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Cowboys Draft '09 -- Looking for a Bargain-Rate Boldin

The Dallas Cowboys have stocked the wide receiver position with veterans the past several years.  Terry Glenn and Terrell Owens have played the lion's share of downs on the flanks of Dallas' offense.  When Dallas has developed young receivers, they have come from the late rounds (Patrick Crayton, 7th round) or the undrafted free agent ranks -- Miles Austin and Sam Hurd.

Now that Glenn and Owens have both departed, it appears the Cowboys may use high picks on receivers for the first time since 2002, when Antonio Bryant was selected in the second round.

I say picks, as in plural, because the team has already used its first round pick on Roy Williams.  Rumors in recent days have raised Ohio State wideout Brian Robiske and Georgia receiver Mohamed Massaquoi as options at the 51st and 69th picks. 

At the same time, Arizona's shopping of Anquan Boldin has produced a degree of buyer's remorse;  some Cowboys fans have wished out loud the team could rescind the Williams deal and obtain Boldin instead. A comparison of both veterans suggests that the Cowboys got the right veteran, in spite of Williams' dismal December.  It also suggests that Dallas may be trying to get their own version of Boldin, only in a younger, more cap-friendly form.

Not All Big Name Receivers' Games are Created Equal

The Football Scientist K.C. Joyner has again done us the favor of supplying '08 metrics in advance of his upcoming Scientific Football 2009, which allows us to compare how the Cardinals have used Boldin in recent years and how the Lions and Cowboys have used Williams. 

Joyner charts the number of times teams throw at receivers and the results of each toss.  He then thin slices his basic numbers in a variety of ways.  For our purposes, it's important to look at routes by depth.   Joyner breaks down pass distance as follows:    short pass attempts are any catches made from 1-10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.  These are the smoke routes, flanker screens, quick hitches and the like;  intermediate passes are thrown between 11-19 yards from the line of scrimmage;  deep passes are made more than 20 yards downfield and bombs are made more than 30 yards up the field. 

For this article, I'm going to combine deep passes and bombs as the category "deep passes."  Joyner creates further shorthand by combining all the intermediate and deep passes to contrast "vertical" attempts from short passes. 

With these categories, lets compare Roy Williams and Anquan Boldin's lines for 2005 through 2008, by depth.  First, Williams:

Year # Short # Inter. # Deep % Short % Vert.
Williams '05 41 21 26 46% 54%
Williams '06 46 61 43 31% 69%
Williams '07 48 33 20 48% 52%
Williams '08 41 * 49% 51%

*(I don't have the intermediate vs. deep breakdowns for '08, but they add up to 42 vertical attempts.)

Williams has fairly consistent route breakdowns.  Except for his monster '06, where he put up career numbers for Mike Martz and was used as a down-the-field weapon 69% of the time, he has been targeted roughly 52% of the time on vertical routes. He makes roughly half his catches short and half long.

Let's now take a look at Boldin's numbers, and to further the comparison, let's put his teammate Larry Fitzgerald's numbers up as well:

Year # Short # Inter. # Deep % Short % Vert.
Boldin '05 101 34 30 61% 39%
Boldin '06 85 39 20 59% 41%
Boldin '07 63 21 9 68% 32%
Boldin '08 96 * 77% 23%

*(I don't have the intermediate/deep splits but Boldin had 29 vertical attempts in '08,)

Larry Fitzgerald, '05-'07

Year # Short # Inter. # Deep % Short % Vert.
Fitzgerald '05 78 42 35 50% 50%
Fitzgerald '06 57 32 21 52% 48%
Fitzgerald '07 64 64 28 41% 59%


Notice the progression in Boldin and in Fitzgerald's combined games since '05.  They had the same rough number of intermediate and deep attempts in '05 and '06, but the last two seasons a definite division of labor has emerged -- Fitzgerald has become the clear deep threat, upping his vertical percentage to 59% in '07. 

Boldin, meanwhile, has seen his vertical attempts percentage cut almost in half.  Last year more than three quarters of his attempts were made within ten yards of the line of scrimmage.  Fitz stretches the field, and Boldin does his damage against linebackers and safeties underneath.

This does not tell us if Boldin is showing early signs of decline.  Todd Haley called a lot fewer deep passes for Boldin in '07 and '08 but it remains unclear if he has lost some of his deep capability.  Furthermore, these breakdowns run the risk of diminishing Boldin's production.   He's the king of yards after the catch, and I still put him in the top-15 at his position.  But it's clear that Boldin now plays the short game, almost exclusively. 

Turning back to Boldin vs. Williams, it appears Dallas obtained the veteran who has consistently played the deeper game.

It also appears that the game Boldin currently plays for Arizona matches the player profiles Massaquoi and Robiske offer.  Both fit the Cowboys big-receiver templates:  Massaquoi is 6'1", 210 lbs. and Robiske measures 6'3", 209 lbs.  Both get high marks for route running and intelligence.   Robiske, in particular, excels against zone coverage.  He had no reservations about working the middle of the field in college.

If Dallas takes one of these receivers, they'll be looking for Boldin-like play for a very un-Boldin like price:  the Cardinals has rankled management with his desire for a contract similar to teammate Fitzgerald's $10 million-per-year deal. 

Last year's 51st overall pick, Oklahoma receiver Malcolm Kelly, signed a four-year, $3.36 million deal with the Redskins. 

In other words, a receiver picked at 51 would cost roughly 10% of what Boldin wants.  If Dallas does in fact draft one of these guys and he provides 75 to 80% of a typical Boldin year, the Cowboys will get value. 

WIth rookies, especially wideouts, that's the biggest of ifs.

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