Dallas Cowboys Roster And Position Groups vs. The NFC East

Mike Ehrmann

Who has the best receiving unit in the NFC East, who has the better linebackers, whose secondary sucks the most? We use positional rankings to figure out how the NFC East players compare to their peers across the league, and which teams in the East dominate which position groups.

Last week we took a detailed look at the Cowboys' roster with the help of positional rankings. In Part I, we looked at how individual players ranked relative to their NFL peers at the same position, in Part II, we looked at the positional rankings for each position group as a whole and how that had changed from 2011 to 2012. In this third and final part, we're going to compare the positional rankings for all four NFC East teams.

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 (For more details, read one of the earlier posts). Overall, those rankings result in the following five tiers or quintiles:

Positional Ranking
Description
100-81 Blue-Chip Cowboys Players
80-61 NFL starter quality at position
60-41 Average to slightly below average player
40-21 Underperformer
20-0 Red Flag

As you review the figures and charts in the rest of this post, keep in mind that the numbers give a directional indication of how a player performed in 2012, but shouldn't be seen as the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. While I'm confident that a player marked in blue had a better year than a player marked in yellow, there is probably less of a difference between players with a value of, say, 75 and 85 than the numbers and the color code would seem to indicate.

NFC East Rosters

It's always tricky comparing rosters, especially when teams play different systems, like a 3-4 or 4-3. So in trying to accommodate every team in the East, I've decided to use a 28-man roster for each team. The offense is fairly straightforward: one player each at QB and FB, two players each at TE and HB, five offensive linemen and three wide receivers. In selecting the players I chose the players with the most snaps at their position in 2012. The tight ends and wide receivers are ranked by their receiving grade only.

On defense, I allowed nine combined defensive linemen and linebackers per team, as well as five defensive backs, three corners and two safeties (except for the Redskins who have three safeties and two corners). Again, all of these players were sorted by snaps played.

Here's what the 2011 rosters for all four NFC east teams look like using the positional ranking approach:

Cowboys Giants Eagles Redskins
Player POS Snaps Rk Player POS Snaps Rk Player POS Snaps Rk Player POS Snaps Rk
A. Spencer OLB 872 100 JPP DE 900 95 E. Mathis OG 1155 100 A. Morris HB 752 95
J. Witten TE 1112 95 A. Bradshaw HB 611 90 B. Graham DE 435 97 W. Montgom. OC 1056 89
S. Lee ILB 331 89 W. Beatty OT 967 86 L. McCoy HB 712 85 C. Chester OG 1062 81
J. Hatcher DE 784 88 C. Snee OG 967 84 F. Cox DT 526 79 F. Davis TE 413 81
N. Livings OG 1129 80 M. Bennett TE 945 82 J. Avant WR 670 70 D. Young FB 335 80
J. Brent DT 320 73 E. Manning QB 1020 79 D. Ryans ILB 1074 68 R. Griffin QB 964 76
D. Bryant WR 951 72 H. Nicks WR 683 78 D. Jackson WR 722 68 T. Williams OT 998 76
B. Carter ILB 625 72 C. Canty DT 300 78 T. Cole DE 755 65 R. Kerrigan OLB 1105 74
D. Murray HB 482 71 L. Joseph DT 707 75 T. Herrem. OT 543 64 J. Wilson CB 1065 70
T. Romo QB 1125 71 D. Hixon WR 389 74 J. Babin DE 446 61 R. Jackson OLB 610 68
M. Austin WR 888 69 K. Boothe OG 1027 73 K. Dunlap OT 838 60 P. Riley ILB 1098 55
D. Ware OLB 896 65 S. Brown S 846 70 B. Boykin CB 526 58 L. Hankerson WR 589 52
T. Smith OT 979 50 H. Hynoski FB 428 64 C. Jenkins DT 642 51 B. Cofield DT 745 52
B. Carr CB 1043 50 V. Cruz WR 918 61 S. Havili FB 232 40 S. Moss WR 464 50
R. Cook OC 837 47 A. Brown HB 225 59 J. Scott OG 474 36 R. Doughty S 393 39
D. Connor ILB 350 40 P. Amukam. CB 741 52 C. Thornton DT 406 31 D. Hall CB 1084 38
M. Bernadeau OG 963 38 J. Tuck DE 662 52 D. Landri DT 496 28 J. Morgan WR 727 36
F. Jones HB 394 31 O. Umeny. DE 653 50 B. Celek TE 888 19 M. Williams S 1063 33
L. Vickers FB 305 28 D. Baas OC 1018 39 C. Harbor TE 354 18 J. Jenkins DE 564 32
M. Claiborne CB 909 27 R. Bernard DT 396 35 M. Vick QB 684 16 K. Golston DE 374 29
M. Spears DE 394 26 S. Locklear OT 656 35 DRC CB 1020 13 D. Gomes S 405 26
K. Ogletree WR 474 25 A. Rolle S 1041 30 N. Asom. CB 1012 11 L. Alexander OLB 308 26
E. Sims ILB 374 25 C. Blackburn ILB 798 19 B. Brown HB 346 10 K. Lichtenst. OG 982 25
J. Phillips TE 342 23 M. Kiwanuka OLB 539 14 D. Reynolds OC 1020 6 S. Bowen DE 808 24
M. Jenkins CB 358 20 B. Pascoe TE 245 10 N. Allen S 871 5 L. Paulsen TE 696 21
D. Free OT 1057 18 M. Boley OLB 859 7 J. Maclin WR 1003 4 E. Royster HB 229 14
G. Sensab. S 981 17 C. Webster CB 1042 3 K. Coleman S 905 3 T. Polumbus OT 964 4
D. McCray S 658 13 J. Hosley CB 465 2 M. Kendr. OLB 955 2 L. Fletcher ILB 1047 2

As you look at the overall color schemes across the four rosters in the table above, the clear odd man out here are the Eagles. You don't end up with a 4-12 record by accident, and the table above shows that the Eagles had way too many players playing below average last year. But perhaps even more importantly, where the other East teams had their quarterbacks with positional ranks in the 70s, Michael Vick comes in with a 16. And it didn't get any better with rookie Nick Foles, who is ranked only one slot above Vick with 18 positional points.

And while the Eagles are the odd man out in the East (in this table and in so many other aspects), it's interesting to see that the Cowboys, Giants and Redskins not only finished with fairly similar records, but also look fairly similar with regard to how their roster is made up.

The cliché says the Cowboys are a "stars and scrubs" team, with a few standout players complemented by a bunch of no-names. But going by this chart of the 2012 roster, that is not even remotely true. The Cowboys are in fact structurally quite comparable to the Giants and Redskins.

Another point of note here is the different levels of success the top draft picks of the last three years have had for each team. The Cowboys had five picks in the first two rounds over the last three years, and all of them show up in the table, as do the Redskins' four top-round picks of the last three years (R. Griffin, R. Kerrigan, J. Jenkins, T. Williams). That's not the case for the Giants and Eagles. The Giants had six picks in the top two rounds, but only three show up in the chart. RB David Wilson (125 snaps), WR Reuben Randle (250) and DL Marvin Austin (103) have yet to show that they are talent upgrades for the Giants roster. Similar situation for the Eagles, where three of their seven top picks don't show up. OG Danny Watkins and DE Vinny Curry were healthy scratches repeatedly this season and DB Jaiquawn Jarret has already been released.

The key point here is that with the NFL salary cap, you can perhaps afford to add one or two blue-chip talent players to your roster via free agency. The rest will have to come via the draft. And if you miss on those draft picks, you will deplete your top-tier talent over time. So structurally, and with the cap in place, you want to draft the best talent you can get and use free agency to address the positions where you have underperformers or red flags.

Overall Rating

Overall though, regardless of how the 2012 rosters were constructed, the value across those three teams with a Super Bowl trophy to their name is pretty similar, which is again also reflected in their similar regular season records. The table below adds up all the positional ranking points into one sum for each team, but also has a weighted sum for each team. The weighted sum weights the positional ranking points by the number of snaps a player played, so that players with lower snap counts don't count as much towards the total team value as players with high snap counts.

Cowboys Giants Eagles Redskins
Total Positional Ranking Points 1,421 1,498 1,164 1,346
Weighted Value 1,298 1,317 956 1,198

The results here make clear why everybody's talking about parity in the NFL. There is very little difference from a positional ranking point of view between the Cowboys, Giants and Redskins rosters in 2012. The Eagles of course are an entirely different story, somebody badly screwed the pooch on that one.

Position Groups

I'll grant that the total team values might be a little bit of a disappointment, in that there are no significant differences to dwell on, but this will change as we look at the different position groups.

For the position groups, I tried to put together groups of at least five players where possible. I did not look at position groups for running backs or quarterbacks, as there simply weren't enough players to give us a good average at the position. You can look these up individually in the table above.

That leaves us with five position groups for all four teams: The Receiving Corps group contains three WRs and two TEs, the Secondary has five defensive backs and the O-line has five offensive linemen. Owing to the different defensive schemes, these numbers change a little for the linebackers and defensive line: The Cowboys and Redskins have five linebackers in their group, the Eagles and Giants only three each; for the defensive line the Eagles and Giants have six players each, the Cowboys and Redskins only four.

To account for these differences, the table below doesn't show the total value of a position group, instead it shows the average positional rank for a player in that teams' position group:

Positional Group
Cowboys Giants Eagles Redskins
Secondary 31
31 18 41
Linebackers 81 13 37 45
Defensive Line 60 64 63 34
O-line 47 63 53 55
Receiving Corps 57 61 36 48

As is to be expected, almost half of the position groups here are marked in yellow, which means they are about average, with a positional value between 60 and 41 points.

Interestingly though, every team looks structurally different. The Redskins are the most balanced team, and although they look like a thoroughly average team in the table above, keep in mind that the table does not contain the ground game, and the Redskins did lead the league in rushing yards. At the same time, what looks like average everywhere also means they have no glaring weakness among their units for opposing teams to exploit.

The Cowboys have the only blue-chip unit in the East with their stellar linebacking unit of Ware, Spencer, Butler, Lee and Carter. They also have a defensive line that's a borderline green unit, but don't be fooled by that - that defensive line is coming apart at the seams. And for all those who believe the O-line is the root of all evil in Dallas, here it is in writing: by this evaluation method, the Cowboys O-line is the worst in the East (and that's saying something).

The Giants look to have the strongest team with three starter-quality units. This is particularly surprising for the O-line, given that the 2011 unit only managed a combined positional ranking of 24. Yet while the 2011 team won the Super Bowl, this year's team with 64 points for the O-line didn't even make the playoffs. The Giants' undoing looks to have been a subpar linebacking unit, coupled with a secondary that played just as badly as the Cowboys secondary.

With the Eagles, the situation is simple. You can't finish 4-12 and expect to grade out positively. The Eagles' secondary performance leaves many Cowboys fans giggling nervously as they think back to the day the Cowboys almost signed Nnamdi Asomugha. But one thing to watch out for is the Eagles' linebacking unit. The numbers here don't quite show it yet, but what used to be an atrocious and nearly unfixable unit is now a borderline average unit with a lot of upside.

While it goes without saying that the Cowboys need to fix their defensive line with the highest priority this offseason, looking across the NFC East, the Cowboys look good at receiver and especially at linebacker. They'll need to address the secondary, but the issues there are with the safety play, and the Cowboys may or may not have the answers in-house. The Cowboys will also need to think long and hard about how they can address their O-line issues, after all, it is their only unit that ranks last among all NFC East teams.

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