201 (Avg: 40)||157 (Avg: 31)|
The 2012 secondary ranks as the worst of the five units we are looking at today, with an average positional rank that is even worse than last year's. But things may not be as bad as they look here going forward. Claiborne is almost certain to significantly improve his position in his second year and McCray was an injury fill-in who won't be the starter again next year.
The success of this unit, and with it the entire Cowboys defense, hinges on successfully addressing the issues at safety. With improved play from whoever replaces McCray, we should expect Sensabaugh to improve his performance as well.
But even more important than which player plays which position in the secondary will be the Cowboys' ability to get pressure on the opposing QB. Without pressure, even the best secondary will eventually get picked apart.
|Total||289 (Avg: 58)||405 (Avg: 81)|
The linebackers in 2011 were held back by the substandard play of the inside linebackers Brooking and James. Their combined positional value was a mediocre 10.
In 2012, all four starters dealt with significant injuries, yet still managed a blue-chip combined ranking. Anthony Spencer missed two games early in the season, Sean Lee missed ten, Bruce Carter missed five and DeMarcus Ware was hampered by injuries all season long and will need surgery on his shoulder and elbow in the offseason.
When healthy, this linebacker unit is easily one of the best in the NFL, but with Butler and Spencer set to hit free agency this offseason, it's unlikely that all five players will return to play for the Cowboys next season.
|Total||326 (Avg: 65)||283 (Avg: 56)|
Injuries to Coleman and Ratliff hit this unit hard in 2012, and what had been a pretty good line in 2011 continuously regressed as the season wore on in 2012 and injuries kept mounting.
For 2013, it's unclear whether Kenyon Coleman will be back, it's unclear what if any role Ratliff will play for the Cowboys, and Josh Brent will most likely not be playing any football for a while. Additionally, given Marcus Spears' performance, he may have played his last snap for the Cowboys. That leaves Jason Hatcher (who turns 31 this year) as well as Tyrone Crawford and Sean Lissemore (* did not play 25% of snaps) as the cornerstones of the defensive line.
The Cowboys will need to get at least two, and probably three additional defensive linemen for 2013, and they will have to go after those 2-3 players both in the draft and in free agency with the highest priority.
|Total||259 (Avg: 52)||233 (Avg: 47)|
The O-line remained a shaky proposition in 2012. The line looks to have gotten slightly worse overall, but if you compare the two lines position by position, each spot except right tackle stayed roughly the same or improved. In fact, the average of the four positions excluding right tackle increased from 41 position points to 54. Of course, that was all undone by the play of the right tackle.
The overall problem though with this unit, and this is not adequately reflected in these numbers, is it is not particularly good at pass blocking. Here's the positional ranking for the 2012 unit broken down by pass blocking and run blocking:
The numbers here suggest the O-line is a below average pass blocking team and an above average run-blocking team. Unfortunately, the Cowboys were playing from behind 77% of the time last season (only the Raiders and Chjiefs were worse) and consequently didn't run a lot. The Cowboy ran the ball only 355 times, the second lowest total in the league, but passed the ball 658 times, the third highest total in the league.
In 2013, the Cowboys will likely solidify at center, with both Costa and Kowalski back from injuries. Tyron Smith also still has upside at left tackle, but issues remain on the right side.
|Total||343 (Avg: 69)||284 (Avg: 57)|
In 2011, the receiving corps was the strongest unit on the Cowboys, but that changed in 2012. The departure of Laurent Robinson opened up a big hole in this unit, a hole that Kevin Ogletree was not even remotely able to fill. Do the Cowboys have enough faith in their young receivers Dwayne Harris, Cole Beasley, Andre Holmes and Danny Coale to fill that third spot? Heck, do the Cowboys have enough faith in Miles Austin to stay healthy in 2013?
The Cowboys were reportedly willing to shell out a third-round pick for Josh Gorden in the supplemental draft last summer. Don't be surprised if the Cowboys invest in a wide receiver this offseason.
Position group summary:
In their totality, all those charts above can be a little overwhelming, so here is a basic summary of how the position groups have changed from 2011 to 2012.
|Position Group||2011 Avg Pts||2012 Avg Pts|
The Cowboys invested significantly in their secondary last season, but it is still the weakest unit on the team. Most noticeable is that the unit - at least according to the positional rankings - is the only unit on the team that didn't have at least one player playing at an NFL starter level last year. Of course, this might change next year, as the talent is there with Claiborne & Carr, but for the secondary to be effective, it needs somebody to pressure the quarterback.
The Cowboys defensive line is in shambles heading into 2013, and while the linebackers look really good heading into 2013 (provided they stay healthy), losing Spencer in free agency would create a first-round-pick-sized hole at OLB. With this in mind, investing a first round pick for the best front-five player available makes a lot of sense.
For the offensive line, I'm not sure that more rookie offensive linemen are the immediate answer here. The chances of linemen picked in the first two rounds delivering an above average performance in their rookie season are pretty slim. However, the Cowboys must find solutions at center and the right side of the line. Whether they will find those solutions internally or have to go outside remains to be seen.
The receiving corps, arguably one of the team's main strengths over the last few years, will also need an upgrade. The strategy for getting that upgrade was the same in the last two seasons: look who emerges in camp and get active on the waiver wire in September if necessary. That strategy worked in 2011 and didn't in 2012, so the Cowboys may pursue a different strategy this year.
The Cowboys finished 2012 with the same record as they did in 2011, but there's a general consensus that the 2012 team would have fared better with less injuries. And while that is true of every single team in the NFL, what is also true is that a look at the cold hard numbers in the tables above shows that outside of the linebackers, every single unit regressed in 2012. You can put that down to injuries, you can put it down to questionable data, you can put it down to global warming or any other pet theory you may have - but you can't deny that the Cowboys need an infusion of talent almost everywhere. How they'll go about getting that infusion is anybody's guess, but unless they fix some of the most gaping holes, we may all be in for another very long season.