I think it's safe to say that most Cowboys fans are pretty ecstatic about the majority of the team's free agent signings this past week. Dallas was in need of a replacement for cornerback Terence Newman... boom, Brandon Carr. Dallas was looking for a vet quarterback to backup Tony Romo... boom, Kyle Orton. Short term safety help? Bam, Brodney Pool. Looking for a lead blocker so Garrett's offense can re-enact Moose Johnston? Booyah, Lawrence Vickers. Yeah, but they really need to supplement that inside linebacker rotation with someone capable? Dan Connor, come on down.
OK, but what about those offensive line signings? Not much to be confident in there. The fans of those teams that reside on the SB Nation boards didn't have many flattering parting shots for the players involved. Dallas gave Mackenzy Berdaneau a contract worthy of a backup. Don't let those people that just want to do simple math fool you.
The Cowboys are giving signing bonuses to skirt the $10 million penalty imposed last week; knowing how high the cap will rise after the 2014 TV deals kick in. Bernadeau counts about $1.8m against this year's cap; which is top-tier backup guard money, but not starter money.
The biggest semi-outrage (because how could you really be mad with the overall haul in perspective) came with the contract given to former Bengals guard Nate Livings. Livings signed a five-year $19 million contract with $6.2m guaranteed; but we all know the signing bonus was probably around $5 million and he'll only have around a $2 - $2.5 cap hit in 2012.
More so than the money, it's the concern about his play (well, for the money) as a starter that worries fans.
Livings graded out as one of the NFL's worst left guards, according to Pro Football Focus. PFF's cumulative grades are used heavily when evaluating trench players by many writers, including myself. To say his -10.4 grade last year wasn't disconcerting would be a flat-out lie. Now, investigating his game-by-game grades, as Jordan Sams did, shows some extra bright spots in his play as well as some low points. Pretty much, Nate either has good days or bad days.
When I jumped on Twitter last night to answer questions on the Cowboys free agency thus far, I voiced what many people have echoed. Love most of the moves, still concerned about the offensive line.
I was replied to by one Joe Goodberry (@joegoodberry), who just so happens to be the scouting/evaluations writer for Cincy Jungle; SB Nation's Cincinnati Bengals blog. Joe weighed in with some terrific insight on Livings, and the Bengals fans' take on him that might readjust your first impression of the young man; or at least add some insight.
Follow the jump to see what Joe has to say about Livings.
Joe Goodberry: (emphasis mine)
Nate Livings isn't thought of highly amongst Bengals fans. That's putting it lightly. The perception is that he's the sole reason for the Bengals' line struggles of late. One of his main faults with fans wasn't even his fault. The team decided to play Livings over Evan Mathis, who went on to have success since leaving Cincinnati.
I don't agree with the community's assessment of Nate, I always thought he had an unfair reputation. With offensive line being one of the hardest positions to evaluate by just casually watching the games, I spent the 2011 season re-watching and grading each individual player on every play. Nate Livings surprised me and actually convinced me that he was being misused.
Strengths: Livings is a big, wide-bodied guard who plays with a mean streak. He's at his best when he can take the man directly in front of him and is asked to move him in the run game. He gets push in the run game and can move smaller D-lineman with ease. In pass pro, Livings sets up quickly and attacks rushers. Does a good job locking on and anchoring. He's a high character guy that works very hard.
Now that makes plenty of sense. Watching a player get burn ahead of someone thought to be more worthy, then having that player move on and have a great season will definitely slant some judgements. By most accounts, Mathis had a great year in Philly.
Only to be fair, Joe highlights his weaknesses as well.
Weaknesses: Livings shouldn't be asked to pull or get to the 2nd level often. He lacks the vision and agility to pick up defenders. I've seen him pull many times and he looks great until he gets into the hole and completely whiffs. In pass pro, quicker rushers give him trouble. If he doesn't get them locked up, he's at a disadvantage. He played LG for the Bengals and that meant he was helping the OC or LT in pass protection most of the time. This wasn't a good idea. Livings' vision and general awareness caused him to miss too many stunts and delayed blitzes.
OK, so that gives some pause. I had to investigate how this would affect the Cowboys plans moving forward, but there just aren't sites that track pull blocking. I know, in 2012! Do they utilize their guards at the second level often? Obviously we all remember some pulls and screens, but what was the frequency? Is it something they'll easily scheme around?
Mr. Goodberry summed up his analysis of Livings with some interesting efficiency rates.
Final Analysis: Nate Livings played four games in 2011 that told me the Bengals misused him. Cincinnati employs five big, strong O-Lineman that aren't the best in space. RG Bobbie Williams is very good but like the rest of the line, offers nothing in space. So the team used Livings and the 5th lineman than operated in the 2nd level or pulled on run plays. When Bobbie Williams missed the first 4-games of 2011, Livings acted as the power OG on their line. He played very well taking the DT head on and moving him. In pass pro, OC Kyle Cook and rookie RG Clint Boling were tag-team partners and allowed Livings to handle his man one-on-one. Again, he looked really good. Grading Livings efficiency the entire year (minus those 4-games), he ended up being a 81.0% Run Blocker and 91.9% Pass Blocker. Solid, but in those four games where he was the power guard, he had a Run Block efficiency of 86.6% and Pass Blocking of 94.2%. It's not much in numbers, but it was also a visual improvement. I really think his mistakes could be cut down with less mental responsibilities. He's like the CB who gets burned every other game but plays good the other 60 snaps. Fans will remember that one TD let up. Nate Livings was that for Bengals fans. Hopefully Dallas can use him to his strengths.
So there it is. Joe felt that Livings was too often asked to do what wasn't his forte, which was pulling and taking on defenders at the second level. Put into context though, even the small sample efficiency ratings aren't earth-shattering. 94.2% pass blocking efficiency would still only rank him 52nd according to PFF.
Obviously, Bill Callahan liked what he saw on tape and figures to either avoid these deficiencies or has a plan to correct the shortcomings. He's played left guard in every single start since 2009, so you'd imagine Dallas is going to line him up to new left tackle Tyron Smith. As far as protecting Romo's blind side, he's only allowed three QB sacks in the last two seasons, combined. He has however, given up a reasonably high number of pressures.
From PFF, Cincinnati's Cedric Benson averaged 4.7 yards a carry running behind the left guard; his second highest total behind running outside the right tackle. The team as a whole averaged 4.2 behind LG.
A pull-capable right guard to go along with Doug Free (who we all remember racing Felix Jones 70 yards downfield from the right tackle position a few years ago) will likely be the side Dallas looks to run their offensive line stunts from. Also affected by a lineman's inability to play in space? The screen game. Lack of a screen game to the QB's blind side isn't a good thing, so I don't exactly want to paint a rosy picture as if there still aren't warts to the signing. For what it's worth, Cincinnati's line overall ranked slightly higher than Dallas' in pass blocking, but Dallas shellacked the Bengals in run blocking. This is across advanced stat sites; PFF, Football Outsiders, Advanced NFL Stats.
What Bill Callahan can do with Livings for 2012 will be a key focal point of Cowboys fans everywhere.
Many thanks to Joe for providing the additional evaluation of our newest guard and front office measuring stick.