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Cowboys Free Agency: The Impact On The 2012 Position Groups

Tony Romo doesn't like what He's seeing along the line so far.
Tony Romo doesn't like what He's seeing along the line so far.

In yesterday's post, Cowboys Free Agency: How The Signing Add Up, we used positional rankings to get a better feel for where and why the Cowboys made roster moves in free agency this year.

We found that the positional rankings corresponded quite well with the Cowboys' offseason activities this year, in that the Cowboys addressed most of the below average positions via free agency and other moves.

In today's post, I want to 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 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:
Positional Ranking
100-80 Blue-Chip Cowboys Players
79-60 NFL starter quality at position
59-40 Average to slightly below average player
39-20 Underperformer
20-0 Red Flag

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. The wide receiver ranking has 115 players in total, so each tier or quintile would contain 23 players. 3-4 OLBs on the other hand have only 28 ranked players, so each tier would only contain five to six players.

What I'll do next is look at five different position groups, the secondary, linebackers, defensive line, offensive line and receiving corps and compare the 2011 roster with a hypothetical 2012 roster. This should allow us to do two things, see how much the individual units improved on paper and perhaps understand where any remaining gaps could be.

For convenience's sake, all position groups will feature five players, as this will make the comparison across position groups easier.


2011 2012
Player Newman Scandrick Jenkins Elam Sensabaugh Carr Scandrick Jenkins Pool Sensabaugh
Pos. rank 11 24 63 36 67 74 24 63 65 67
Total 201 (Avg: 40) 293 (Avg: 59)

The 2011 secondary ranks as the worst of the five units we are looking at today, with an average positional rank that just barely reaches 40. Newman and Elam are gone and replaced with Carr and Pool, who both come with above positional rankings.

I believe the PFF methodology does not do slot corners justice. That doesn't mean I think Scandrick is an elite corner, just that I don't see him as badly as the numbers above indicate. But there's nothing to be done about this.

So while Scandrick's position rank holds the unit back a little in terms of overall positional points, the unit average is quite a significant improvement (on paper at least).


2011 2012
Player Ware Butler Lee Brooking/James Spencer
Ware Butler Lee Connor Spencer
Pos. rank 89 54 72 10 64
89 54 72 48 64
Total 289 (Avg: 58)
327 (Avg: 65)

The linebackers in 2011 were held back by the substandard play of the inside linebackers Brooking and James. Each played about half the snaps that Sean Lee did. Combined their their positional value is a mediocre 10.

For 2012, this unit still has a lot of upside. Ware will likely retain his blue chip rank, and Sean Lee (minus his cast) should improve his rank as well. I've penciled in Connor for the second ILB spot, which is already a great improvement over the previous year, but if Bruce Carter lives up to his draft spot, the linebackers could easily become the Cowboys' standout unit.

Defensive Line:


Player Coleman Lissemore* Ratliff Spears Hatcher
Lissemore* Coleman Ratliff Geathers* Hatcher
Pos. rank 59 81 92 22 72
81 59 92 48 72
Total 326 (Avg: 65)
345 (Avg: 69)

If the Cowboys' assessment of their own players is even remotely similar to what we're seeing in these rankings, then it shouldn't have come as a surprise when Jerry Jones said the "defensive front is one of the strengths of our team". Perhaps he forgot to add "compared to our secondary", but that's just semantics.

I don't think Marcus Spears will be on the 2012 roster, and I'm unsure about Coleman, but if Coleman does stay, it'll likely be as a backup. Lissemore and Geathers are both denoted with a (*) here because they did not ply the 25% of snaps required to officially qualify for the PFF rankings, so their positional rankings are projections only.

And while the defensive line certainly looks good for 2012, with only the backup ends left in yellow, there's always room to improve here.

Offensive Line:


Player Free Holland Costa Kosier Smith
Smith Holland Costa Livings Free
Pos. rank 30 79 14 40 95
95 79 14 27 30
Total 259 (Avg: 52)
245 (Avg: 49)

The O-line remains a very shaky proposition in 2012. On paper, the line gets worse next year, and and a lot of "Ifs" would have to come true for the unit to improve significantly over last years unit: if Holland finds back to last year's form; if Doug Free re-discovers his mojo as the right tackle; if Tyron Smith can transition smoothly to left tackle; if Livings just needs to be coached up or if Costa just needs a few big bodies on either side.

It would take an enormous leap of faith to think that what the Cowboys have in place today will solve the issues tomorrow - and Garrett does not strike me as a big leap-of-faith guy.

Receiving Corps:


Player Austin Bryant Robinson Witten Bennett
Austin Bryant Ogletree* Witten Philips*
Pos. rank 68 91 77 86 27
68 91 41 86 56
Total 350 (Avg: 70)
337 (Avg: 68)

Overall, the receiving corps was the strongest unit on the Cowboys last year, despite as weakness at the second tight end spot. Note that the TE rankings are based on the receiving grade only, and do not include the blocking grade.

The departure of Laurent Robinson has opened up a big hole in this unit, a hole that Kevin Ogletree unlikely to be able to fill. Do the Cowboys have enough faith in their young receivers Dwayne Harris, Andre Holmes and Raymond Radway? Radway at least seems to have sufficiently recovered to be ready for OTAs and training camp this year. Yesterday, Raymond Radway tweeted "Ask me anything u want and I'll answer with no lies!!!" so I did, and this was his reply:

But even if one of the young guys does turn out to be the third wide receiver, the Cowboys will probably still need a tight end.

Position group summary:

In their totality, all those colorful charts can feel a little like eye-candy after a while, so here is a no frills summary of how free agency has impacted the five position groups.

Position Group 2011 Rank Pts 2012 Rank Pts
Secondary 201 293
Linebackers 289 327
Defensive Line 326 345
Offensive Line 259 245
Receiving Corps 344 337

On the eve of free agency this year I wrote a post titled: Dallas Cowboys Free Agency: Activity Does Not Equal Achievement, arguing that lots of signings by themselves do not necessarily equal success.

The Cowboys spent considerable money an their secondary, and significantly improved the unit, but it is still one of the weaker units on the team. Most noticeable is the unit's lack of a blue chip player (at least according to the positional rankings). The secondary is the only one of the five units without a blue-chipper. Of course, this might change next year, but it also might not. From this perspective, investing a first round pick to shore up the secondary makes a lot of sense.

At linebacker, the Cowboys look set, but unless they trust Victor Butler to take over Spencer's role (highly doubtful) they'll have to start looking for Spencer's replacement in this draft.

In this exercise, the defensive line emerges as the team's potentially strongest unit in 2012, but that's putting a lot of hope in a bunch of young guys to develop at their positions.

The offensive line, despite the two signings at guard, still looks like a mess. I'm not sure though that more rookie offensive linemen are the immediate answer here. The Cowboys got lucky with Tyron Smith last year, but they shouldn't expect a repeat performance. Over the last four years, only eight of 45 (18%) linemen picked in the first two rounds delivered an above average performance in their rookie season as graded by PFF. However the Cowboys handle it, the must address the O-line somehow, it is simply unacceptable to have yet another year with a decrepit O-line.

The receiving corps, arguably one of the team's main strengths over the last few years, will also need a slight upgrade. The Cowboys will likely look to shore up the tight end position with a late round pick and a boatload of UDFAs, and I would expect them to handle the receiver position as they did last year: look who emerges in camp and get active on the waiver wire in September if necessary.

An alternative calculation:

An alternative way to look at these position group ratings is to look at the weakest link in each unit. The operating hypothesis here being that the weakest player on a team (the 'weak link') determines the overall quality of a team. And to calculate the quality of a unit, you can't simply add up the position rankings individual players as I did in the table above. Instead, you need to multiply the individual value in order to adequately account for the impact a of weaker player.

Which is exactly what I did in the table below. I multiplied the values of all five players and then divided the result by 1 million to get a more reader-friendly number. The effect of the multiplication is fairly straightforward: the maximum value using the multiplication is always achieved when all five players have the same positional value. Even if the sum across all players is remains the same, the more spread out the individual scores are, the lower the multiplication result will be. So the multiplication rewards homogeneity among position groups. Here are the results for our multiplied positional rankings:

Position Group 2011 Multiplied values 2012 Multiplied values
Secondary 40 485
Linebackers 221 1,063
Defensive Line 698 1,297
Offensive Line 131 87
Receiving Corps 1,048 1,138

In the 'Position Group Summary' above, I summarized what the positional rankings suggest needs to be done across all position groups. This last chart helps prioritize those needs, and the priorities are crystal clear:

Fix the O-line and fix the secondary. Everything else is nice to have. This does not necessarily mean the Cowboys need to spend their first two picks in that order, but unless they address their deficiencies along the line, we may all be in for another very long season.

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