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Peeking into the Dallas Cowboys Film Room (Part I)

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The draft is now more than a week behind us, and by and large most of us have come to embrace - or at least made peace with - the outcome of the draft.

With the help of the 'leaked' Cowboys draft board we now have a much better understanding of why the Cowboys selected the players they did.

But many fans remain slightly baffled that the Cowboys haven't used the draft and free agency (so far) to address what were widely perceived to be immediate needs on the offensive line and at safety.

A part of the answer to that may be found in how the coaching staff has evaluated the current players on the Cowboys roster. After all, they've spent a lot of time coaching and developing those players in practice, they have a good grasp of the potential of each player, and they've reviewed hours of game tape and assigned grades to every single player.

Now wouldn't it be nice if we also had a 'leaked' source of how each player graded out on the coaches' game tape analysis? We may never get our hands on the actual grades the Cowboys hand out for each player, but we do have access to a data source that does a similar exercise for all NFL teams. In their own words: "Profootballfocus.com analyze and grade every player on every play in every game to provide you with the most in-depth statistics you can find anywhere outside the team's film room". After the jump we 'peek' into the Cowboys' film room using profootball.com's data.

For those of you unfamiliar with Profootballfocus.com (PFF), below is a summary of what they do. Follow the links provided for more information, because for the purpose of this post, I will assume that the PFF data is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help them God.

PFF have a unique way of grading players. They look at game tape, assign a grade for every play and then ‘normalize’ the data so that the average player for a given position is graded at zero. The higher the positive grading the better the performance and vice versa. In their own words:

"The grading takes into account many things and effectively brings "intelligence" to raw statistics. For example a raw stat might tell you a Tackle conceded a sack. However, how long did he protect the QB for before he gave it up? Additionally when did he give it up? If it was within the last two minutes on a potentially game tying drive it may be rather more important than when his team is running out the clock in a 30 point blow out." From the PFF Q&A.

"In our opinion [our approach] is at least a step change above what anyone could get by simply "tracking results". We can give you two examples:

1. A cornerback is beaten badly on a post route and the wide receiver drops the ball in the end zone. Tracking the result gives this as an incompletion against the cornerback (a positive) whilst we will mark this down as a significant negative.


2. A QB throws a perfect strike over a linebacker to hit his open slot receiver on an out. Once more, the wide receiver drops the pass and it cannons off his chest to a Safety who catches the ball even though he'd initially made a bad job of the coverage. The QB gets a INT listed against his name and the free safety gets an undeserved INT against his. How is tracking this result more accurate?"


Clearly there are limitations as to what is shown on TV. The biggest issue is that of not being able to see downfield coverages on untargeted defenders and we accept this as an inherent error in what we do. That said, nobody outside the teams has access to this either so should we stop our "more accurate" analysis on the basis that it's not 100 percent perfect?
" From an interview with Sam Monson at PFF.

PFF assigns each player both an ordinal ranking (e.g., a player ranks 10th out of 100 players at the same position) and a relative value (e.g., a given player is a +10 or a -10). Using the PFF data therefore allows us to evaluate all the Cowboys players relative to each other and relative to their NFL peers at the same position. This is as close as we'll get to the coaches grades anytime soon.

Minor caveats: The ranking data is limited to players that played at least 25% of their team's snaps, and I've removed the penalties from the overall ratings as I felt they were weighted far too heavily in the overall score.

What you'll see for each player below is his rank relative to all other NFL players at that position, a "better than" number which tells you that the player ranks better than xx% of the players at his position in the league and his PFF ratings (overall score and a breakdown by specific areas).

Green is good (positive), yellow is about average and red is bad (negative). The higher the positive grading the better the performance and vice versa.

Defensive Backs:

Position
Player NFL Rank Total Better Than Overall Rating Pass Rush Cover Run Defense
CB Michael Jenkins 14 107 88% 9.5 0.0 7.0 2.5
CB Terence Newman 24 107 78% 5.7 0.0 5.0 0.7
CB Orlando Scandrick 62 107 42% -1.4 1.2 -3.5 0.9
S Gerald Sensabaugh 21 87 77% 2.6 -0.5 -0.8 3.9
S Ken Hamlin 46 87 49% -1.6 0.4 -0.5 -1.5

Let's start at the bottom of the defensive backs table. Ken Hamlin is gone, and this table makes it painfully obvious why: Last season, Ken Hamlin was an average safety at best and was underperforming against his contract. Sensabaugh on the other hand delivered a solid performance. He was particularly effective against the run and would likely have achieved better overall numbers had he not been playing with a cast for many games.

Akwasi Owusu-Ansah could be a help in the long term, but will Alan Ball and or Michael Hamlin be immediate upgrades in the vacated spot? Ball dropped under the 25% of snaps threshold, but in his 266 snaps he got a very average overall rating of 0.1, which would rank him 37th in the league, still better than 58% of all safeties, but also still pretty average. Upgrade over Hamlin? Maybe. Significant upgrade for the team? Who knows?

Michael Hamlin is a statistical no-man's land after being sidelined with an injury for most of the season. The coaches have obviously seen enough from both Hamlin and Ball to be confident that cutting Hamlin would not be detrimental to the team, even in a scenario where no outside help was brought in. Keep you fingers crossed.

Scandrick's numbers come as a bit of a surprise, but need to be seen in the context of his role as the slot corner in the nickel and dime packages. Unfortunately, I am unable to compare him to the slot corners on other teams, because I simply don't know who the slot guys on all the other 31 NFL teams are.

Also, it is no secret that Scandrick had his two worst games against the Giants last season. If I were to take out the numbers from the two Giants games, his overall rating would 5.1, and he would rank 27th in the league, just slightly behind Newman. Despite a 'red' overall rating, look for Scandrick to be a strong contributor in 2010.

Linebackers:

Position
Player NFL Rank Total Better Than Overall Rating Pass Rush Cover Run Defense
3-4 OLB DeMarcus Ware 1 28 100% 34.6 23.2 3.1 8.3
3-4 OLB Anthony Spencer 3 28 93% 28.7 11.7 0.4 16.6
ILB Keith Brooking 12 54 79% 14.0 1.5 2.3 10.2
ILB Bradie James 21 54 62% 8.8 -0.5 3.7 5.6
ILB Bobby Carpenter 50 54 8% -5.1 0.1 -2.1 -3.1

There is little doubt that DeMarcus Ware is one of the best linebackers in the business, but it comes a pleasant surprise that Anthony Spencer moved up into the number three spot. Clearly, these two first round picks were wisely invested.

The other Cowboys first round pick in the table above has likely reached the end of his tenure with the franchise. Always a bad fit in the Cowboys' 3-4 scheme, Bobby Carpenter delivered one of the worst performances by any linebacker in the league last year. Granted, his role on the field, similar to Scandrick, may have pushed his numbers down somewhat, but ranking in the bottom 10% in the league will not cut it. Period.

In the context of these numbers as well as Brooking's age, it shouldn't have come as a big surprise that a linebacker would end up high on any Dallas Cowboys list of needs. Here's hoping that Sean Lee is the missing link that will turn Wade's defense from very good to elite.

Defensive Line:

Position
Player NFL Rank Total Better Than Overall Rating Pass Rush Cover Run Defense
NT Jay Ratliff 5 19 78% 12.8 -2.2 2.0 13.0
3-4 DE Jason Hatcher 11 39 74% 6.7 6.4 0.5 -0.2
3-4 DE Stephen Bowen 12 39 71% 6.6 2.6 1.5 2.5
3-4 DE Igor Olshansky
13 39 68% 4.9 1.3 0.0 3.6
3-4 DE Marcus Spears
27 39 32% -3.7 1.7 0.0 -5.4

I'm surprised to see Jay Ratliff ranked 'only' fifth among all the nose tackles in the league, and I don't really know how to explain this. His "tracking results", to use PFF terminology (6 sacks,  5 QB hits, 15 pressures), are unmatched by any other NT in the league. Perhaps his inordinately high number of snaps (775, ranked no. 1 among NTs by a wide margin) dilute his overall rating, and perhaps his overall effectiveness as well. BTB-member Luke. argued this point convincingly and in detail (Jay Ratliff needs a friend) and Sean Lissemore may just be that long awaited friend.

The trade rumors that circulated before and during the draft about Marcus Spears make a lot of sense in the context of the PFF tape grades. If the Cowboys' grading is even remotely similar, the coaching staff must be pretty confident that both Hatcher and Bowen would be an upgrade over Spears.

Are these ratings an accurate reflection of how the Cowboys may have graded their players? Their draft picks and off-season moves so far would indicate that they are. In Part II we'll use the same approach to look at the offensive position groups.